March 10, 2018 — New York
In marking today’s 75th anniversary of the rescue of nearly 50,000 members of the Bulgarian Jewish community during the Holocaust, AJC CEO David Harris, who has visited Bulgaria frequently, looks back at the meaning of this extraordinary action and what followed in the decades since.
Bulgaria occupies a very special place in our hearts, and it has for many years.
Two reasons in particular.
The first reason has to do with the past, the second with the future.
In Jewish tradition, we are taught to “remember” and “never forget.” In an era of barbarism, when Jews faced the Nazi attempt to annihilate their people, only a few came to our rescue. There were just a pitifully small number of rays of light.
Although Bulgaria was an ally of the Third Reich during the Second World War, this did not prevent some brave Bulgarians – most notably, members of Parliament and the Church – from standing up and refusing to comply with the deportation orders. As a result, nearly 50,000 Jews were saved from the death camps.
No, sadly, not all Jews under Bulgarian rule were protected, but most were, and this act of bravery and brotherhood must never be forgotten. Rather, it needs to be remembered and taught not only as a history lesson, but also as an answer to the contemporary hatred, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism that is ominously reemerging today.
AJC has looked for every opportunity to share the Bulgarian story, honor the memory of the rescuers, and express our thanks to the Bulgarian people.
The second reason has to do with the fate of Bulgaria after the war.
Bulgaria, it is said, always had a special attachment to Russia for reasons of history, language, and faith, but that did not prepare the country for the effects of four decades of Soviet domination, communist rule, Warsaw Pact membership, secret police, and planned economy.
For those with some understanding of that period, the dramatic events of 1989-91 created a previously unimaginable opportunity in the West to reengage with countries that had previously been behind the Iron Curtain, including, of course, Bulgaria.
I am immensely proud that AJC was the first Jewish organization to do so. It recognized the chance to help write a new chapter in history – one in which nations could move from tyranny to democracy, from repression to freedom, from poverty to prosperity.
And, of course, ever mindful of the special connection between Bulgaria and the Jewish people – and without the previously insurmountable obstacles to that link imposed by the Kremlin and its satellites – there was now an opening for us to reach out to Bulgaria and contribute to the revolutionary change under way in the country.
We understood that the best way to honor the past was to help build a better, brighter future. That’s why we partnered with new friends in Bulgaria who shared our vision of a country looking westward, anchored in the European Union and NATO, confident of the friendship of the United States, and contributing to a new era for the Balkans.
And, as Jews, we also welcomed the emergence of the small but proud Jewish community, and established a formal association agreement with Shalom. This partnership has gone from strength to strength over the years.
We began traveling to Sofia on a regular basis, always taking special note of the proximity of the cathedral, the mosque, and the synagogue to each other in the city center, precisely the kind of message of interfaith respect the larger world needs so badly.
We have invited Bulgarian foreign ministers and ambassadors to address AJC audiences, most notably at our Global Forum in Washington – and, in 2018, the Bulgarian prime minister will participate in our Global Forum in Jerusalem. We want our members to know the Bulgarian story, past, present, and future.
We have encouraged links between Bulgaria and Israel, a connection that had been largely ruptured because of Moscow, but that we strongly believed would serve the highest national interests of both countries. And indeed, it has been most gratifying to see the bilateral relationship blossom in so many fields, a far cry from when communist-ruled Bulgaria was an implacable enemy of Israel, a haven for anti-Israel terrorist groups, and a supporter of the “Zionism is racism” canard.
And who among us will ever forget the 2012 terrorist attack in Burgas that killed five Israelis and one Bulgarian, and wounded 32 others – and the courageous Bulgarian response? Though under pressure not to pursue the investigation thoroughly, the government pressed ahead and, correctly, pinned the blame on Hezbollah, a step that, in turn, led the European Union to overcome its reluctance to acknowledge the true nature of the group and place its “military wing” on the terrorism list.
Finally, on a personal note, in my many visits to Bulgaria since 1990, I have met countless Bulgarians, both Jewish and non-Jewish, in the course of my work. From the very first day, I felt close to the country and its people. I have always rooted for Bulgaria’s success – even, I might add, in the World Cup semi-final match in 1994, when it played Italy and my marriage was at risk because my wife is from Rome! I was so hopeful that the new UN Secretary-General would be from Bulgaria, though that was not meant to be, at least in this cycle. Knowing the exceptional talent of the Bulgarian people, I want to see Bulgaria rise through the ranks and fulfill its economic potential. And, like my Bulgarian friends, I am watching developments in the country and its immediate neighborhood, concerned that outside powers are once again trying to manipulate events in their “Balkan backyard,” and eager to ensure that Brussels and Washington don’t lose sight of, much less underestimate, what’s going on.
Friends are tested over the long haul, and AJC, as a friend of Bulgaria and its proud Jewish community, will continue to be there, as we have been since 1989-90, both because of our shared past and, no less, our shared future.