The story of 50,000 Bulgarian Jews who were saved from Hitler’s grasp is becoming increasingly well known thanks to recent art exhibits, community events and documentaries. The Bulgarian-Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center (BMNECC) in West Homestead has one such exhibit on display now.
“The Power of Civil Society: The Fate of Jews in Bulgaria During the Holocaust 1940-1944” is a documentary art exhibition featuring 23 panels that explain in-depth how the people of Bulgaria defied Hitler to save their friends and neighbors.
“Bulgaria, through their church, through their people, through King Boris III, who was head of their government, felt that the Jews were not a separate entity, that they were Bulgarians and they should not be exported to these death camps,” said Walter Kolar, executive director of the BMNECC.
“King Boris practically defied Hitler in saying we will not export any of our Jews, and he called them ‘our Bulgarians of Jewish descent.’”
The story is not without controversy since Bulgaria was, in fact, allied with the Axis powers during World War II.
According to Kolar, Boris, in an attempt to reduce the pressure he felt from Hitler, said he would have the Jews work on roads and communication devices that would ultimately benefit the Nazis.
“So he kind of mollified Hitler to a great extent,” said Kolar, “and they never put too much pressure on King Boris.”
It was definitely not Boris alone who determined the fate of the Bulgarian Jews. More importantly, the Orthodox Church and the people of Bulgaria came to their aid.
Bulgaria continues to have close ties with the Jewish community. When the exhibit opened in Boston last year, Bulgaria’s President Rosen Plevneliev attended the function and gave a few remarks. He noted that it was the people of Bulgaria, not the politicians, who were instrumental in saving the Jews.
Kolar says the people’s compassion for the Jews is his favorite part of the narrative.
“The entire story of the fact that the Bulgarians had such a warmth for their own people because they included the Jewish people as their own Bulgarians,” he said, “I think that’s what hits me the most.”
The exhibit is open to the public on Saturday, Sept. 14 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 15 from noon to 3 p.m. The center is located at 449 West 8th Ave. in West Homestead.
(Ilana Yergin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)