(Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from a keynote lecture the author delivered today at an international conference, “Persecution and Collaboration, Rescue and Survival: New Perspectives on Bulgaria and the Holocaust After 80 Years,” held at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel.)

Sixty years ago, reporting on the Eichmann Trial, Hannah Arendt propounded her flawed theory on the banality of evil – by which she meant, inaccurately as it turned out, that Eichmann and other Nazis like him were “neither perverted nor sadistic,” but acted merely as efficient amoral bureaucrats within a machinery of death. The ongoing controversy over the role of the king of Bulgaria during the Holocaust years illustrates not the banality, but the moral ambiguity of evil and good. 

There is an intellectual and emotional sense of security, a complacency, if you will, in dealing with and confronting absolutes, whether it be absolute evil or absolute good. We are comfortable with the idea that the perpetrators of the Holocaust, or of any genocide or crime against humanity for that matter, embody and epitomize absolute evil. And we are equally secure in recognizing that the men and women who, often at the risk of their own lives, try to help, protect, or rescue the victims of such atrocities embody and epitomize absolute good. 

The relevant underlying two-pronged principle, first articulated in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a), is that whoever saves one life is considered to have saved the entire world, and that whoever takes a life is deemed to have destroyed the entire world. This tenet of faith certainly covers the Righteous Among the Nations. It also covers genocidaires and other mass murderers as well as anyone who knowingly facilitates their crimes against humanity.

But what are we to make of individuals who do not fall neatly into either of these categories? How do we deal with someone who saved lives and had blood on their hands? In 1963, my father was asked to be a witness for the defense at the Tel Aviv trial of Hirsch Barenblat, who had been the head of the Jewish police in the ghetto of Bedzin in Poland. Barenblat was accused of collaborating with the Nazis and assisting in the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz. His defenders argued that he had worked with the Jewish underground in the ghetto and that he had on occasion used his position to try to save Jews. My father declined the invitation to testify. One of his reasons, he said, was that he knew for a fact that both Barenblat’s accusers and his defenders were right: he had collaborated and he had tried to help. 

In Bulgaria during World War II, as Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum has accurately noted, “at one and the same time . . . some Jews were saved, others – persecuted, and still others – deported and destroyed.”

Consider whether King – or Tzar – Boris III of Bulgaria should be hailed as the rescuer of 48,000 Bulgarian Jews, or whether he should be condemned as the man ultimately responsible, or at the very least co-responsible, for the deportation to their death of 11,343 Jews from Thrace, Macedonia, and from the formerly Serbian district of Pirot, or whether the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

These questions have a particular urgency in light of what appears to be a coordinated campaign within Bulgaria to depict Boris as an entirely positive, heroic figure. Earlier this year, leaders of the Bulgarian Jewish community boycotted a government-organized ceremony meant to mark the 80th anniversary of the rescue of Bulgarian Jewry during the Holocaust, including a tribute to Boris and Queen Giovanna. Dr. Alexander Oscar, president of the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria “Shalom” explained their absence from the event by saying, “Nobody from the community would have taken part in an event honoring the imaginary role of King Boris in rescuing the Bulgarian Jews and presenting a distorted history of the Holocaust.”

As Bulgarian Jewish journalist Emmy Barouh wrote in an open letter to Bulgarian President Rumen Radev on March 9 of this year: “There is no morality to be found in the sinister arithmetic that the lives of 50,000 were ‘paid for’ by the lives of 11,343. Omitting half of this somber ‘equation’ turns the ‘80th anniversary of the rescue’ into another episode of political exploitation of Bulgarian Jews.”

​Two Letters, Two Views

This debate is hardly new. Two letters to the editor published in The New York Times almost 30 years ago encapsulate and epitomize the essence of events that occurred in Bulgaria between 1940 and 1943.

The first of these, published on Oct. 16, 1993, was by Michael Bar-Zohar, at the time a visiting Israeli scholar at Emory University’s History Department in Atlanta, Georgia. Beginning from the premise that the Bulgarian rescue of that country’s Jews was “less known but more dramatic” than “the Danish rescue of Jews from the Nazis during World War II,” Bar-Zohar proceeded to set out – for the first time in print, at least to my knowledge – his rather romanticized and factually challenged presupposition on the fate of Bulgarian Jewry during the Holocaust:

“Bulgaria was Nazi Germany’s ally; its king, Boris III, was a personal friend of Hitler. The Fascist party was in power and the country swarmed with German troops.

“Nevertheless, when Adolf Eichmann’s deputy, Theodor Dannecker, came to Bulgaria to deport the Jews, this small Balkan nation refused to let them go. The young secretary of the Commissar for Jewish Questions, Liliana Panitza, discovered the secret agreement between her employer and the German envoy and hurried to inform Jewish and Bulgarian leaders of the forthcoming deportation.

“The news triggered an unprecedented effort led by the Eastern Orthodox Church, several Fascist leaders, intellectual and professional groups, and the King himself. Many Bulgarians considered their Jewish compatriots’ deportation a stain on Bulgaria’s honor. In open defiance of the Reich, Bulgaria refused to hand over its 50,000 Jews.”

The first problem, of course, is that these 134 quoted words contain a fair number of not-insignificant inaccuracies. To begin with, Bulgaria did not swarm with German troops – the country was not occupied by Nazi Germany in the winter and spring of 1943; while SS Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Dannecker was an aide of Eichmann’s and his representative in Bulgaria, Eichmann’s actual deputy was SS Sturmbannführer (Major) Rolf Günther; Liliana – or Lily – Panitza, the secretary and lover of Alexander Belev, Bulgaria’s Commissar for Jewish Questions, did alert some Bulgarian Jews to Belev’s and the Bulgarian government’s secret plans to deport them, but the second part of Bar-Zohar’s reference to her – that she also provided this information to ethnic Bulgarian (i.e., non-Jewish) leaders – does not appear to have any basis in fact, and there is no evidence to suggest that King Boris III “led” the efforts to prevent the deportation of Bulgarian Jews – at most, he was a reactive participant.

On Oct. 23, 1993, The New York Times published the second letter to the editor, this time by Hebrew University Professor Yehuda Bauer – still today one of the doyens of Holocaust historians. He pointed out in that letter that, while Bar-Zohar was “right to extol the humanity of Bulgarians during the Holocaust,” there was more to the story. It was true, Bauer wrote, that:

“An unlikely alliance of King Boris III, the Eastern Orthodox Church, members of the Fascist establishment and underground Communists and Socialists managed to save the Jews of “Old” Bulgaria from deportations to the death camps.

“However, the Bulgarian regime deported Jews from Sofia and other cities to exile locations within the country and despoiled the Jews of much of their very unimpressive property. Professor Bar-Zohar does not mention that the rescue action came after Stalingrad, and that the Bulgarians could read the writing on the wall.

“Most important, he also fails to mention the fact that the Bulgarians delivered 11,343 Jews from Bulgaria’s newly conquered territories in Yugoslav Macedonia and Greek Thrace to the Germans, who killed every one of them in the death camps in Poland. It is hardly an untarnished record.”

One significant difference between the two letters is their respective characterizations of those involved in preventing the deportation of the 48,000 Bulgarian Jews. Bar-Zohar wrote about the “unprecedented effort led by the Eastern Orthodox Church, several Fascist leaders, intellectual and professional groups, and the King himself.” Bauer, meanwhile, gave credit to an “unlikely alliance of King Boris III, the Eastern Orthodox Church, members of the Fascist establishment and underground Communists and Socialists.” As I already indicated, Bar-Zohar significantly overstated – and, for that matter, continues to overstate – the role played by Boris in this regard. In contrast, Bauer accurately included Boris among those individuals and groups – what Bauer insightfully called an “unlikely alliance” – who made the rescue possible.

Of course, the mere fact that someone belongs to a collective does not mean or imply that they are a driving or even a motivating force of that collective. 

A Human Drama

A brief summary of some of the highlights of this human drama seems in order here. Details of the relevant and complex chronology can be found in, among other works, “The Bulgarian Jews and the Final Solution, 1940-1944” by Frederick B. Chary; “The Fragility of Goodness: Why Bulgaria’s Jews Survived the Holocaust” by the late Franco-Bulgarian philosopher and literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov; Jacky Comforty’s “The Stolen Narrative of the Bulgarian Jews and the Holocaust,” written with Martha Aladjem Bloomfield; Nadège Ragaru’s “Et les juifs bulgares furent sauvés;” and Lea Cohen’s recently published “Salvation, Persecution, and the Holocaust in the Kingdom of Bulgaria (1940-1944).

King Boris III ascended to his country’s throne on Oct. 3, 1918, following his father’s abdication. Beginning in 1935, he was the authoritarian ruler of Bulgaria until his sudden and suspicious death on Aug. 28, 1943. Boris himself does not appear to have been a fascist, but even while professing neutrality during the 1930s, he developed a friendship of sorts with Hitler – Boris was Hitler’s special guest at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

In February 1940, Boris appointed Bogdan Filov, who had studied archaeology at German universities and had an affinity for Germany, as Bulgaria’s prime minister. Filov, unquestionably with Boris’ knowledge and consent, appointed the openly pro-Nazi and antisemitic Petâr Gabrovski to the influential position of minister of the interior. Gabrovski, in turn, brought another outspoken fascist and virulent antisemite, the aforementioned Alexander Belev, into his ministry. Shortly thereafter, several significant events occurred in relatively rapid succession. 

First, Belev drafted and Gabrovski engineered the enactment of the Law for the Defense of the Nation which, like the Third Reich’s notorious Nuremberg Laws on which it was modeled, imposed significant legal restrictions on Bulgaria’s Jews. Its purpose, according to Gabrovski, as cited by Lea Cohen, was “to protect the national purity of the Bulgarians from the Jews, who, as part of international Jewry, are alien to the Bulgarian national spirit.”

In Nadège Ragaru’s words, this law, which was signed by Boris on Jan. 15, 1941, (a) “set the stage for identifying and socially and economically marginalizing Jews,” and (b) “ensured the segregation of Jews and non-Jews, including the banning of mixed marriages and of Bulgarian household staff being employed by Jews.” The Law for the Defense of the Nation, incidentally, was followed in short order by the Law for the Settlement of Land Property for Persons of Jewish Origin and the Law for the Taxing of Jewish Population. As Professor Rumyana Marinova-Christidi of Sofia University observed, antisemitism had become “state policy.”

Second, on March 1, 1941, Bulgaria formally allied itself with Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan. Third, in April 1941, following Germany’s and Italy’s military defeat of Yugoslavia and Greece, Bulgaria assumed military and administrative control over Macedonia, Thrace, and Pirot. By a Bulgarian government decree of June 5, 1942, “All Yugoslav and Greek subjects of non-Bulgarian origin” residing in these territories acquired Bulgarian citizenship. However, Article 4 of this decree expressly excluded “persons of Jewish origin” from such Bulgarian citizenship, except for married Jewish women, presumably married to non-Jewish husbands.

Then, on Aug. 29, 1942, the die was effectively cast for the Jews of Bulgaria, Macedonia, Thrace, and Pirot with the establishment of the Commissariat for Jewish Questions headed by Belev. 

On Feb. 22, 1943, Belev signed an agreement with Eichmann’s representative, Theodor Dannecker, to deport 20,000 Jews the following month – all the Jews living in Thrace, Macedonia, and Pirot, and the balance from Bulgaria proper, often referred to as “Old” Bulgaria. Plans for these deportations were meant to be kept secret, but at the beginning of March, news of the imminent tragedy independently came to the attention to a number of individuals. Lily Panitza, Belev’s secretary and lover, separately informed the vice president and a former president of the Central Consistory of Jews in Bulgaria of what was about to happen. The mayor of the southern Bulgarian town of Kyustendil alerted a Jewish friend that a train with empty box-cars had arrived at the station and that the town’s Jews were about to be taken away. 

A delegation from Kyustendil then traveled to Sofia, where they enlisted the help of Dimitâr Peshev, the deputy speaker of the Bulgarian National Assembly and a former minister of justice. Peshev, who had already been told of this development by Iako Baruh, a Zionist activist in Sofia, went all out to try to stop the deportations, in effect sacrificing his political career by confronting Filov and Gabrovski, eventually enlisting other parliamentarians as well. Peshev would write, “I made the decision to do everything in my power to prevent the execution of a plan that was going to compromise Bulgaria in the eyes of the world and brand it with a mark of shame that it did not deserve.”

Meanwhile, two metropolitans of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Stefan of Sofia and Kiril of Plovdiv, also got wind of the impending deportations and spoke out forcefully, both publicly and privately, against them. Kiril went so far as to threaten in a telegram to Boris that he would lie on the railroad tracks to prevent the trains from leaving.

In due course, Peshev, Metropolitans Stefan and Kiril, and other members of Bulgarian civil society prevailed on Boris not to allow the deportation of the Jews from “Old” Bulgaria but he adamantly refused to block or even speak out against the deportation of the Jews from Macedonia, Thrace, and Pirot. Boris also agreed to have the Jews expelled from Sofia and several other cities, and many Bulgarian Jews were sent to labor camps. 

No one should be left with any doubts regarding the harsh conditions Bulgarian Jews were forced to endure after being forced to leave Sofia at the end of May 1943. Lea Cohen writes:

“In the deportation sites, the Jews were placed in terrible conditions, accommodated in houses and barracks in the Gypsy and Turkish neighborhoods, without the right of free movement, deprived of all means of subsistence, and even without household goods. They remained in these conditions until the Red Army entered Bulgaria, after which they began their chaotic return to their native places, where they found their homes occupied and their belongings stolen. They did not have any money, as their bank accounts had been blocked as early as 1941 and subsequently confiscated for the use of the Commissariat for Jewish Affairs. All ready money and valuables had also been seized.”

“Some of My Best Friends”

In a way, Boris is emblematic of the inherent difficulty in coming to terms with what occurred in Bulgaria during the years of the Holocaust. While he may have held antisemitic views and on at least one occasion expressed these views quite forcefully, he does not appear to have disliked Jews viscerally or even ideologically. On the contrary, he apparently interacted positively with the Bulgarian Jewish community as late as the summer of 1942 and maintained cordial relationships with individual Jews. This is reminiscent of the classic protestation by many an antisemite that “some of my best friends are Jewish.”

At the same time, there is no question that Boris owned the Law for the Defense of the Nation, the establishment of the Commissariat for Jewish Questions, the discriminatory measures taken against Bulgarian Jews, and, at the top of his antisemitic credentials, the deportations from Macedonia, Thrace, and Pirot. These deportations, incidentally, were planned and directed by Belev, who reported to Gabrovski and thus was subject to Boris’ ultimate control, and implemented by Bulgarian police and military units that were also under his control. 

Contemporary protestations, such as those by former King Simeon II – who, as Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was prime minister of Bulgaria from 2001 until 2005 – that Bulgaria’s and hence Boris’ “influence over the so-called ‘new lands’ . . . was very limited,” or that “In the years of World War II it was the Wehrmacht and Gestapo that had the decisive word on the fate of the ‘new lands’” are, to be charitable, unsupported by the facts. Far more authoritative is Dimitâr Peshev’s unambiguous assertion that “in fact there were no differences between these territories [that is, Macedonia, Thrace, and Pirot] and other regions of Bulgaria in terms of their administration.”

It is also noteworthy that at a meeting with Stefan, Kiril, and the other metropolitans of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Boris expressed what were probably his true views about the Jews. According to the protocol of Boris’ speech to the Small Cabinet of the Holy Synod on April 15, 1943, he emphasized

the enormous harm inflicted on humanity for centuries by the profiteering spirit of the Jews. This spirit has created hatred, loss of faith, moral degeneracy, and treason among men everywhere. This spirit of profiteering and negation has created and still creates discontent, quarrels, conflicts, wars, and calamities among peoples and societies. The present global cataclysm is in large measure the fruit of this profiteering spirit . . .”

Justice Jackson at Nuremberg

In order to place Boris’ attitudes and actions in context, an often-overlooked paragraph of Justice Robert H. Jackson’s opening address at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg is instructive. Jackson, as we all know, was chief of counsel for the United States at the historic trial of Hermann Goering, Joachim von Ribbentropp, Alfred Rosenberg, Hans Frank, and 17 other senior officials of the Third Reich (plus Martin Bormann, who was tried in absentia). Referring to the defendants in the dock, Jackson said

“I know very well that some of these men did take steps to spare some particular Jew for some personal reason from the horrors that awaited the unrescued Jew. Some protested that particular atrocities were excessive, and discredited the general policy. While a few defendants may show efforts to make specific exceptions to the policy of Jewish extermination, I have found no instance in which any defendant opposed the policy itself or sought to revoke or even modify it.” 

I believe the caveat expressed by Jackson is helpful in our consideration of Boris’ behavior with regard to Bulgarian Jewry as well as the ultimately doomed Jews of Thrace, Macedonia, and Pirot. 

No one denies that he played a role and, to paraphrase Justice Jackson, “did take steps” in saving not just “some particular Jew for some personal reason” but 48,000 Jews from annihilation. But there also appears to be a broad consensus that Boris only did so after Peshev, Metropolitans Stefan and Kiril, and others in Bulgarian civil society had publicly expressed their outrage at the planned deportations. Even Bar-Zohar, who is one of the most prominent Boris apologists, conceded in a 2013 videotaped talk at the American University in Bulgaria that “under the pressure of the pro-fascist majority of the parliament, under the pressure of the church, after all these petitions of the people, he suddenly realizes that he can’t be the king of the Bulgarians and behave against the Bulgarian spirit. And then, two hours before the deportation, he issues the order, not one Jew leaves Bulgaria.”

How We “Do the Right Thing” Matters

Does it really matter, should it matter in this context whether Boris was the catalyst or a catalyst of the chain of events that led to this result, or whether his role was dictated by pragmatism, political opportunism, or some other reason? How we answer this question is an essential consideration in our assessment of Boris. In the final analysis, there is a pronounced difference between someone who does what we would call the “right thing” independently, proactively, out of a sense of moral or humanitarian urgency, and someone who does so reactively, as a matter of calculated expediency, or because they do not want the public opprobrium for not having done so. 

Still, to quote the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov, “From 10 March 1943 until his death on 28 August of that year, the king held firm to the position that the Jews were not to be deported.” Fair enough, but, as Bauer pointed out in his 1993 New York Times letter to the editor, there is more, far more, to this story. 

While Boris was involved in the maneuvering to keep the Jews of “Old” Bulgaria in Bulgaria, he did not, to paraphrase Justice Jackson, take any steps whatsoever to spare the Jews of Macedonia, Thrace, and Pirot from the horrors that awaited them. Metropolitan Stefan, for one, begged him to do so on several occasions, but to no avail. Boris could, for example, have accorded these “foreign” Jews Bulgarian citizenship since it was a decree from his government that had precluded them from acquiring this citizenship. Or he could have simply ordered that they not be deported. Or he could have at least spoken out publicly on their behalf.

It is safe to assume that he considered these Jews to be expendable and the price – perhaps, in his view, a small price – he and Bulgaria had to pay to at least somewhat satisfy his friend Hitler and Bulgaria’s ally, Germany. Thus, Boris consciously allowed them to be rounded up, detained in tobacco warehouses, and ultimately put on trains bound for Treblinka by Bulgarian soldiers and policemen. 

The record is clear that Boris did nothing, absolutely nothing, and uttered not one word to help the Jews in Macedonia, Thrace and Pirot. Instead, as Todorov stated categorically, “the king was in fact responsible for the deportation to the death camps of 11,343 people . . . .” 

Incidentally, under Article 6 of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal and under Articles 7 and 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, this deportation falls four square within the definitions of both a war crime and a crime against humanity. ​And the failure on the part of the present-day Bulgarian government to publicly and unequivocally acknowledge that Bulgarians perpetrated this war crime and crime against humanity is a gross dereliction of its responsibility to the murdered Jews of Macedonia, Thrace, and Pirot and to history. It also violates the government’s obligation to “safeguard the historical record” on which Bulgaria’s membership in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is predicated.

Absolute Demonization vs. Mythologized Glorification

All of which leaves us with the realization that, while there are absolutes of good and evil, the human condition also inevitably incorporates an ambiguity in both good and evil.

Dimitâr Peshev, Metropolitan Stefan, and Metropolitan Kiril represent absolute good. All three have long been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center Yad Vashem.

Petâr Gabrovski and Alexander Belev, meanwhile, represent absolute evil. Gabrovski was executed and Belev killed after the Red Army took control of Bulgaria in 1944. I don’t think anyone is shedding any tears over either of them.

And King Boris III? He falls somewhere in between. He has check marks on both sides of the ledger – a ledger which, as Emmy Barouh points out, must be considered in its entirety. Accordingly, both the absolute demonization of Boris and the blind mythologized glorification of his actions during World War II, especially in the late winter and spring of 1943, are unconscionable distortions of history. 

To be valid, history must be predicated on absolute, uncompromising truth, not manipulation. Eighty years ago, 48,000 Jews were not deported from Bulgaria while 11,343 other Jews were cruelly loaded on trains bound for Treblinka, where they were murdered. These are two interdependent realities that cannot be and must not be allowed to be uncoupled.

The fact that 48,000 Bulgarian Jews were saved in no way diminishes the tragedy and in no way mitigates the horror of the 11,343 Jews who were sent to their death at the behest of the government of King Boris III. And the fact that the Jews of Macedonia, Thrace, and Pirot were deported to be killed takes nothing away from the equal truth that the same King Boris was part of, in Bauer’s words, the “unlikely alliance” that kept the Jews of “Old” Bulgaria from suffering the same fate.

IMAGE: Men from the Bulgarian Jewish community pray during a commemoration ceremony at Sofia’s synagogue on March 10, 2013. Bulgaria’s parliament, for the first time, admitted failing to save 11,343 Jews from territories under its control as it commemorated the start of deportations 70 years earlier. Bulgaria, an ally of Nazi Germany during World War II “refused the deportation of over 48,000 Jews — Bulgarian citizens — to the death camps,” parliament said in a declaration. (DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images)