As a result of peace treaties that ended World War I, Bulgaria lost three important territories to neighboring countries: the northern plain of Dobrudja to Romania, Macedonia to Yugoslavia, and Thrace to Greece. When Hitler rose to power, he tried to win Bulgarian King Boris III’s allegiance with the promise of the return of these territories. In September 1940, Hitler returned the first territory, Dobrudja. In exchange, Bulgaria adopted many anti-Jewish laws that restricted Jewish rights, imposed new taxes, and established a quota for Jews in some professions. Many Bulgarians sent letters to the government protesting these new laws.
In March 1941, Bulgaria officially joined the Axis coalition in hopes of regaining the remaining two territories – Macedonia and Thrace. As an ally of Germany, Bulgaria was not occupied and was allowed to remain sovereign. After Germany conquered Greece and Yugoslavia, administration of these countries was handed over to Bulgaria. Jews in these territories had a very different fate than those in Bulgaria proper.
Measures against the Jews worsened considerably in 1942. Jewish property was seized, anti-Jewish propaganda increased and a Commissariat for the Jewish Problem in Bulgaria was established. However, the anti-Jewish campaign drew the opposition of peasants, city dwellers, intellectuals, and the Orthodox Church. German officials have actually been quoted discussing the difficulties of deporting Jews from Bulgaria because the Bulgarians were democratic, practiced religious tolerance, and were not anti-Semitic.
Despite this, the Bulgarian government took further steps to crack down on the Jews in 1943, signing a secret agreement to deport 20,000 Jews: 11,000 from Thrace and Macedonia and another 8,000 from elsewhere. The remaining Bulgarian Jews were to be deported later. In March 1943, Bulgarian police and military rounded up all the Jews from Macedonia and Thrace and deported them primarily to the Treblinka and Majdanek death camps. Within one month nearly all of those 11,000 Jews had perished.
As the news about the imminent deportations in Bulgaria proper leaked, senior government officials, the Church and intellectual elites vigorously protested the deportations. The king was so shaken by these protests that he risked direct confrontation with the Nazis and cancelled all of the deportations. Knowing that the Commissariat for the Jewish Question would be furious, 42 members of Parliament signed a letter protesting the deportation plan, as did groups of writers, lawyers, physicians, and army officers. Orthodox Church leaders in Sofia and Plovdiv also spoke out in strong opposition to the anti-Jewish campaign.
If the persecution against the Jews continues, I shall open the doors of all Bulgarian churches to them.
However, Nazi pressure on King Boris continued. By May 1943, 20,000 Jews from Sofia were expelled to the countryside and able-bodied Jewish men were forced to join hard labor units. Some historians believe these were tactics to avoid deporting the Jews to concentration camps. Hitler’s ire at the King’s refusal to deport the Jews and join the war against the USSR became irrelevant when Russia occupied Bulgaria in September 1944, ending the threat against the Jews.
In 1945, the Jewish population of Bulgaria was still about 50,000, its prewar level. Nearly all of the Jews in Bulgaria proper were saved due to the protests from all sectors of Bulgarian society. By 1948, however, more than 35,000 Bulgarian Jews had emigrated to the British Mandate in Palestine. Most of the remaining Jews emigrated from Bulgaria by 1950 leaving only about a thousand Jews living in Bulgaria today.