Thursday, Kyustendil, Bulgaria,
This is a follow-up from my post yesterday, and what I learned about the relationship between the saving of the Bulgarian Jewish community and basically the concomitant sacrificing of the Macedonian Jewish community. I thought, after yesterday, my essential learning about this topic was complete.
I was wrong.
We ended up putting Kyustendil, Bulgaria, on our itinerary for mostly logistical reasons. Rather than end the trip in Skopje, North Macedonia we decided to make the long drive back to Sofia, Bulgaria, as that airport offered more flights back to the States. But once we made that decision, our tour operator told us that on that route we would pass through Kyustendil, which happens to have a museum dedicated to the life, work and legacy of Dimitar Peshev.
Who was Dimitar Peshev? Think Oskar Schindler. Times 50!
He was a member of the Bulgarian Parliament. From the town of Kyustendil. He had many friends among Kyustendil’s Jewish community. Some of these details remain fuzzy for me, even after visiting this museum, but the essence seems to be that some of Kyustendil’s Jews had gotten word about the deportation of Macedonia’s Jews to Treblinka, and that “true” Bulgarian Jews were next. There were even rail cars lining up at the Kyustendil train station to prepare for this transport. Several local Jews pleaded with Peshev, along with other local officials with contacts in the Jewish community, to go to Sofia to petition that the Jews be saved. To make a long, and fraught, and life-threatening and almost unbelievable story short, 43 Bulgarian government officials, led by Peshev’s urging, signed a letter directed towards Tsar Boris and the Bulgarian PM, Bogdan Filov, asking/pleading/demanding that Bulgaria’s Jews be saved.
(It is still unclear to me whether Macedonian Jews were the actual, negotiated “sacrifice” for the saving of Bulgaria’s Jews, or whether it was simply too late to save Macedonia’s Jews. As the plan that began in Kyustendil to save Bulgaria’s Jews was launched after the fate of Macedonia’s Jews was saved).
Tsar Boris and PM Filov relented. Nearly 50,000 Bulgarian Jews were saved. Peshev truly is Oskar Schindler x 50.
And he, and his fellow urgers and signers, paid heavily. Once WWII was over, and the Soviet-affiliated communists led Bulgaria, the group of 43 were accused, in the epitome of ridiculous irony, of antisemitism, among other things. 20 were sentenced to death and executed. They lost their lives because of their successful attempt to save Jewish lives. Peshev was sentenced to many years in prison, but was released after one year. Nevertheless, his successful, notable, wealthy pre-war life was over, and would not return.
It took decades for Yad Vashem in Israel to recognize his heroism. He is now named among the Righteous Gentiles in Jerusalem. And it took decades more for Bulgaria itself to celebrate him and his courage, and his unique role in saving Bulgaria’s Jews.
Had we not changed the itinerary in order to have more convenient flights home, our trip would have ended in Skopje. We never would have heard of Kyustendil, let alone have gone to this museum and learned about Peshev (and, of course, we never would have eaten a 5-course meal at a F~R~I~E~N~D~S-themed café there!). It is always amazing to consider that, no matter how much one knows, or thinks one knows, about any topic, the next jaw-dropping, paradigm-shifting piece of insight may be right around the corner, waiting to be uncovered.
I will now try to share the story of Dimitar Peshev when I can, and help spread and grow his incredible legacy. He is, nearly single-handedly, and at great personal distress and peril, responsible for saving an incredible number of Jews during the Shoah. יהי זכרו ברוך. Yehi zikhro barukh. May his memory be a blessing.
(oh…and apparently he was an expert backgammon player. You can always trust a shesh-besh-er!)