The Fragility of Goodness: Why Bulgaria's Jews Survived the Holocaust
by Tzvetan Todorov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A short but fascinating book trying to explain why Bulgaria was one of only two German-aligned countries during World War II that didn't deport their Jewish populations. (The other being Denmark.)[Edited to add: mrissa
has pointed out to me that the preceding statement a) omits Finland, which also did not deport its Jewish population and b) in using the word "aligned" to try to describe the rather different situations of Bulgaria and Denmark during the war, implies that Denmark's cooperation with Nazi Germany might have been something other than forcibly coerced. I probably should have just said that Bulgaria and Denmark were both notable in their success in preserving their Jewish populations from deportation in the face of considerable German pressure, and left it at that.] It's a particularly dramatic story, because Bulgaria had deported nearly 12,000 Jews from Bulgarian-controlled Macedonia and Thrace (of whom 12 survived the war), and the Bulgarian government had actually gotten to the point of arresting large numbers of Jews and preparing to load them onto trains for Poland before the whole thing was abruptly called off.
The first part of the book is an essay in which Todorov lays out his explanation for how this happened. As his title implies, his thesis is that it was highly contingent - a number of things had to be true simultaneously for the outcome to be reached. Some of the things that Todorov highlights:
* Bulgaria had neither a particularly strong tradition of anti-semitism, nor a particularly strong narrative of Bulgarian national superiority. Bulgaria's Jews didn't live in ghettos, spoke Bulgarian, and were mostly artisans and small businessmen with a sprinkling of educated professionals like lawyers. This meant that a lot of Nazi propaganda about the Jews didn't really resonate with a lot of Bulgarians. (Lots of the contemporary documents reproduced in the book contain some version of, "Have you seen our Jews? They're poor
* The fact that Bulgaria's king, Boris III, was primarily focused on his own political power and Bulgaria's national interest rather than any anti-Jewish ideology. It's kind of hard to figure out what side Boris was on, because he was great at telling everyone what they wanted to hear. Nevertheless, Todorov is convinced that the king was powerful enough that if he'd wanted Bulgaria's Jews deported, they'd have been deported. The king managed to keep the Germans convinced for ages that he was completely in agreement with their Jewish policies while failing to implement the deportation. (There is an account in the book of a rather hilarious-sounding conversation between Boris III and von Ribbentrop, in which Boris tried to convince von Ribbentrop that Bulgarian Jews were different because they were "Spanish" (he meant Sephardic). von Ribbentrop was unconvinced.)
* Finally, the most critical element was a well-timed and well-orchestrated piece of parliamentary politics by vice-chairman of the Bulgarian National Assembly, Dimitar Peshev. This is the part where I wish the book were longer, because I don't really completely understand the nuances of parliamentary politics in wartime Bulgaria. Peshev wrote an eloquent letter of protest against the deportation of Bulgaria's Jews, and managed to get a fairly large percentage of the members of the governing party in the Assembly to sign it. The immediate result was that Peshev was censured and stripped of his post as vice-chairman, which doesn't sound like a resounding political success. But it seems to have done the trick in persuading the government that the deportation would buy them more trouble domestically than it would be worth in support from Germany.
The longer part of the book consists of reproductions of various contemporary documents - letters, newspaper reports, and diaries related to the events surrounding the attempted deportations. The documents shed a particularly interesting light on the claim that you sometimes hear that people didn't know what was happening to the Jews in Nazi Germany. I don't know what people knew in other places, but the documents make it pretty clear that everyone from writers of articles in Communist newspapers to Bulgarian government ministers knew that if they sent the Jews to Poland they were going to die horribly.
Overall, the message of this book seems to be that if good people want to stop evil from happening, they need not only to be passionate and vocal but very very good at operating the levers of political power. Food for thought. View all my reviews
[Minor edits made to correct the name of the king of Bulgaria, which I'd somehow bobbled from "Boris" to "Basil". Since the most famous Basil in Bulgarian history was "Basil the Bulgar Slayer" this seemed particularly inept.]