• John O’Rourke

    Editor, BU Today

    John O'Rourke

    John O’Rourke began his career as a reporter at The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. He has worked as a producer at World Monitor, a coproduction of the Christian Science Monitor and the Discovery Channel, and NBC News, where he was a producer for several shows, including Now with Tom Brokaw and Katie CouricNBC Nightly News, and The Today Show. John has won many awards, including four Emmys, a George Foster Peabody Award, and five Edward R. Murrow Awards. Profile

Comments & Discussion

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There are 39 comments on How Bulgaria Saved Its Jews

  1. I wish the same strong civil society could react when their communist leader exiled millions of Turrkish people from BUlgaria in 1989. After leaving in Turkish rule about 600 years in peace and without oppressing, It would be more honorable action to do like that. Also it would be great If they didnt kill 5.000 wound Turkish soldier after surrendering Pleven to the Russians. There are hundred of atrocities like that. So It is really great to see that they could save some people life…

    1. First of all, get your facts straight and learn about the history of Eastern Europe! The Jews didn’t oppress Bulgarians, and they lived in peace, therefore Bulgaria stood by their side. Turkey, also known as the Ottoman Empire at the time, invaded Bulgaria, as it swept through the entire Eastern Europe and killed millions. You say they lived in peace? Maybe you should visit Bulgaria and see all the damage that still exists from the Turks who gave Bulgarians the choice to either convert to the Muslim faith, or die. You can read about one of many examples of the “peace” you claim through the link below. After all, if there was no oppression like you said, and there was only peace, then there wouldn’t be a liberation, right?


    2. Talat, you must not be familiar with the history of the Ottoman conquest. There was NO peace in Bulgaria for 500 years; the Turks not only oppressed but slaughtered the Christians at whim. That’s why history refers to it as the TURKISH YOKE. You must read William Gladstone’s Bulgarian Horrors and MacGahan’s The Turkish Atrocities in Bulgaria. The Turks were repatriated BACK to Turkey during the 1980s because they requested the formation of a separate Turkish province in Bulgaria. These Turks had taken the lands of the Bulgarians at the time of the Ottoman conquest and now wanted a separate Turkish province? They didn’t need a separate autonomous province in Bulgaria,when they had the entire Turkey at their disposal. As to the battle of Pelven? That was war and the Turks got off very lightly considering the atrocities they carried out at the time of the Ottoman conquest and during the five centuries of Turkish Yoke – the dismembering of bodies, babies stuck on yatagans, rape of Christian women, etc… Read about the battle of Nicopolis. AHave you forgotten about the Blood Tax?

      1. PS:
        Talat, It is a well documented fact that in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the communists employed Turks who professed atheism to vandalize and close churches and beat up clergy. For that they received various communist favors. No Bulgarian would ever stand up for the Turks because the Turks are FEARED and NOT TRUSTED. In contrast, the Bulgarians have a long tradition of mutual respect with the Jews – not only Bulgarian Jews but Jews of the world. Many are the instances where a Jew in some corner of the world has come to the aid of a Bulgarian fallen on hard times. During WWII the Bulgarian people, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, members of the Bulgarian parliament and above all, the Bulgarian king came together to protect their brother Jews. It was the most natural thing to do.

    3. It is not true that Turkish people were exiled. They were given the option to emigrate to Turkey, if they wished so. Obviously many wanted to. The onliest thing that they were asked was to change their names, from Turkish, to Bulgarian. This was done in an effort to integrate the Turkish or Pomak communities into the Bulgarian society, because obviously the majority of these people were living in isolation, due to the fact they were “different”. (In fact – a fact that you cannot deny – after the fall of communism they could get back they Islamic names, but many chose to keep their given Bulgarian names. ) But what did they get in exchange? They received the status of “privileged people”: (1) infrastructure projets in their towns and villages – roads, electricity, water supply – something that Bulgarian villages of the same neighborhoods DID NOT, (2) priority for places in universities and employment – YES, much like the Afro Americans had such in the USA. IS THIS NOT TRUE ??? Why do you Turkish always speak half-true on that issue? Why do you never speak of the benefits you had? I am sorry that your dignity suffered, but you never refused the material compensation for that. Someone has to remind you and the world of that.

      1. My family and most of our friends were some of these people who ” were given the choice to leave”. V.Petrova as usual you show Bulgarian ignorance. We were given 24hrs to leave with nothing. It is Turkey that opened it’s borders to accept the refugees. The first refugees fled to Austria. It is such shame for Bulgaria for they did.

    4. It is not truth that bulgarians lived 500 years without oppression. This is a lie. Bulgarians have made many massive revolts for freedom which had ended in horrific bloodsheds and massacres. The last one was in 1876 just 2 years before the freedom. Whole region was desolated. Ottoman empire was used to genocides and they had tried it in Bulgaria as well, not to mention that 500 years bulgarian were forced to exist in the backwardy medieval empire that was the Ottoman one.

    5. Of course the actions of the Zhivkov government in 1989 were unconscionable, as is the treatment suffered by the Roma people in Bulgaria and other parts of eastern Europe today. All countries, including America and Turkey have their dark sides, but this story is not one of those. I was in Bulgaria (I am a Bulgarian-American)during the time that you refer and I saw first hand the injustice of the forced Bulgarization of the Turkish minority, and there is no justifying it. It was bad and the government of Bulgaria deserved the opprobrium that it received. Zhivkov was corrupt and nationalism is always a last refuge for scoundrels. You cannot justify it by appealing to history, because today’s Muslim Bulgarians are not the same Osmanliars who committed those historical atrocities against Bulgarians. Why the government of the Republic of Turkey insists on denying a genocide perpetrated by OTTOMAN authorities is also indefensible.

  2. Talat, I understand your feelings about the communist leader exiling turks from Bulgaria, but your statement that Bulgarians lived for 600 years (it was 500, actually) in peace and harmony under Ottoman rule is simply not true. Thousands of civilina bulgarians were massacred during the war of 1877/8 you mention, whole cities were burnt down; Islam was enforced by the sword during these 5 centuries – there might have been peaceful periods, but the assertion that the backword Ottoman empire was some kind of Renaissance paradise is simple propaganda. The occupiers were butchers at times, and simply rulers at other times, but always a foreign, unwanted, backward, restraining power. So cut the BS.

    1. Correct. Except that the butchering and the pillaging was not only at time but ALL THE TIME. It was in the best interest of the British to keep the “Sick Man of Europe ” (Turkey) sick and that’s why they used the word tolerance to describe the life of the Turkish subjects. Yes, the Christians were tolerated in the same way American blacks were tolerated before the Civil Rights laws except worse – Bulgarians had absolutely no rights as human beings, they were giaurs…

  3. I was in Hungary in 1944 and the Hungarians also shielded the Jews from Nazi persecution until the Regency (there was a regent, Nikolas Horty,) was ousted by the Germans. The Hungarians, and I believe the Bulgarians were at that time allies of the Axis.
    Interesting history.

    1. Turkey has yet to admit to the Armenian genocide. Now, the Turkish party in Bulgaria is preventing the Bulgarians from voting on a resolution to recognize the Armenian genocide. Turkey also prevented the US from voting on such a resolution by threatening to deny use of Turkish air fields if the US Congress sighed a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide.

  4. Bulgaria? On my BU Today? I like it!
    Talat definitely is in need of a visit to Bulgaria, especially some of the more rural areas where ethnic minorities were severely oppressed during Ottoman rule. I like Turkey a lot, but it’s hard to make an argument for the kindness of the Ottoman Turks…

  5. This is a remarkable story that must be retold until it becomes common knowledge. Everyone should read Michael Bar-Zohar’s well documented book “Beyond Hitler’s Grasp – the Miraculous Saving of Bulgaria’s Jews.

    1. Bar Zoar is a liar. The haft of the true is the biggest lie. This exibition also is showing the official Bulgarian propaganda. The Saving of the Bulgarian jews is in fact the Survive of them (but not from the occupied Macedonia and Thrace!!!!)

      1. Bar Zohar’s book is researched in primary sources and very well documented. It is true that almost 12,000 Jews perished from Macedonia and Thrace because neither of these territories were within the borders of Bulgaria and therefore were directly under the jurisdiction of Germany. However, nearly 50,000 Bulgarian Jews survived. Official Bulgarian propaganda does not exist. There was absolutely no discussion or mention of anything about Jews, Bulgarian or otherwise during the communist regime. The people who witnessed the saving of the Bulgarian Jews (like my parents) could not say anything about it for fear of reprisals. If you know the history of communism you would know about the trial of the Jewish doctors in the Soviet Union on fabricated crimes. This precluded any mention of Jews in the communist countries. The generations after the collapse of communism simply are NOT familiar with that part of history in order to create propaganda. It is from scholars like Ban-Zohar that Bulgarians are learningabout their own history.

  6. More facts about the saving bulgarian jews. Which the communist propaganda want to delete.

    Tzar(King) Boris III – concealed savoir of the Bulgarian Jews – 27.01.2011 20:42


    transated from|

    Цар Борис III – низвергнатия спасител на българските евреи – 09.03.2010 18:40


  7. My family ran from Bulgarian violence even though they were living in Bulgaria for many generations. They came to West Anatolia during Balkan wars not to be killed. You are always biased against Turks. History cannot be done by “You committed genocide, you are barbaric, blah blah blah”. You need documents to claim it and interpret them without any political benefits and conflicts. You need to define what the genocide is properly because it is a law term, not just a word meaning “killing”. Only un-biased historians, who are not at the side of Armenia, Greece, Turkey or Bulgaria, can reveal the reality. Whenever such a historian comes and says that Turks did not commit genocide, all the people who had problems with Ottomans or generally turks start oppressing them. Censorship prevents everything. In US, which is known as the country of freedom, historians who speak out agains Armenian Genocide claims are threatened, their cars are bombed, their families are in danger. The Armenians in US banned a documentary about Ottoman Armenians because the documentary did not support their claims, and showed that Armenians were the side who massacred Muslims, mainly Turks in Anatolia and Caucus.

    1. William Gladstone’s Bulgarian Horrors and MacGahan’s The Turkish Atrocities in Bulgaria.
      Not documented? Sure buddy.It is easy to be ignorant

  8. You cannot compare Jewish genocide with Armenian problems in Ottomans. They are totally different cases. The real genocide was against Turks. Read the history as a whole, not just from one side to convince yourself. Don’t try to support your believes, try to find the reality.

  9. I fail to understand how today’s Turks have the face to comment about the Ottoman Empire’s rule over Bulgaria or any other oppressed country for that matter… The only plausible explanation I come up with is that there must be a specific effort in Turkey to instill false image through education about those gruesome days when the Ottoman Empire ruled several Christian countries.

    I was extremely surprised, to say the least, when I watched a History Channel documentary about the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Turks. In that so called documentary, the image of the conquering (very important word) Ottomans was portrayed as ever so gracious toward the conquered and the times as some type of a romantic era of history… Needless to say, a lot of the “historians” that were used and interviewed in this “documentary” were ethnic Turks, some of which work as professors in American universities. What a shame!

    I just want to mention some of the “creature comforts” the Bulgarians (and all other conquered nations) had to live with.

    1. Gyaur – unless you were Muslim or agreed to accept Islam, you were not considered equal to the Turks, but something in between an animal and a human being. The word Gyaur was used (and not surprisingly at all still used by many Turks today) to name such people (or should I say infidels?).

    2. Blood Tax – every year, Turkish forces would be sent to collect the so called “blood tax” from all of the non-converted to Islam Gyaurs of any conquered nationality (not only Bulgarian), which consisted of taking away their male offspring and raising them in the Muslim culture, thus making out of them the most fierce soldiers in the Turkish army, who were made the personal guard of the Sultan (another word for emperor). Later, these brainwashed lost souls would be sent to convert the aforementioned infidels (often times to their own villages) and have them either convert the population to Islam or kill the people who declined. As you already realized, they would often kill their own family in the process… Some of those brainwashed soldiers though, realized the truth at one point and change their stance as they formed their own groups and started defending (controlling) some of the territories of the oppressed and fighting against the Ottoman forces, sent to harass the masses.

    There is a very well-made Bulgarian movie, called Vreme Razdelno (also released with the title Time Of Violence) that shows how life used to be in those days. This movie is still available for sale on Ebay by a seller named Germanwarfilms and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to take a glimpse at the horrible reality that took place during the times of the Ottoman Empire. It is important to note that nothing in the movie has been exaggerated and many of the cast are direct descendants of the people who lived through those hard times.

    No words can describe the atrocities committed by the Ottoman Turks in those days, so I will stop here. I would just like to mention that I do not hate Turkey and all the Turks for what has been done. I have Turkish friends that I do not associate with these events, but I do believe that history should be remembered forever so that mistakes from the past could be avoided in the future. That is why I cannot accept misrepresentation of facts, especially when it comes to such important episodes of the history of my country of origin.

    Lastly, I would like to mention that in 1989, there was no genocide committed by the Bulgarian government toward the Turkish population in the borders of Bulgaria. The only thing the Bulgarian Turks were asked was to change their names to Bulgarian ones and integrate in the Bulgarian community or, if they wished so, to go to their ethnic country – Turkey. Even though that might have caused discomfort to some of those Bulgarian Turks and it is nothing to be proud of, it cannot be compared in the least to the real damage that was caused by the Ottoman Turks, during the five-hundred-year rule over the enslaved Bulgarians (and many others for that matter). As a matter of fact, many of the Bulgarian Turks who chose to move to Turkey, came back to Bulgaria since they did not get the reception they expected in Turkey either…

    In my opinion, the reaction of the Bulgarian citizens during the Holocaust was a direct consequence of the genocide toward Bulgarians during the Ottoman Empire since the liberation was not that far back in time and the memories of mistreatment were still fresh into the minds of Bulgarians…

  10. First off, let me say that the saving of the Jews in WWII is an amazing feat of Bulgarian diplomacy and should be congratulated.
    At the same time, the forceful changing of the names of Turks in 1984 and Pomaks long before that, is a very shameful stain in Bulgarian history and one that most Bulgarian historians have admitted. *Just* changing of the names is considered a bloodless genocide. Genocide because it attempts to make a certain ethnic group extinct. It is painful and has strong consequences for those who get their names changed and for those who live in those communities (I lived in Kardjali). Identity change is painful if it is forced. So called “good will” on part of the country leaders to “assimilate” ethnic Turks into the larger nation do not justify forcing people to do things. And to be sure this “bloodless genocide” was not so bloodless
    – people were killed
    – my neighbor was raped
    – many were sent to labor camps
    – the 1989 “excursion” WAS voluntary but the choice that people make to leave their homes and relatives to get their freedom says a lot about their preference to have their names changed. Also, the vast majority (99.5%?) of people did change their names back once they were allowed to. Pomaks in general have not changed their names as much.
    – the communist government did show favors to Turks in some cases but it also marginalized them. For example, industries where Turks were employed were heavily taxed (Tobacco industry).
    – The Turks did not attempt to have their own separate country at any point so the claim that that is what caused them to change their names or leave is bogus. In fact in 1984/5 they were not allowed to leave. Only in 1989 after bloody demonstrations in Sofia were the borders open.
    – however, most Turks that were employed as teachers, doctors etc. were fired from their jobs during this name changing process, so the “assimilation” argument falls on its head here.

    Regarding Bulgarian/Ottoman history
    – at the time when Ottomans conquered what is now Bulgaria, there was no “Bulgaria” to speak of. The area was divided into small “tsardoms” – there is a nice Wikipedia article on it but we study this in school in Bulgaria too. There were constant wars between these small kingdoms.
    – The Ottoman rule was in fact quite peaceful for the majority of the reign BUT violence did exist. In fact, conversion was quite rare. If conversion was a mass policy then in 500 years Bulgarian ethnicity would have died (see the Indians in the US). Janissaries are in fact a well documented phenomenon – the sultan did take young Slav boys for his army. In fact, most of the vesiers of the sultan were from the ranks of the Janisarries. However, the movie, Vreme Razdelno is based on a fake document even though the movie says it is not. See an article by a prominent Bulgarian historian here – http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2003-11-04-todorova-en.html The main role of that film was to “prove” that the Turks were in fact Bulgarians who had been forcefully converted to Islam and now were “allowed” to regain their “true” Christian identity.

    The violence that occurred in the 19th century in Bulgaria was due partly to the revival of Bulgarian nationalism (Paissii History). If the Turks were to want to defeat Bulgarians now I expect no less violence. Which of course does not justify violence in any case but it puts it into context.

    The reason why many Bulgarians don’t trust Turks is because of the government propaganda. The government scapegoated Turks for its economic failures. What better way to distract attention from the failure than to send half a million people away to a different country – oh the drama! Bread and circus, and if no bread in the stores – give them circus.

    The most shameful part of this, however, is that fellow Bulgarians who study in the US and at BU and comment here know so little about their own history. Open a book once in a while. You might learn something. A great movie on this process was created by Tatyana Vaksberg. Check it out.

  11. And I see that during the PEACEFUL Unification of Vienna …
    30 000 prisoners were PEACEFULLY EXECUTED in captivity …

    … They were peaceful people … The ottomans … No crimes against the people …
    Oh yes … Empires are forged with peace … The Third Reich, The Japan Empire (during WWII), The Roman Empire … The Ottoman empire especially …

  12. @ Talat “about 600 years in peace and without oppressing” :(

    Batak massacre, source: Eugene Schuyler and Januarius MacGahan

    Batak after the massacre

    According to the most sources, around 5,000 people were massacred in Batak alone.[14] The total number of victims in the April uprising according to most estimates around 15,000,[15][16] which is supported by Eugene Schuyler’s report, published in Daily News, according to which at least 15,000 persons were killed during the April Uprising in addition to 36 villages in three districts being buried.[17] According to Donald Quataert around 1,000 Muslims were killed by Christian Bulgarians and consequently 3,700 Christians were killed by Muslims.[18][19] A contemporary British report mentioned that only 46 Muslim men and no women and children were killed.[20] In his work “The Bulgarian Massacres Reconsidered.”, which has been described as pro-Turkish,[21] the American historian Richard Milliman states that Schuyler visited personally only 11 of the villages he reported on. Millman also claims that the accepted reality of the massacres is largely a myth.[22]

    Schuyler described the things he saw:

    “…On every side were human bones, skulls, ribs, and even complete skeletons, heads of girls still adorned with braids of long hair, bones of children, skeletons still encased in clothing. Here was a house the floor of which was white with the ashes and charred bones of thirty persons burned alive there. Here was the spot where the village notable Trendafil was spitted on a pike and then roasted, and where he is now buried; there was a foul hole full of decomposing bodies; here a mill dam filled with swollen corpses; here the school house, where 200 women and children had taken refuge there were burned alive, and here the church and churchyard, where fully a thousand half-decayed forms were still to be seen, filling the enclosure in a heap several feet high, arms, feet, and heads protruding from the stones which had vainly been thrown there to hide them, and poisoning all the air.

    “Since my visit, by orders of the Mutessarif, the Kaimakam of Tatar Bazardjik was sent to Batak, with some lime to aid in the decomposition of the bodies, and to prevent a pestilence.

    “Ahmed Aga, who commanded at the massacre, has been decorated and promoted to the rank of Yuz-bashi…” [23]

    Antoni Piotrowski The Batak Massacre 1889

    Another witness to the aftermath of the Massacre is American journalist Januarius MacGahan who described what he saw as follows:

    “There was not a roof left, not a whole wall standing; all was a mass of ruins… We looked again at the heap of skulls and skeletons before us, and we observed that they were all small and that the articles of clothing intermingled with them and lying about were all women’s apparel. These, then, were all women and girls. From my saddle I counted about a hundred skulls, not including those that were hidden beneath the others in the ghastly heap nor those that were scattered far and wide through the fields. The skulls were nearly all separated from the rest of the bones – the skeletons were nearly all headless. These women had all been beheaded…and the procedure seems to have been, as follows: They would seize a woman, strip her carefully to her chemise, laying aside articles of clothing that were valuable, with any ornaments and jewels she might have about her. Then as many of them as cared would violate her, and the last man would kill her or not as the humour took him….We looked into the church which had been blackened by the burning of the woodwork, but not destroyed, nor even much injured. It was a low building with a low roof, supported by heavy irregular arches, that as we looked in seemed scarcely high enough for a tall man to stand under. What we saw there was too frightful for more than a hasty glance. An immense number of bodies had been partially burnt there and the charred and blackened remains seemed to fill it half way up to the low dark arches and make them lower and darker still, were lying in a state of putrefaction too frightful to look upon. I had never imagined anything so horrible. We all turned away sick and faint, and staggered out of the fearful pest house glad to get into the street again. We walked about the place and saw the same thing repeated over and over a hundred times. Skeletons of men with the clothing and flesh still hanging to and rotting together; skulls of women, with the hair dragging in the dust. bones of children and infants everywhere. Here they show us a house where twenty people were burned alive; there another where a dozen girls had taken refuge, and been slaughtered to the last one, as their bones amply testified. Everywhere horrors upon horrors…” [24]

    The British commissioner, Mr. Baring describes the event “as perhaps the most heinous crime that has stained the history of the present century”.[25] In October Mr. Baring had to report again on the proceedings of the Turkish commission. After six weeks from the closing of the committee it had not been decided whether or not the Batak Massacre was a crime.[26]

  13. And again…forcing the Pomaks to change their names is a truly barbaric and shameful act in Bulgarian history. We all should look forward to a brighter future on the Balkans. Knowing history as it was should only keep us awake and prevent us from crossing the line of humanity again. Love, Peace, Respect, Responsibility & NO Religion!

  14. The case of Bulgaria’s Jews is not an example of Civil Society, but rather a decision of the head of state supported by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and its Chief Exarch Stefan and a moral declaration by Deputy Speaker of the Parliament Dimitar Peshev.
    The Jews of Bulgaria and 20,000 Jewish refugees on the way to Palestina.
    Queen Giovana (Yoana) was a strong advocate.
    The ill fate story of the Jews of Trakya and Macedonia was a case totally responsibility of the Germane.

  15. I am professor of history of the middle ages. The Ottomans conquered southern Bulgaria (south of the Danube around 1421) Northern Bulgaria, north of the Danube was ruled by Bulgarian boyars until 1700s, when latinization started rapidly and the Romanian nationality started forming in Walachia and Moldavia, until then these were ruled by Bulgarian nobles with the Bulgarian alphabet in use and names being of Bulgarian origin. So, Bulgaria was never ruled by the Ottomans for 500 years, at least not all of it. Secondly, when the Ottomans arrived and througout their presence they practiced mass attrocities against all Christians – Bulgarian included, no piece was given there. In conclusion episode in 1989 is incomparable to any of those events.

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