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Bulgaria: Parliamentarian Saved Jews From Deportation

Sofia, 9 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In an age when many countries are regularly exposed to damning details about their pasts, Bulgaria in recent days has been reminded of a noble moment in its history.

Parliamentarians from Israel and Italy traveled to Sofia last Friday to speak of what they called Bulgaria's unique contribution in fighting the Holocaust of World War Two.

Our correspondent in the Bulgarian capital notes that the fact that some 48,000 Bulgarian Jews were saved during the war has long been known. But last week, attention turned to a single individual who did much to keep those thousands out of concentration camps.

In March of 1943, Dmitar Peshev, the deputy speaker of parliament, initiated a campaign that ended with the prevention of the transport of Bulgaria's Jewish community to concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Poland, where almost certain death awaited them..

An understanding of Peshev's role has came to light largely because of four years of research by an Italian journalist and writer, Gabriele Nisim. His book, "The Man Who Stopped Hitler," led to a commemoration of Peshev last month in Italy's parliament. The European Union's Parliament in Strasbourg is expected to honor Peshev later this month (Nov. 17).

After the war, the Bulgarian Communist Party claimed credit for having, in the party's phrase, "organized the masses" to save Bulgaria's Jews. Since the fall of communism, others have argued that it was the country's king who played the biggest part. But in ceremonies in the Bulgarian parliament in Sofia last week, Nisim was joined by Israeli Parliament Speaker Dan Tihon in stressing the role that Peshev played.

Nisim noted that Peshev was a member of the political elite in a country that had a pro-Nazi government. Still, when the order came from Berlin for Jews to be placed on trains heading out of the country, Peshev persuaded the Interior Ministry to hold the transports. He then persuaded 42 other deputies in the pro-German parliament to sign a petition protesting the deportations.

Peshev was later dismissed from his parliamentary post for his role in leading the effort. And after the Communist Party seized control in September of 1944, Peshev and the others who signed the petition were charged --ironically-- with being anti-Jewish. Twenty of the 43, including Peshev, were sentenced to death.

It was only through the efforts of a Jewish lawyer that Peshev's sentence was reduced to 15 years in prison. Peshev died in Sofia, poor and forgotten, in 1973.

The lives spared in Bulgaria were few in comparison to the millions killed in Nazi concentration camps. Today, Germans are being called upon to mark the 60th anniversary of "Kristallnacht", when Nazi-led mobs ransacked synagogues and Jewish shops throughout Germany. The event is often cited as the beginning of the worst of Nazi atrocities against Jews.

Amid such commemorations, the recollection of nobler acts in Bulgaria offers a reminder that individuals --even when faced with inhumanity on a monstrous scale -- can still oppose it.