Book Review

How Bulgarian citizens rescued 50,000 Jews in 1943

A fictional story reveals how townspeople chose to risk their lives in the Second World War to do the right thing.

Sofia, the capital of the Balkan nation of Bulgaria. Credit: Pixabay.
Sofia, the capital of the Balkan nation of Bulgaria. Credit: Pixabay.
Amelia Katzen
Amelia Katzen

Among all the tales of heroism and death during the Holocaust, how many of us are aware of the rescue of nearly 50,000 Jews by the citizens of Bulgaria? In 1943, despite the planned and already commenced deportation of Bulgarian Jews to the Nazi death camps, thousands were released from the trains bound for Auschwitz and allowed to go home.

The newly released Acts of Resistance by Dominic Carrillo is a fictionalized account of the actions of Bulgarian citizens that succeeded in stopping the deportations. The novel’s narrative is based on memoirs written soon after World War II and the published words of church leaders and politicians. Three teenaged characters tell the interwoven stories of their actions from March 1943 until September 1944, when Russian forces liberated Bulgaria from the Nazis. The novel is a page-turner, each day fraught with suspense and danger. The book is exciting, inspiring and smart.

Misho, a fictional Jewish boy, is protected by the Archbishop (Metropolitan) Stefan who helps to conceal the youngster’s identity by hiring him to be his driver. Misho becomes the eye-witness to the Archbishop’s struggle to save Bulgarian Jewry—to his selfless bravery and determination to prevent Bulgaria from committing the crime of allowing its Jews to be killed.

Peter is a fictionalized gentile whose best friend is Jewish. Peter’s horror at learning that the government is cooperating with the Nazis to exterminate the Jews leads him to travel to Sofia to lobby his town’s member of Parliament and later to join the Communist partisans.

Lily, based on the real Lily Panitza, works for the Bulgarian government office in charge of evicting the Jews and transporting them to the Nazi death camps. After witnessing the train transporting 11,000 Macedonian Jews from Bulgarian-held Skopje—part of the deal made by Bulgaria to spare its own Jewish population—Lily realizes the horrible results of her work. At her peril, she starts to leak information to warn the Jewish community about planned arrests and deportations.

“Acts of Resistance” cover jacket. Source: Screenshot.

As the characters tell their story, the reader is struck by the series of choices that are made by each—and by people around them—that clearly threaten their personal safety but cumulatively lead to a successful resistance against the Nazis.

Archbishop Stefan pressures King Boris to stand up to the Nazis; the people from Peter’s town pressure the politician Dimitar Peshev, who organizes a petition in Parliament to end the deportations; Lily warns Jewish leaders of their pending arrests so they can escape.

Each actor is presented with a barrage of life-or-death ethical dilemmas. They are filled with uncertainty as to what actions to take or not to take; whether what they are doing will have any effect; whether they are aligning themselves with forces for good or evil; whether they are willing to die to save others. Fortunately for 48,000 Bulgarian Jews, enough of their fellow citizens chose to risk their own lives to do the right thing.

The author is an educator originally from California, teaching history and English for the past decade at the Anglo-American School of Sofia. He told JNS that the idea for the book came in his first year in Bulgaria from a student who asked him whether he knew that Bulgaria had saved its Jews from the Nazis. According to Carrillo, this event is one of two main points of pride for Bulgarians (the other being the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire in 1878). His interest piqued, Carrillo was surprised at the paucity of available information about the episode. It led to research and eventually to writing the book.

While the category for this book is Young Adult Fiction, it’s a fascinating read for people of any age, particularly if you don’t know the history of the Bulgarian resistance.

“Acts of Resistance,” released in March, is available online and at some bookstores.

Amelia Katzen is a co-founder of JNS and an occasional contributor.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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