Dimitar Peshev

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Gabriele Nissim
at the solemn celebration of Dimitar Peshev
Sofia, November 6th 1998

Honourable Chairman Sokolov
Honourable Members of Parliament

There is every possibility an Italian film entitled "La Vita è Bella" ("Life Is Beautiful") will receive the Oscar for the best foreign film at this year's glittering awards ceremony in Hollywood.
In a tragicomic scene in this film a great actor called Roberto Benigni makes his little son believe that what is happening to them in a lager is just one huge game. When an SS commander shouts terrible words in German in front of the assembled prisoners, the Italian actor hides the truth from the boy and makes him think he will soon be returning to his home and normal carefree existence.

In a dialogue marked by paradox Benigni expresses the impossible desire of millions of Jews destined to die: the dream that at the last moment their German murderers and all their accomplices will take pity on their victims and let their conscience as human beings guide their actions.
The fact is that the impossible dream Benigni related to his son materialized in only one country of Europe: Bulgaria. And the worker of this miracle was Dimitar Peshev, the vice-chairman of your great parliament.

Dimitar Peshev was the only politician in a country allied to Germany during World War II who succeeded in halting the deportation of the Jews of an entire nation. Thanks to his deed, nearly 50,000 Bulgarian Jews about to leave for Auschwitz were saved at the very last minute.

Had other men like Peshev existed in the Horthy's Hungary, in Vichy France, in Tiso's Slovakia, in my own country, Italy, thousands of Jews could have been saved because the Germans could not have acted so freely without the consent and connivance of their allies. This is a truth people are reluctant to accept because it's very convenient to pass the Germans off as the only guilty parties.

Peshev's story cannot be compared to that of figures like Oskar Schindler or numerous other righteous men throughout Europe whose altruism helped save hundreds of Jews from certain death in concentration camps. Peshev's story has another dimension. Peshev was not a 'good man' who operated within society to oppose the forces of evil. He was instead a man who occupied a position at the very highest level of government and who used every bit of his power to do what no politician of the Axis pact ever dared to.

Peshev was on the inside of the extermination system. He operated in the controls room where the personal decision of a single politician could seal the fate of thousands of men.

The vice-chairman of the Bulgarian Parliament succeeding in transforming into rescuers of their country's Jews those very same people who until the previous day had lacked the courage to take any initiative and were themselves becoming collaborators in the final solution. He turned important politicians - who until that moment had looked the other way and allowed themselves be conditioned by the Germans - into men with a conscience and a conviction. Incredible as it may seem, he even managed to convince the Minister of the Interior himself - the man who had meticulously organized the entire secret deportation plan - to telephone all the local police headquarters and have the order revoked.

After trying unsuccessfully to see the Prime Minister Filov, Peshev had turned up with some other deputies, totally unexpected, at the office of minister Gabronski. Not only did Peshev's determination to cause a public scandal scare the man, he was made to feel truly ashamed of the terrible order he had issued. "I was amazed by his confused and agitated state - wrote Peshev in his memoirs - and while it seemed incredible that, in response to my circumstantiated protests, he persisted in saying no action was being taken against the Jews, I saw more than deceit and baseness in him. I thought he had found some clever way of getting out of his awkward situation. And I came to the conclusion that he would no longer go ahead with his plan."

So it was from the very office of the Bulgarian Minister of the Interior that the order to deport the Jews was revoked - the only such case in the whole of Europe. Nowhere else, during the tragedy of the Holocaust, were despairing families in front of trains ready to leave for Auschwitz told they could go back home, that it had all been a regrettable misunderstanding.

But Peshev was not satisfied simply with the Interior Minister's words.He was well aware that the Jews' fate still trembled in the balance. A strong political stand was needed. Peshev therefore set about organizing a forceful attack in parliament, and succeeded in working a second miracle. He got 43 deputies to sign a document in which the king and government were asked not to sully the country's honour with so barbarous a crime. And what made this miracle so extraordinary? The fact that Peshev did not collect the signatures of members of the opposition, but instead obtained the consensus of a third of the pro-German deputies who had until then been fascinated by Hitler.

Peshev made them understand a fundamental concept, one that never entered the minds of Hitler's supporters in Germany, Mussolini's supporters in Italy, the Hungarian members of Horthy's government or the Rumanian and Slovak deputies, caught up - as they all were - in Hitler's spell. To hand over the Jews to the Germans would have meant leaving the stigma of infamy on their own nation's history, throughout the centuries to come.

The extermination of the Jews would not only have annihilated a people, it would have destroyed the moral prestige of a nation. This is something that, for example, Milosevic - the great instigator of ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia - is too stupid to understand still today. Not only has he caused the death of thousands of Bosnians and Kosovars: the price of the moral consequences of his policy will be paid by his country's future generations.

At that moment Peshev had succeeded in reawakening the conscience of an entire political class who, caught up in the exhilaration of recovering Thrace and Macedonia, had each day been doing more to aid and abet the final solution. The great majority of Bulgaria's political leaders were not anti-Semitic but when up against pressure from Hitler, they found a thousand excuses and justifications for not concerning themselves with the fate of the Jews. They had become accessories to evil out of opportunism, not ideological conviction.

At that time the sentiment philosopher Hannah Arendt described as the "banality of evil" had gained the upper hand. And yet Peshev routed this banality of evil, as no-one else did in Europe. He made people who had become accessories to the final solution feel ashamed. He reminded one and all of their personal responsibilities. He squashed the alibis of those who pretended not to see and not to know. To many he gave back the courage to think and act with their own minds.

Even King Boris who had allowed the Jews to be deported from Thrace and Macedonia and, with his silence, had endorsed the Belev-Dannecker plan, recovered from his inertia and, shortly before dying, held off Hitler's pressing demands.

Peshev immediately paid the price for his extraordinary courage. On March 25th 1943 the prime minister Bogdan Filov, in agreement with Boris III, called parliament with the objective of destroying him politically. He described Peshev as a liar and reprobate who had acted for money and with ulterior motives. Then, denying him the right to speak in his own defense before his fellow deputies, he had the assembly vote on a resolution that deprived him of his office of vice-president of Sobranie. The significance of this step was very clear: had the Germans won the war, Peshev's fate was sealed.

But the war did not go the way Hitler had dreamed. It was won by the Allies. The amazing story of your vice-president could thus have been known across the globe; the name Peshev could have become as familiar to schoolchildren all over the world as that of a young girl from Amsterdam called Anna Frank. After all, he was the only leading politician in a country allied with Germany to have broken the conspiracy of silence surrounding the fate of the Jews. By causing the deportation scheme to fail he had triggered, in Bulgaria, the most important national resistance movement against Nazism.

Peshev may never have attacked the Germans with a gun in his hands but he had been their greatest enemy, the most dangerous resistance fighter in the whole of Bulgaria. He had personally fought the decisive battle against Hitler and had won: the Jews were still alive. No army, no Western head of state, no pope had been able to inflict such a heavy defeat in the merciless war against the Jews. Only in Denmark had something similar happened.

By now Peshev was a very determined man, no longer swayed by the prevailing mood of the times. Shortly before the Red Army entered Bulgaria, he stood up in parliament and warned of the approaching risk of a new form of totalitarianism. While other deputies like Kimon Georgiev and Damian Velchev sided with the communists, Peshev refused to be involved in a new dictatorship. He paid a high price for taking this stand. He was accused of being an anti-Semite and anti-Soviet, and sent for trial. During the trial the prosecution even insinuated he had acted in favour of the Jews solely out of moneygrubbing avarice.

Peshev thus suffered the very worst humiliation, for a man who had tackled and defeated evil by saving the Jews of an entire nation. In the law-courts in Sofia, in January 1945, he realized that only thanks to chance circumstances did the Communist People's Court not condemn him to death. The exceptional skill of his Jewish lawyer, Joseph Nissim Jasharoff, saved his life. He was in fact condemned 'only" to fifteen years' hard labour.

Seated on the bench with other men condemned to the firing squad, was his dear friend, the engineer and deputy Spas Ganev, companion of all his political battles. He heard the presiding judge pronounce sentence: no fewer than 20 of the 43 signatories of the letter of protest against the massacre of the Jews were condemned to death, 6 to life imprisonment, 8 to fifteen years' imprisonment, 4 to five years and 1 to one year.

At that moment - as he later wrote in his memoirs - he felt no lesson had been learnt from his rebellion against evil, the evil that had taken the Jews to Auschwitz. A new evil was rearing its ugly head in his country and thousands of people were being dragged off to detention camps. If Peshev fortunately succeeded in avoiding internment in a Gulag, it was certainly not due to compassion on the part of those in power but to the aid of a neighbour, Boris Cokin. Although a convinced communist, he had continued to feel gratitude towards his friend Dimitar, who had helped him in the past.

But although alive, Peshev experienced a kind of living death, with the destruction of his memories: he lost his house, his books, his profession, he was unable to marry, for years he was forced to vegetate from morn till night, waiting for the end. None of the Jews he saved ever summoned the courage to thank him publicly.

In the meantime, while Peshev was living in misery, the Communist party claimed all the merit for the rescue of the Jews, even proposing that - for this very reason - Todor Zhivkov should be considered for the Nobel peace prize.

Communism had deleted every trace of the noble deed of Peshev and his followers. Vladimir Kurtev, the Macedonian revolutionary who had sent warning to the Jews of Kustendil, was killed and his son never succeeded in finding out what had happened to him. Stefan, the patriarch of the orthodox church who had spoken out about the need to save the Jews in front of crowds of worshippers, was sent to die in forced residence in the town of Banya. Mihalev, a deputy who had accompanied Peshev on his unannounced visit to the Minister of the Interior Gabronski, was like him condemned to living death. Suicmesov, the trader who had the courage to come to Sofia with the Kustendil delegation, had all his property seized by the communists. All this - in my opinion - did not happen by chance.

The new totalitarians could not let the truth be known about men who had had the courage to take a stand against evil. Their story could become a dangerous example, a subversive influence in the regime of the Gulags. It might encourage others to rebel. For this reason they had to be banished from history.

How should tribute be paid to Peshev's memory today?

With Peshev's family and nieces I have on several occasions discussed the message we want to give to the new generations, taking their uncle's story as our point of departure.

We don't want Peshev to be remembered in an 'archaeological" way, as the Bulgarian philosopher Zvedan Todorov would say. We don't want to tell his story simply for the sake of clarifying events that have until now been deliberately misrepresented. We want people to talk about Peshev so that he becomes a contemporary example in the struggle to prevent further cases of genocide.

There is no point in remembering Peshev unless people realize that the most significant role of politics continues to be the prevention of genocide, in the new millennium too.

I would like to put a proposal to your parliament: that an international award named after Dimitar Peshev be set up, and presented each year to a person who is fighting a battle against ongoing genocide.

Dimitar Peshev would be pleased.

Thank you.

Other speeches at the celebration:
• Yordan Sokolov (introduction)
• Ivan Kurtev
• Alexander Bozhkov (reading a message from Ivan Kostov)
• Ivan Kurtev (reading letters from Colombo and Yasharov)
• Yossif Kioso
• Dario Rivolta
• Nando Dalla Chiesa
• Pierluigi Petrini
• Dan Tikhon
• Yordan Sokolov (conclusion)

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