Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review of Beyond Hitler’s Grasp: The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews by Michael Bar-Zohar (Adams Media, 1998)

In March 1941 Bulgaria’s Fascist government signed an agreement with the axis powers of Germany and Italy. Germany used Bulgaria as a launch pad for some of its Balkans campaign and in return it gained back some of the lands it had lost in World War One – Macedonia and Thrace. Rather than fight on the Eastern front, Bulgaria was to occupy and police the Axis’ Balkan conquests. Like other allied countries, Bulgaria came under fierce pressure to export its Jews to the death camps to the north. It did in fact sign agreements with Germany and started to secretly round up Jews into temporary holding camps. However, due to leaks the 50,000 Bulgarian Jews became aware of the impending disaster and sought help from influential politicians, King Boris and the Orthodox Church. At the last minute, political pressure led to the cancellation of the forced movement of Jews of Bulgarian citizenship, though others weren’t so lucky. Despite repeated attempts to resurrect the scheme under German pressure, the holocaust did not take place, and Bulgaria remained the only German ally not to send its own citizens to the death camps, though it did send the Jews of Macedonia and Thrace.

Bar-Zohar tells the history of how Bulgarian Jews were saved, detailing the principle events and characters, based on first hand testimony and archival research. For the most part the book provides a fascinating account of anti-Semitism and its resistance in Bulgaria. However, there are bits of the narrative that are contradictory, which somewhat undermines confidence in the story being told. For example, it is argued that before the war Jews had full equality, and yet they could not enter politics. It’s noted that King Boris manipulated the political scene so that he had absolute power to appoint and dismiss government ministers, yet it’s stated that he was a democrat and enlightened. He was a simple and modest man, yet he was known as ‘the fox’ for his cunning and cleverness. Bulgarian people essentially had no issues with Jewish people and yet it had a range of anti-Semitic events and policy, adopted laws based on Germany’s Nuremburg laws, and had an active anti-Semitic government throughout the war. The Bulgarian Jews were saved, yet 11,000 Jews of Macedonia and Thrace, which became Bulgarian territories, were sent to the death camps. These kind of paradoxical observations challenge the argument being advanced and certainly left doubts in my mind as to the veracity of all parts of the story. I don’t for one minute doubt that a small number of parliamentarians and church leaders did fight and block the expulsion of Bulgarian Jews, but there is a fair amount of supposition and speculation as to the role of King Boris and other leading figures and how events actually unfolded. This is to a certain extent inevitable, but Bar-Zohar never really fills the reader with confidence that his version of the story is the full truth, but rather presents one, partial version of it. The result is a little disconcerting and unsettling. Overall, an interesting book about an important coda to the holocaust in Europe, but one feels that it is not the definitive account.

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