The Times of Israel ran CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin’s op-ed on the 75th anniversary of the remarkable story of Bulgarians uniting during the Holocaust to save their Jewish population from deportation, and the special relationship Bulgaria held with its Jewish population.
In March 1943, Nazi Germany demanded of its Bulgarian allies that it deport the country’s 48,000 Jews. For months, the Nazis and their Bulgarian collaborators had discussed the means for the transfer of Bulgarian Jews to the death camps that already had taken the lives of millions of other European Jews. Two years before, the Sofia government adopted the anti-Semitic Law for the Defense of the Nation, which foreshadowed the ultimate decision to deport Bulgaria’s Jews.Indeed, there was even a Bulgarian Commissar for Jewish Affairs, Alexander Belev, who had been in place for precisely this kind of operation. The plans included the deportation of more than 11,000 Jews from Northern Greece and Yugoslavia, areas under Bulgarian military administration. Jews in both places were forced to wear the yellow star, and many young men in the Bulgarian community served in forced labor details.
For those Jews inside Bulgaria’s borders, the plans for their round-up and demise were thwarted by an unlikely coalition of leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, members of parliament, intellectuals and everyday citizens, whose sense of justice and revulsion over the notion of sending their neighbors to their deaths was unacceptable.
The reaction of the Church leadership set it apart from religious figures elsewhere in Europe, who either through indifference, self-interest or outright anti-Semitism turned away, or were complicit as Jewish community after community was destroyed.
Led by the metropolitans (prelates) of Sofia and Plovdiv, Stefan and Kyril, the church leadership – not all in agreement at the outset – came to the conclusion that it must deplore the deportation orders. First, they agreed on protecting the few hundred Jews in the country who had converted to Bulgarian Orthodoxy (many thinking it would save their lives), but that grew into a campaign to speak out for the entire endangered community.
In a letter to the government on May 4, 1943, the Holy Synod noted that “Our people, by its soul and conscience, but its mentality and conviction, cannot bear lawlessness, repression and atrocity against anyone. Our human, as well as our Christian conscience is embarrassed. Hence, the Holy Synod is asked spiritedly from many sides – by good and loyal Bulgarian public figures, by well-known people of culture and patriots, by Bulgarian mothers – to insist on justice and humane attitude for the Jewish minority in the country.” The Synod met with both King Boris III and with the prime minister to convey its opposition to the deportation orders.
Metropolitan Stefan of Sofia denounced Hitler from the pulpit, calling him “the miserable and insane Fuhrer.” Metropolitan Klement of Stara Zagora insisted “we cannot stay indifferent to the fate of the persecuted Jewish minority because we would be condemned by God…”
In the secular realm, the protests against the deportation orders were led by Dimitar Peshev, the deputy speaker of Bulgaria’s National Assembly. Peshev, who came from the small provincial city of Kyustendil, was moved by the deportation of Jews from Bulgarian-administered areas outside the country and by reports of Jews in his home town being told to gather their belongings in anticipation of round-ups by the authorities. His tenacity and persistence in pressing government leaders – the prime minister refused to meet with him – was a key element in arousing public opinion about the planned deportations.
On the people-to-people level, many Bulgarians had close relations with their Jewish neighbors. Fifteen years ago, I was in Kyustendil for the 60th anniversary commemoration of the rescue of Bulgarian Jewry. Following the program, which was held in the town square, an elderly woman ran up to the then-Bulgarian foreign minister, and quickly engaged him in animated conversation. She then did the same with an Israeli government representative, who had also participated in the program. Curious, I asked both what the conversation was all about. The woman, I was told, had Jewish classmates who had left for Israel after the war, and now, she wanted to know if anyone could help her track them down. For nearly 60 years she had no one to ask, and this commemoration, with its attendees from Israel, gave her the opportunity to find her friends.
The deportation orders were never carried out. The exasperated German Ambassador Adolf Beckerle, in a cable to Berlin, wrote: “The Bulgarian government, despite its efforts in relation to the final solution of the Jews, is attached to the mentality of the Bulgarian population…this one, does not find any drawbacks in the Jews, that would justify actions against them.”
The role of Bulgaria’s King Boris III in the deportation story has been subject to much speculation, but it is clear that the pressure to resist the demands from Berlin came from outside his circle.
Ironically, Belev, who was ultimately dismissed from his job near the end of the war, fled to Kyustendil, where he was captured and ultimately shot on the way to Sofia to be tried.
Peshev, whose friendship for the Jewish community eventually earned him the honor of being among the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, was tried by the post-war Communist government, charged with collaboration with the Germans. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison and released after serving a brief time.
Tragically, for the Jews of Northern Greece and Yugoslavia, there was no similar rescue effort. Many actually had relatives in Bulgaria, who were powerless to save them. Most were deported across Bulgarian territory, to Auschwitz and Treblinka.
At a time when defiance in any form ran tremendous risks, those who helped the Jewish community – the Orthodox Church, Peshev and those who joined him and friends and neighbors who found it unconscionable that fellow Bulgarians would be sent to their deaths – stood their ground. In a demonstration of both conscience and justice, these courageous human beings stood apart in a continent bereft of moral principles.
In that, 75 years later, there is an object lesson for us today.
Jewish Insider "Top talker": "Malcolm Hoenlein stepping aside as Conference of Presidents chief" by Ron Kampeas
The Jewish Insider quoted B'nai B'rith International CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin regarding the announcement that Malcolm Hoenlein is stepping aside as the head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, is stepping aside after more than three decades. An email from the current conference chairman, Stephen Greenberg, said Hoenlein… was timing the move to coincide with the search for a new chairman… He will remain with the conference in an as yet undetermined capacity… In an interview, Hoenlein said the process could take a year.”
“Greenberg sent a second internal memo on Wednesday insisting that Hoenlein was “not stepping down,” and that the transition process would take “one to two years.”
B’nai B’rith CEO and Executive Vice President Dan Mariaschin tells us… “Malcolm’s imprint on the Jewish community here and abroad is immense. He’s written the definitive book on how public diplomacy and pro-Israel advocacy intersect, and in the process, has won the respect and admiration of a succession of U.S. administrations and international political figures for over three decades. Malcolm’s special feeling for the Jewish people has made him both an effective and passionate spokesman. He will continue to be a powerful, and needed voice, going forward.”
AJC’s CEO David Harris said in an emailed statement: “Malcolm Hoenlein’s dedication, talent, Rolodex, and energy are legendary, even as he’s had one of the more difficult jobs in balancing the often wide-ranging interests and views in the Conference of Presidents. Fortunately, he’s not entirely leaving the CoP, so his political and diplomatic skills will continue to benefit our collective efforts.
The Jewish News Service published an article about B'nai B'rith International's conference titled "Strategic Challenges in Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Gulf," which B'nai B'rith organized with the Begin-Sadat Center of Strategic Studies (BESA) and the Center for Righteousness and Integrity at Bar-Ilan University.
After years of bloody warfare, Syria has become a “Shi’a colony of Iran,” a Syrian professor who lives in Germany told an Israeli conference in recent days.
Addressing the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, Bassam Tibi, professor emeritus of international relations at Georg-August University of Gottingen, said: “They have killed our clans. They have killed our family. The Alawites of the Assad regime have killed our Sunni identity of Damascus.”
Subscribe to The JNS Daily Syndicate by email and never miss our top storiesTibi, a secular Sunni scholar born in Damascus, said the Syrian conflict has been transformed into a sectarian-religious war, adding that this core fact has been missed by many Western observers.
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran has been filling the vacuum “created by the removal of [former Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein. Ever since, Iran has been expanding its power,” explained Tibi.
“Today, there are two blocs in the Middle East: the Sunni and Shi’a blocs. The strongest bloc, even though Shi’as are the minority, is the Shi’a bloc. The Saudis are unable to meet the Iranian challenge. Iran now controls Iraq, Lebanon and Syria,” he warned.
‘Sunni eyes are opening’
Daniel S. Mariaschin, executive vice president and CEO of the B’nai B’rith, who had recently met with Persian Gulf leaders in the United Arab Emirates, said at the conference that due to the Iranian threat, Sunni Arab leaders no longer fear Israel and are potential allies to stop Iran.
“Sunni eyes are opening to the fact that Israel poses no threat, but that Shi’a Iran . . . aspires to dominate far beyond its borders,” stated Mariaschin. He added that significant potential exists for Sunni states to cooperate with Israel on shared concerns.
Despite this positive development, Tibi forewarned that Saudi Arabia, which today is considered to be the leader of the Sunni Arab world, lacked a policy to effectively push back Iran. “Saudi Arabia is not likely to win. But one should support them against the Iranians,” he argued.
Professor Hillel Frisch, a Middle East expert who is a member of BESA, said the term “Arab-Israeli conflict” is no longer relevant to describe the region. “It’s basically an Israeli-Iranian conflict or an Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The only Arabs that are confronting Israel today are proxies of Iran.”
While non-Arab regional powers—Israel, Iran and Turkey—are on the rise, the Arab states are in dramatic decline, he added. “Of course, this was aided by the Americans when they destroyed the Sunni state of Iraq, which was replaced by a Shi’a state,” said Frisch.
The Shi’a corridor: Tehran to Beirut
According to Tibi, Iran works with state and non-state actors to take over the region, saying the governments of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon were all under Tehran’s control, while non-state armed groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen and the Shi’a militias of Iraq are also members of Tehran’s radical alliance.
“There is an axis of power coming from Iran to the Mediterranean, and from Iran to central Asia, and from Iran to the Red Sea,” said Tibi. “All of the people who talk about the conflict in Syria do not acknowledge Iranian power. They do not acknowledge that the nature . . . of the conflict is between Sunnis and Alawites [who are seen as an offshoot of Shi’a Islam].”
Professor Benjamin Miller, an expert on international relations from the political-science school at the University of Haifa, also told the conference that Tehran has gained significantly by constructing “a corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean.”
He added that introducing democracy to Iraq has “made Iran a key broker” in that country, which has a Shi’a majority of 60 percent.
In Syria, the Alawites, “who are kind of offshoots of Shi’as, are threatened by the 70 percent Sunni majority,” he explained. “Iran is their natural protector and ally. This led to the corridor’s formation.”
The common threat posed by Iran to Israel and Sunni Arab states has “helped to transform relations” between them, maintained Miller.
Meanwhile, the Russian-Iranian alliance—formed to assist the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad and rescue it from collapse—is narrowly built on shared interests, but with no shared identity. Miller believes it’s most likely going to end.
The failure of the West
In his address to the conference, Frisch also expressed concern over America’s withdrawal from the region, calling it “the major threat that connects between Trump and Obama. From that point of view, they’re equal in seeking to withdraw from the role as the world’s policeman.”
Frisch described Iran as “truly a radical imperial state. The best proof of that is that it’s the only state in the Middle East . . . that projects power above 1,000 kilometers from its border,” using it to attack Israel, which harbors no ill will towards Iran.
Iran “keeps teaching us, together with Hezbollah, that they won’t do business with us,” he added.
Tibi agreed with Frish’s assessment, saying the West is failing to meet the Iranian challenge, while also leveling heavy criticism of the 2015 nuclear deal between the world powers and Iran, under which “inspectors can’t enter military sites. … This must be fixed.”
“Iran continues to be successful,” he said.
Looking ahead at the future, Tibi shared a bleak picture, saying, “Syria, my home country is bleeding . . . there is a term to describe this conflict, which cannot be solved. The diagnosis for the Syrian conflict is: intractable. In the next five years, there will be no solution. Sunnis and Alawites—and the protectors of the Alawites, the Iranians—cannot live together.”
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