The Courage to Defy
In March 1941 Bulgaria allied itself with Nazi Germany and was rewarded with parts of Greek Thrace and Yugoslavian Macedonia, both of which had Jewish populations. Several months earlier, the Bulgarian parliament promulgated the “Law for the Protection of the Nation” which was followed by a number of racial decrees against its Jewish citizens, restricting their lives, imposing forced labor on Jewish men and requiring Jews to wear the Jewish star. Despite protests from various civic organizations, the anti-Jewish legislation was passed in Parliament. Dimitar Peshev, the Vice President of the Sbranie - Bulgaria's Parliament – favored Bulgaria's alliance with Germany and supported the anti-Jewish legislation. Peshev acquiesced, because he believed that believed that the price the Jews had to pay was justified against what Bulgaria was to gain.
However, when early in 1943, Bulgaria acceded to Germany’s demands to deport Jews, Dimitar Peshev could no longer condone his government’s policy, and decided to act.
In February 1943 Bulgaria signed an agreement with Nazi Germany for the deportation of 20,000 Jews to the death camps in Poland. The agreement called for the deportation of the Jews of the annexed territories, Thrace and Macedonia; the remainder would be made up from Jews in various Bulgarian communities.
The Jews of the annexed territories were gathered from their homes and put in assembly camps. Some were detained within Bulgaria, awaiting deportation. Marko Peretz, one of the few survivors, described their encounter with the Bulgarian Jews who were watching with horror: “They ran towards the rail tracks. Both groups wept, "Shall we ever see each other again?”
The Jewish community in Kyustendil, Peshev’s hometown, was destined to be deported. Word about the planned deportations leaked out, and a gathering of both Jews and non-Jews decided to send a delegation to Peshev in Sofia and to enlist his help. “I had no doubt about what was going to happen, and my conscience and the understanding of the real meaning of the plans no longer allowed me to remain a bystander,” Peshev wrote after the war, “I decided to do whatever I could to prevent the plans from being implemented.”
In March 1943, while the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia were gathered in preparation of the deportation to Treblinka, Peshev went from one leader to another in an attempt to overturn his government’s decision. He asked for a meeting with the Prime Minister, and went to see the Minister of the Interior. The Minister of the Interior lied, denying that there was an intention to deport Jews, but immediately informed the Prime Minister that the program was no longer a secret. While a curfew was imposed on the Jews in Kyustendil, and while the Prime Minister persisted in refusing to receive Peshev, the latter drafted a letter of protest and asked members of parliament to sign the petition. Finally, because of the heated activity, it was decided to call off the deportation of the Jews from Bulgaria itself. At the same time, the Prime Minister decided to impeach Peshev. He lost his position and become a political outcast.
Thus within a short period of time, and thanks to Dimitar Peshev, the four members of the delegation from Kyustendil and some Church leaders, 48,000 Bulgarian Jews were saved from destruction.
The Jewish community in Bulgaria suffered from persecution until the end of the war, but the community in its entirety was saved from deportation to the death camps.
Over 11,000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia were deported to Treblinka, where they were murdered. These communities were almost totally destroyed – only a few hundred survived.
On January 10, 1973, Yad Vashem recognized Dimitar Peshev as Righteous Among the Nations.