Dimitar Peshev: The Politician Who Saved 48,000 Bulgarian Jews from Deportation

Photo Credit: Unknown Author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

During the Second World War, Bulgaria was committed to staying neutral. That does not mean, however, that its Jewish citizens were safe. Jews had lived in the country for nearly 2,000 years. Despite their horrible treatment at the hands of their supposedly “neutral” government, there was at least one lawmaker willing to fight for them: Dimitar Peshev.

Bulgaria took an opportunistic view during World War II

Bulgaria saw World War II as an opportunity, as the country had aligned itself with the wrong side during the Great War. As a result, it had ceded large amounts of territory. This loss, combined with others during the Second Balkan War, had cost Bulgaria. Government officials took an opportunistic view toward Germany in the lead up to the start of WWII, hoping to gain back the territory it had lost, without having to participate in any battles.

Adolf Hitler shakes hands with Tsar Boris III
Hitler shakes hands with Bulgaria’s Tsar Boris III. (Photo Credit: CORBIS / Getty Images)

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 was a non-aggression agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union, in which the two nations agreed to split up Poland. Following its signing, Bulgaria looked to curry favor with the increasingly powerful German regime. 65 pecent of its trade was done with Germany and Bulgaria wished to keep it that way. As a way to ingratiate themselves to the Germans, the Bulgarian government began to pass laws that hurt the country’s Jewish population.

Bulgaria’s new laws oppressed its Jewish citizens

As a way of pleasing the regime, Bulgaria began coming down on its Jewish citizens. The worst changes came under 1941’s Law for the Protection of the Nation. This oppressed Jews in many ways, most notably declaring they could no longer become Bulgarian citizens. The law also banned marriages between Jews and non-Jews, and added excess taxes to the property of Jewish people.

Members of a Jewish labor battalion
A Jewish labor battalion. Under the Law for Protection of the Nation, all Bulgarian Jews were forced to complete compulsory military service in labor battalions, as opposed to the regular army. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Bulgaria had compulsory military service. Under the new law, Jews were forced into mandatory labor battalions. As time went on, more restrictions were added. Jews in forced labor soon faced more time at work, as well as less and lower quality food. Eventually, they were deprived of mattresses and survived on a meager diet of bread and water.

Things got much worse after the Final Solution

In January 1942, the German government held the Wannsee Conference. It was at this meeting that they formalized their plans for what they called the “Final Solution,” in which all Jews in German-held European countries would be sent to concentration camps and killed.

Following the conference, Bulgaria made plans to deport its Jewish population.

The manor at Wannsee
The Manor at Wannsee. The building now stands as a memorial to Holocaust victims. (Photo Credit: A. Savin / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Dimitar Peshev served as Bulgaria’s Minister of Justice prior to the outbreak of WWII. While he hadn’t opposed the Law for the Defense of the Nation, he became much more involved in protests as penalties against Bulgarian Jews continued. After learning about the planned deportation, he attempted to get in touch with Bogdan Filov, the country’s prime minister. The two men did not get along, however, and Filov refused to see him.

Peshev was successful, but couldn’t save all of Bulgaria’s Jews

The country created the Commissariat for the Jewish Affairs in Bulgaria. The first Jews to be deported were those in the Bulgarian-occupied areas of Thrace and Macedonia. More than 13,000 were sent off to camps. None of them survived. After learning of their cruel treatment, Peshev doubled down on his efforts to protect the remaining Jews in his country.

Portrait of Dimitar Peshev
Dimitar Peshev. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Peshev was able to convince Interior Minister Petar Gabrovski to halt any further deportations. No Jews living in Bulgaria proper were sent to concentration camps, and Bulgaria informed German leadership they were needed to work on projects at home. While life was still extremely difficult for the 48,000 Jews who lived in Bulgaria, they survived the war.

Peshev is honored by the new Israeli state

While Peshev was able to save Bulgarian Jews from deportation, most chose the leave the country for Israel once WWII came to an end. Following the conflict, Communists brought Peshev to trial, accusing him of being an anti-Semite and for accepting bribes to protect the Jews. He was defended by a Jewish legal team, and while originally sentenced to 15 years in prison, only served one.

Dimitar Peshev Square
Dimitar Peshev Square in Jaffa. (Photo Credit: Avi1111 / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0)

In 1973, Yad Vashem honored Peshev by naming him Righteous Among the Nations. That same year, he died at the age of 78.