The Holocaust, the greatest atrocity in world history, was made especially possible due to its widely known network of anti-Semitic advocates against a minority of heroes who risked their lives and careers to turn around the doomed fate of Jews and other victims. In the course of World War II, several governments as well as industrial leaders helped the Nazis carry out their diabolical plan for humiliating, torturing, and ultimately, annihilating entire populations under the wheels of the Holocaust. Daimler-Benz was especially known for using the Nazi program to employ slave labor, starving and forcing its victims to work under the most deplorable conditions. The German chemical company, DeGussa, still active today, was responsible for manufacturing Zyklon B gas, which it provided to the Nazis in large quantities to gas its victims to death.
While there were so many people complicit in the atrocities of the Holocaust, there were some people who risked their lives or careers to rescue Jews and other victims. These people included simple farmers, hiding small numbers of Jewish children in their homes, to industrial leaders and diplomats, and even a handful of Nazi party members themselves, who used their wealth and government connections to perform enormous rescue operations. More widely known personalities included Nazi party member, Oskar Schindler, who used his factory and business to keep about 1,200 Jews from perishing in the murder camps of the Holocaust, and Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, who in 1944, while in Budapest, rescued around 100,000 people by housing them in buildings, which he purchased and declared them to be “under diplomatic immunity.”
Among some of the lesser known rescuers of victims of the Holocaust was Dimitar Peshev, initially an anti-semitic advocate who turned into a hero. During World War II, the Bulgarian government felt that it would be in its best national interests to align itself with Nazi Germany. Peshev, who was the Justice Minister and also Deputy Speaker of the Bulgaria’s National Assembly, decided it would be a smart decision to impose Germany’s Nuremberg Laws on Bulgaria’s Jewish population, which numbered around 50,000 at the time. The Nuremberg Laws, originally passed in Germany in 1935, effectively stripped all German Jews of their citizenship and all legal rights, and was the first step towards Nazi Germany’s final solution, which ultimately resulted in the murder of 6,000,000 Jewish men, women, and children. Peshev felt that by instituting these laws in his country, that he would be displaying common ground with his country’s German sponsors.
In 1941, Bulgaria helped Germany in its invasions of Yugoslavia and Greece, and was rewarded a portion in each country, home to around 11,000 Jews. They were forced to wear yellow stars, and had their property confiscated. However, the Bulgarian government did not yet participate in Hitler’s program to deport them to the extermination camps. This policy, however, changed in 1943 when the Bulgarian government reluctantly acceded to Hitler’s demand to deport a minimum quota of 20,000 Jews. The 11,000 from the annexed territories were arrested and deported by the German Wehrmacht to the Treblinka murder factory, however, when an attempt was made to arrest 8,000 citizens of Bulgaria proper, there was an enormous uproar by both the Church and the non-Jewish population, resulting in a delegation being sent to the capital, Sofia to protest the Nazi ‘Aktion.’
The matter was brought to Peshev’s attention, who agreed that Germany had gone too far with its policies, and in March 1943, he wrote a letter to Petur Gabrovski, the minister of the interior. Gabrovski initially denied that he had no knowledge of the planned deportations, but Peshev who realized he was lying, continued the pressure until Gabrovski agreed to cancel the deportation. Peshev, however was still not convinced that the Jews were safe, and subsequently wrote to Prime Minister Filov expressing his opposition to Bulgaria’s complicity in the Holocaust, and in addition presented the prime minister with a signed petition from 42 of his colleagues. Intially, Peshev’s attempt backfired, as Filov, in response called a vote to have Peshev removed from his post replacing him with Alexander Belev, who was in charge of Bulgaria’s Jewish policy. Immediately, Belev arranged for the mass deportation of Bulgaria’s entire Jewish population.
Although Peshev’s career in the government had ended, the opposition to the deportations only intensified. Citizens from the leaders of the church, to prominent writers, professionals, communists, and intellectuals held mass protests and wrote letters to both Filov and King Boris III. Despite equal pressure from the Germans to carry out the death order, King Boris acceded to the voices of his citizens and had Jews transferred to local forced labor units, which, while placating the Germans, ultimately saved Bulgaria’s entire Jewish population from atrocities of the Holocaust.
Despite his heroic accomplishments, Peshev, who advocated the rescue of so many Jews from the Holocaust, was branded as anti-Semitic and anti-Communist by the Soviet government and received a death sentence. The Jewish community, aware grateful to his service, organized wide protests against this judgement and as a result, the Soviets lessened his sentence to 15 years imprisonment, in which Peshev was released after one year. He lived the rest of his life in poverty, not gaining recognition until 1973, the same year of his passing, when he was awarded Righteous Among the Nations for his heroic efforts during the Holocaust.
By Bill Ades