Dimitar Peshev

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Gabriele Nissim
Washington, March 30th 1999

Peshev, the man who made a whole nation feel ashamed

Can a feeling of shame prevent a genocide and make even the accomplices of a radical evil doubt of their own creed at the last moment?
Can a qualm of conscience remain hidden in their hearts and then explode thanks to the action of a single individual or a group that openly makes them face their responsibilities?
From this point of view the story of Dimitar Peshev in Bulgaria is an exemplary one.
The vice-chairman of the Bulgarian Parliament was a worthy man that, like many others, had been dazzled by Germany, to the point that he did not take an active part against the racial laws. However when faced by the actual deportation of the Jews not only did he feel ashamed for his supporting the laws, but he succeeded through his political action in transforming his feeling of shame into the feeling of shame of the entire political class in Bulgaria.
Dimitar Peshev was actually able to transform those persons that until the day before did not have the courage to take responsibility and were even becoming accomplices of the final solution : he made them the craftsmen of the rescue of all the Jews in his country.
He succeeded in transforming important politicians who, up until then had turned their heads away, and were opportunistically conditioned by the Germans, into men with a conscience and a thought of their own.
No other man in no other country in a pro-nazi government has ever used his political power to make a moral crisis explode among the accomplices of the final solution.
This is the key to understand the mechanism of the Bulgarian Jews' rescue and the particular role played by Dimitar Peshev.

In which way did shame determine the positive evolution of the Bulgarian history of this period?
First of all a few peculiarities must be underlined.
  1. Differently from other countries, in Sofia there was no anti-Semite tradition and radical anti-Semite groups did not have any particular influence on the rest of the population. Therefore when the Government passed the racial laws, it did not find support among the people.
  2. The anti - Semitism of the political class was essentially opportunist. In other words, it did not have a real ideological origin. The Nazis in Germany were deeply convinced in their lunatic persuasion that the persecution of the Jews and thus their elimination could give birth to a perfect and happy society, and that a wonderfully spotless lawn could replace the contaminating weeds, as the sociologist Sigmund Bauman has observed. The Bulgarian political class, on the other hand , did not adhere to the Nazi project because they actually believed that the Jews were the enemies of humankind, but rather to obtain from Germany basically two "favors" : the recovering of Thrace and Macedonia, and the non-intervention of Bulagaria in military operations. The Jews were thus a good exchange to achieve their national goals. When, for instance, the deputy Nikolaiev during the voting for the racial laws, expressed his perplexities to Popov, the Minster of Foreign Affairs, the latter replied: " I do not agree on many things either, but I try to stand it, I fight the best I can, and if I cannot, I give in, but I aim to the most important thing". "And which is the most important thing?" replied Nikolaiev. "Don't you see. Try to keep away from war until the end, without rejecting the possibility of making our national aspirations come true. We got Dobruja back without bloodshed. We could soon take the region of the Aegean Sea without war. Isn't this the most important thing?" Clearly the Jews were less important than the territories.
  3. Not even in the worst periods of time were the Jews separated by the rest of the population in Bulgaria. Therefore the process of "dehumanization" of the victims which took place, for instance, in Poland, erasing every feeling of human pity, did not really take place in Bulgaria. It is not a mere chance that for the majority of the Bulgarian Jews the memories of that particular historical period are marked by remembrances of solidarity acts and altruism rather than of prevarication and loneliness.
Paradoxically the Bulgarian political class had to face, day by day, three elements which contradicted one another, without succeeding in solving the contradictions: the need to please the Germans in order to fulfill their national dream, but at the same time the reluctance of the population towards the racial laws, and last but not least, their own scarce conviction. Therefore they acquired an exemplary behavior of moral duplicity, both towards the external world and themselves. A typical behavior of all those in the history of humanity that become accomplices of an extreme evil only for opportunistic reasons and do not have the courage to change direction until their conscience rebels –if it ever does- and shame explodes.
Thus the Bulgarian politicians tried not to appear real anti-Semites and tried to justify their actions as if they were determined by real necessity, since it was difficult to carry on an anti-Jew politics in a country where a great tradition of tolerance did exist. As a matter of fact it was easy to win popular consent by presenting Germany as the champion of their nationalistic dream, but it was not so easy to find cooperation in actually executing the racial laws.
An even more difficult problem for the political class was the need of hiding to their own conscience the evil of which they were becoming accomplices. For this reason thousands of excuses were found in order to justify themselves and to throw the blame on the Germans or on their superiors for all the responsibilities of the anti-Jew politics. Philosopher Immanuel Kant has acutely analyzed this mechanism of repression. There is only one way, he had said, through which men can escape that anxious state of mind deriving from self-despising: it is the capability to lie to themselves. A few Bulgarian politicians were masters of this moral deceiving of their own conscience.

A few episodes reveal this ambiguity.
King Boris III, who had given his consent to racial laws, revealed to his counselor Ljubomir Lulcev his own uneasiness and justified himself by saying that he had tried to "anticipate" the Germans, rather than having to submit to a German "diktat":
"I have tried to postpone the approval of the racial laws and I did not have any intention whatsoever to introduce them in the country. But since Rumania, Hungary and even France had approved them, I preferred to promulgate them myself directly rather than having them imposed by someone else."
In other words, the King wanted to make known in his own country and abroad that he had been forced to persecute the Jews , but that personally he did not agree.
He had even reassured Rabbi Hananel, explaining to him that the Jews would have been protected anyway, as long as he was at the head of the country.
Even more significant was the behavior of the Minister of the Interior Gabrovski, who, after having been employed as a lawyer in a Jew enterprise, had become an anti-Semite for the sake of his career and had actually directed the bureaucratic mechanism that had led to the approval and the application of the racial laws.
Well, this man -the main responsible together with Belev for the anti-Semite politics, who was considered the reliable man in Berlin – did not like to ruin completely his reputation and appear as a convinced accomplice of the Nazis.
In September 1942 he explained to a delegation of Jews demonstrating out of his Ministry that "the worst was over" and that they did not have to fear for their lives.
When the German Ambassador, Mr Bekerle, suggested him to set up an anti-Jewish exhibition right in the center of Sofia to explain the population the evil role of the Jews, the Minister of the Interior refused. He was ashamed to show the population the way the Nazis saw the Jews and he was persuaded that such an exhibition would have aroused a negative reaction. He thus explained the German Ambassador –who was stunned- that a different strategy must be followed. It was necessary to go against the Jews without explaining these intentions to the population. He did not say that explicitly, but he was afraid indeed that too strong a position could provoke the resentment of part of the Bulgarian political class.
For this reason, as Peshev himself remembers, during the assembly of the pro-nazi majority on September 19, 1942, Gabrovski tried to reassure a few perplexed deputies about the anti-Jewish laws. He explained them that the Jewish problem would have been dealt with "reasonably , humanely, and with moral sense".

Gabrovski understood the situation better than anybody else. There was only one way in Bulgaria to satisfy the Nazis and carry out the deportation without arousing the uproar of the population: one had to act in secrecy. In a country without an anti-Semite tradition, the Jews could be deported only if consciences were prevented from reacting in front of that horror.
For this reason sovereignty on the Jewish problem was taken away from Parliament and full power on the Jews' fate was given to a Jewish Committee directed by Belev, to avoid any rebellion on the deputies' side.
On March 2, 1943 the Government approved, with the King's consent, the secret plan of deportation, so that the nation could be presented with a fait accompli and consciences could not rebel.
That assembly was a masterpiece of hypocrisy. The Ministers approved the deportation of the Jews from Thrace and Macedonia finding the excuse that that particular decision depended upon the will of the Germans only, but then without ever calling them by name, they added the eight thousand Jews of the historical Bulgaria.
They did not want to pronounce the word "Jews" in order not to declare the truth aloud. However they used the term "undesired individuals" and "subverters", dangerous thus for the nation's safety.
Everything would have worked out properly if not for the mechanism of shame. Gabrovski could not have imagined that, but he himself one day would have been overwhelmed by this mechanism in spite of himself.

Peshev's initiative

Dimitar Peshev as well was overwhelmed, day by day, by this mechanism of collective opportunism and by the climate of self-deception which characterized at that time the whole nation, and particularly the political leadership.
Peshev had become involved in politics just because he had felt the weight of the degeneration of democracy.
As he himself admits in his memoirs, he had willingly approved an authoritarian government because he firmly believed that Bulgaria had to find a new direction as well, just like the two countries – Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia – who were experimenting new political trends. He thought that a government without parties could help regenerate the country and stop corruption.
As Minister of Justice, though, he would soon show that he was extremely sensitive to the value of human life.
While the Army –influenced by the Minister of Defense- wanted the death sentence for Damjan Velcev, a republican who had failed to carry on an anti-monarchic coup d'état, Peshev employed all his strength to avoid a death sentence and obtain the King's grant of pardon for Velcev.
This firm attitude cost him his position of Minister of Justice, since his was a lonely battle, fought against the Government majority.
Yet his sensitiveness was not enough to make him understand what Nazism really was. It was not easy indeed to find the right direction in Bulgaria, mainly for the particular international position of the country.
Many decisions seemed to be taken only because the circumstances did not leave any other chance, rather than out of a real choice among different possibilities. Peshev is very honest in his memories when he explains the reasons why he was sympathetic with Germany . He did not really sympathize with Hitler's ideology, rather he had a patriotic spirit.
First of all he hoped Berlin could finally satisfy Bulgaria's aspirations on Thrace and Macedonia, since the Society of Nations and the democratic countries had left Bulgaria isolated.
Peshev remembers the great pro-German enthusiasm throughout the country when German diplomacy succeeded in winning back Dobruja.
"After so many misfortunes, after so much pain for the loss of our beloved Bulgarian territories –he wrote- for the first time the country was finding again hope for its future."
Secondly, Peshev saw the Ribbentrop-Molotov Agreement of August 1939 as the way to peace and security.
"I personally assisted to the great happiness of the people for the agreement subscribed by Germany and the Soviet Union. While I was travelling up North in the country, I found myself by mere chance in a town called Botevgrad when the newspapers published the news of the signature of the Agreement. I stopped in the central square where I was soon surrounded by a crowd of people who kept asking me more details... I could read sheer joy on their faces."
Stalin's Russia supported Germany's politics and the Bulgarians felt more reassured.
When the Italian Army in the Greek campaign found itself in great difficulty, the Bulgarian dream to confide in Germany in order to pursue its national interests remaining a neutral country suddenly broke. Bulgaria had to take sides with Hitler and sign the Triple Deal on March 2, 1941 in order not to end up like Yugoslavia: the German troops had to cross Bulgaria in order to help Mussolini.
"I considered adhering to the Triple Deal an inevitable matter, since it was for Bulgaria the only way to avoid the worst, that is to become the "scenery" of war manoeuvres, be occupied by Germany and be overwhelmed by the conflict.

Peshev's love for his country brought him to see Hitler from the point of view of Bulgaria's national interests, without asking himself how much evil was the German dictator bringing to the near- by countries. He even went as far as declaring in Parliament on November 11, 1941, that Hitler was the greatest leader in our age, only because he saw in him the trait-d'union for winning back the lost territories.
Even more amazing was Peshev's silence as regards the anti-Semite politics of the Government. Peshev, a celebrated lawyer, came from a small town called Kjustendil, where his family had excellent relationships with the Jewish neighbors, where his sister had attended the Elementary Jewish School, where it was quite normal for a Jewish woman to breast-feed the baby of a non Jewish woman.
Yet on November 19, 1940, Dimitar Peshev presided over a session in Parliament in which the Minister of the Interior, Gabrovski, presented the anti-Jewish legislation.
It was a hard decision, because a few days earlier Dimitar Peshev had spoken with his Jewish friend, Jako Baruch, to tell him all his loathing for the laws.
"I do not think that in the entire nation of Bulgaria a single deputy be found to vote such a law. Ours is a small country, and many times we have demonstrated tolerance towards the minorities. It is very unlikely that Gabrovski approves such a law."
During the same debate in parliament Mr Peshev, the Chairman, let the opposers Nikola Musanov and Pekto Stainov express their doubts about a law that represented a radical break up with the tradition of the country.
Peshev's justified his silence and his compromise with evil later on, stating that he, like many other deputies in the majority, considered those laws a farce, a way to get into the Germans' good graces, thinking that the laws would never be actually applied.
"When the problem was raised, Peshev remembers, I was convinced that we were trying to adjust our politics to Germany's. Many people justified those laws which were considered just temporary and limited, as a way to achieve national goals. Nobody suspected that the laws could become permanent and as hard as those applied in Germany."
For a long time Peshev preferred to live with a kind of uneasiness, generated by an interior conflict, rather than declare aloud the terrible unjustice the government was responsible for.
There was a human reason in this passive attitude of Peshev's: racial laws were the price to be paid to the Germans for giving a home back to the Bulgarians of Thrace and Macedonia. For this reason Peshev belittled this kind of discrimination towards his Jewish neighbor, and found excuses to hide his conscience conflicts.
The first crisis arrived when the Bulgarian Parliament approved the declaration of war against the United States, after the Japanese attack to Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The vice-Chairman of Parliament tried in vain to speak to maintain that Bulgaria must not take an anti-American side after the Japanese aggression.
His effort was unsuccessful because the pro-government party literally prevented him to talk.
Only a desperate encounter with his friend Jako Baruch first, and then the visit of a whole delegation of Jews from Kjustendil who informed him about the imminent deportation of his childhood friends , though, made Peshev remove all his false alibis from his conscience and become aware of the extreme evil of which the Bulgarian leadership was becoming an accomplice.
The meeting with Jako Baruch is extremely symbolic and essential to understand Peshev's personal atruggle.
At first he totally rejected the truthfulness of the news that his friend was bringing him, even if in Parliament he could gather alarming information.
"How could I ignore everything, since I am the vice-Chairman in Parliament?" he would tell his friend.
Then he tried to overcome his uneasiness by offering Jako Baruch, the next day, a way to save his family by the means of a safe-conduct.
And finally, only when Jako Baruch made him dramatically face political responsibility for the fate of all the Jews in the country, did he decide to openly act to stop deportation.
At first Peshev had not understood evil in a "general dimension": he had begin to perceive it when he saw the desperation of his home town friends.
And when he did understand it, Peshev decided to act, not only out of love for his friends, but rather because he was ashamed of his own complicity, which he had carried on with silence and indifference.
He understood that it was not only the Jews' lives that were in danger, but also his own dignity as a politician and a human being. Their rescue also meant regaining self-respect.
Through an "internal dialogue" Peshev had undergone a Socratic experience. He had "thought", as philosopher Hannah Arendt would say. He had questioned socially accepted rules, understanding that one's own ego cannot live together with a murderer. He had become the counter-Eichmann that Arendt had looked for during her whole philosophical course.
Peshev perceived that he had to make the whole political class face the false alibi of conscience, making them feel ashamed of their co-responsibility in the Jews' genocide.
He realized that he had the key to make the deportation plan fail. He would – in the meeting of Parliament scheduled for the following day - make public the secret decision of the deportation of the Bulgarian Jewish citizens.
He went together with a delegation of deputies into Gabrovski's cabinet, threatening a scandal, and after a dramatic encounter, he forced him to suspend the order of deportation.
Then, together with the other deputies, he personally phoned to all the prefectures to make sure that the counter-order was enforced.
Peshev perceived how Gabrovski's giving in actually sprung from a personal uneasiness, out of fear of losing his reputation because of an action about which, deep down inside, he was ashamed. If the plan had remained secret, he would not have had a conscience problem, but now that Gabrovski was unmasked, he felt ashamed of himself.
"I was impressed by the way he was confused and upset – Peshev writes in his memoirs – and even though it seemed to me unlikely that he could go on stating there was nothing going on against the Jews, in spite of my protests supported by details, I did not see in him only deceit and evil. I thought he had found an easy way to escape his uneasiness. So I persuaded myself that he would not carry his plan further."
Gabrovski obtained the suspension of deportation from "the highest authority" as a report from the German Embassy states, probably from the royal palace itself. However he showed surprising autonomy in that circumstance.
That day he had seen Peshev twice, while the Prime Minister Belev had slammed the door when the delegation went to him. Gabrovski never accepted to consult with Belev, who had actually made out the secret plan and who was the most fanatic anti-Semite in Bulgaria. He knew that Belev would have used all his strength to block the order of suspension.
In other words, thanks to the obstinacy of the vice-Chairmen of Parliament, the order of deportation was revoked in the cabinet of the Minister of the Interior, a unique case in Europe.

Peshev was not satisfied with a simple temporary revocation of the order: he wanted an unmistakable political signal from Parliament itself against the genocide. He knew that the Government could suggest deportation again any moment, unless that conspiracy of silence and hypocrisy on the Jews' fate was not broken.
Prime Minister Filov tried to persuade him to give up, telling him that his perplexities could be solved and discussed in private, but Peshev did it his own way, and made a second miracle come true.
He convinced 42 deputies from the majority to sign a document in which the King and the Government were asked not to blemish the honor of the country with such a ferocious crime.
Peshev succeeded in conveying a fundamental concept, that Hitler's supporters in Germany, Mussolini's supporters in Italy, Hungarian deputies in the Horty Government, Rumanian and Slovak deputies did not understand, struck as they were by Hitler's charm. The Bulgarians understood that the evil they were doing to the Jews, was an evil they were inflicting to themselves. To hand in the Jews to the Germans meant a brand of infamy on the national history for the centuries to come. The moral prestige of the nation would have been destroyed along with the extermination of the Jews.
It is the same concept that Mr. Milosevic is not able to understand today. Not only did thousands of Bosnians and Kossovans die, but the moral consequences of Milosevic' politics will be paid by the future generations in the country.
Peshev, the nationalist, had turned a patriotic theory upside down, upsetting the meaning of it. One cannot become the accomplice of a genocide out of a nationalistic ideal. The "moral amputation" was much heavier than the amputation of the territories.
Peshev observed how in that moment most of the deputies who had accepted to sign, felt almost freed, as if they have had, up to that moment, an enormous stone on their conscience.
"I remember the words of a deputy from Breznik, Alexander Simov Givov, that after having signed he exclaimed with great joy: "the dignity of Bulgaria has been saved."
Peshev made evil visible, and, going against the attempt to commit it in secret, he broke up the mechanism of opportunism, that was bringing the Bulgarian leaders to hand in the Jews without really being convinced of the rightness of it.
Up to that moment the establishment had removed its uneasiness toward the fate of the Jews, but after Peshev's act that uneasiness manifested itself openly, thus allowing the rescue of the Jews of the inland.
King Boris III expressed his refusal upon Hitler's pressures in a meeting on March 31.
The Bulgarian Government moved the Jews into labor camps but did not hand them in to the Nazis, in spite of the efforts of Belev's and of Eichmann's envoy, Dannecker.
The courageous Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Stefan, took openly side against deportation.
The new regent, Filov, followed Boris' political trend after the King's death, even if somebody thought that he was appointed after a Nazi plot had taken place to poison the King.
Paradoxically, the German Ambassador himself telegraphed to Berlin to suggest that pressures on Sofia were self-defeating. He explained that the Bulgarians did not want to go further, because they feared bombing from the allied countries.
The bombing he was talking about was indeed the bombing of shame, that a man like Peshev had roused.

Boris III was actually a "victim" of this bombing? The King had not opposed to the secret Belev-Dannecker plan, and had freed his conscience by attributing its responsibility to the Government.
He felt reassured by the decision of keeping deportation secret, in order to avoid a reaction of disgust in society.
When Peshev made the scandal explode in Parliament, after his meeting with the Minister of the Interior, the King began to distance himself from the Nazis' purposes: he first backed up Gabrovski uncertainty, and he approved the mobilization of the Jews in the labor camps, but refused to hand them in to the Nazis, as the leader of the Kev, Alexander Belev, was demanding.
Still, the King's shame was only a partial one, it was always uncertain and never fully clear and conscious.
That can be easily seen by examining the King's personal reaction towards Peshev's deed.
The dramatic denunciation of the vice-Chairman of Parliament was not seen by the King as a kind of liberation. His conscience did not feel lighter; on the contrary, he always felt a kind of personal resentment against Peshev. In agreement with Prime Minister Filov, the King removed Peshev from his office in Parliament, after denigrating him morally, hinting that he had acted for his own sake, for money and hidden purposes.
Peshev never received a sign of sympathy from the royal palace. The King could nor bear that a deputy from the majority had openly forced him to take responsibility.
The King's behavior was completely different from Peshev's towards his friend Baruch. The vice-Chairman was grateful to his friend that had forced him to think. The King, on the contrary, hated Peshev until his sudden death.
His was never a deep conviction: the King reacted more out of fear of losing his own reputation. It can be easily seen by the different attitude he had towards the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia. After March 9 and Peshev's action the deportation of the Jews in the territories could have easily been avoided, just like the deportation of the Jews in the inland. The whole logistical apparatus depended, as a matter of fact, from Bulgarian soldiers. The King did not prevent this, because there were no strong protests from the Bulgarian society, and therefore Boris did not feel accused. His shame stopped at half way. It sprang out of fear of losing reputation, but it did not become really an awareness, as it was clear in the document presented by Peshev in Parliament.

The extraordinary story of the vice-Chairman of the Bulgarian Parliament could have been celebrated around the world, and Peshev's name could have become a familiar one –just like that of Anne Frank – to school boys and girls. He had been the only powerful politician in an allied country to Germany to be able to break the conspiracy of silence.
By destructing the plan of deportation, he had created the most important national resistance against Nazism.
Even though he had never literally shot against the Germans, he was their greatest enemy, the most dangerous partisan in Bulgaria. He had personally fought a decisive battle against Hitler and had won it: the Jews were still alive. No army in the world, no political leader in Europe, no Pope had been able to inflict such a defeat to Nazism in their pitiless war against the Jews. Only in Denmark did something of the like happen.

By this time Peshev was a man who thought with his own mind, a man that could no longer be seduced by ideologies.
For this reason, just a little time before the Red Army entered Bulgaria, he denounced in Parliament the risk of a new totalitarianism. While other deputies like Kimon Georgiev and Damian Velcev took sides with the Communists, Peshev did not accept to be involved in a new dictatorship.
That cost him very dear. He was brought to trial with the charge of being an anti-Semite and anti-Soviet.
During the trial the prosecutor even hinted that he had acted in favor of the Jews out of greed for money only. Actually his only fault was that of not adhering to the new régime.

Peshev experienced thus the most painful humiliation. The humiliation of a man that had turned evil upside down saving the Jews of an entire nation.
In Sofia's court , in January 1945, he realized that he escaped a death sentence just for mere chance.
The extraordinary capability of his Jewish lawyer, Joseph Nissim Jasharoff, saved his life. And Peshev's defense cost very dear also to this courageous lawyer from Sofia: the Communists forced him to leave the country, abandoning everything he had and starting a new life far away from his country.
Peshev was "only" condemned to 15 years of hard labor. He saw his dear friend Spas Ganev, an engineer and deputy with whom he had fought all his political battles, sitting on the bench of the doomed to death. He listened to the words of the Chairman of Court sentencing to death 20 out of the 43 deputies who had signed the letter of protest against the genocide. 6 of them were life-sentenced, 8 were condemned to 15 years of imprisonment, 4 got five years and 1 got one year.
For one moment he thought –as he discouragingly writes in his memoirs- that his rebellion against Evil , the same Evil that had brought the Jews to Auschwitz, had not tought anything.
A new Evil was taking shape in his country, and thousands of people were brought into labor camps.
He was stunned because during the years of Nazism somebody had felt ashamed for the fate of the Jews, while now the conscience of the new political leaders seemed totally passive, indifferent to this new kind persecution of mankind.

Luckily Peshev escaped the gulag, not thanks to Power's mercy, but thanks to the help of a neighbor of his, Boris Cokin, a convinced Communist that was nevertheless grateful to his friend Dimitar, who had helped him in the past.
However Peshev experimented , while alive, a particular kind of death: the assassination of memory. He lost his house, his books, his job. He could not marry. He was forced for years to vegetate from morning till night waiting for the end to come.
Communism erased every trace of Peshev's deed and of his "followers" and made the craftsman of the rescue of the Jews the Communist Party and particularly its secretary, Todor Zhivkov. Communism illegitimately took the merits of the goods made by somebody else, not really to make a universal lesson out of it, but to legitimate its own crimes.
The new totalitarianism could not tell the real story about Peshev and his friends. Those were men who had the courage to swim against the current and take sides against evil. Their story could set a dangerous example, it could be seen as a subversive incitement for the gulag régime. It could push other men to rebellion. For this reason their memory must be effaced.

Peshev had been an extremely courageous man, not only because he had risked his life going against the German plans, but also because he had the strength to react against his own political milieu. He was a respected and revered man, and suddenly he was insulted and blamed, until the extreme humiliation of his dismissal from Parliament. The widow of Petar Mihalev, one of the deputies from Kjustendil who had gone to the Minister of the Interior together with Peshev, told me that both her husband and Peshev were personally more stunned by the loss of their prestige in their own political milieu, rather than by the Communist trial itself.
It seems a bit of a paradox, but it is more painful to go against one's own friends' opinions rather than against enemies.
The story of Peshev makes me think about Dubcek in Czechoslovakia. Dubcek was a convinced Communist and, when he did not accept the Soviet invasion and the Russian tanks, he had to suffer a terrible humiliation: he was insulted, attacked by Breznev and by the whole Communist establishment. He tried to explain them that he had led the Spring of Prague for the sake of Socialism , but he was answered that he was a traitor. Deep inside he thought to be able to persuade them, but found himself totally isolated, and therefore he lost respect for the milieu from which he himself came. Peshev had found himself in the same situation.
I have great respect for men like Peshev and Dubcek who, in the name of truth, of struggle against evil, have the courage to go against their own milieu, in which they were, furthermore, totally integrated.
These two characters demonstrate that men – no matter what their creed is – have the capability of recognizing Evil and discover the Truth hidden behind the ideology.
They represent hope for us all. Still they often pay for this. They are humiliated and discriminated.
If we observe carefully the evolution of totalitarianisms, or the peace processes, we can see that often these "border people" play a fundamental role in the changes. But often enough they are not properly rehabilitated by posterity.The "ex –" who goes from "evil" to "good" is not always rightly considered.
In Prague, for instance, many people say: "Dubcek made the Spring of Prague, but he still remains a Communist." Peshev was remembered by Sofia as a pro-German for many years rather than as a man who had stopped deportation thanks to his own action.
Even the majority of the Jews who were saved found it difficult to admit that they owned their lives to an ex sympathizer of Nazism. They would have preferred to be saved by a totally "pure man", and therefore Peshev was not recognized by many of them.

The deep ungratefulness of the Jewish Community in Sofia toward Peshev is one of the most delicate themes in my book.
In my former work, Invisible Jews , I analyze the motivations that had pushed some of the Jewish survivors to embrace the Communist ideology. I explain that the traumatic experience underwent by the Jews who were betrayed and treated indifferently by the population (particularly in Poland, Hungary and Rumania), brought them to search a new form of assimilation in Communism. The idea of a new world without ethnic discriminations was a fascinating one for thousands of Jews. Many of them were not able to see the new forms of repression, so great was the burden of the past. The Red army and the Soviet Union were a "guarantee" that such a terrible tragedy would never occur again. The Red Army inspired a sense of security.
In Bulgaria, the only East European country in which the Jews were saved, a particular event too place. The leaders of the Jewish Community in Sofia (conditioned by the totalitarian power) had tried to explain the story of their rescue with abstract ideological theories, and not sticking to real facts. Since they honestly believed in a new world, they have interpreted their past taking as a starting point the ideology in which they had totally identified themselves.
Therefore the actions of the men from the left were exalted, while the real protagonists of the rescue were forgotten, since they represented the enemy. The need to identify themselves in the new régime and to believe, once and for all, in a salvation coming from the new socialist world, had distorted past history. This is the reason why Stefan, Peshev, Mihalev, Kurtev, and all the other members of the delegation of Kjustendil were forgotten and never officially recognized by the Bulgarian Jews.
They were actually worthy of a monument in Sofia, as a token of gratitude, since in no other country in East Europe, where the Jews had been annihilated, there were such men.
Somebody in the Jewish milieu should have had the courage to say the truth aloud and publicly denounce the lie of the régime.
Unfortunately it did not go like this.
While carrying on my research, I happened to discuss with some influential members from the Jewish Community in Sofia and I actually heard them saying that Peshev was to them a "fascist" anyway.
It is obvious that such a biased opinion cannot lead to willingness to analyze more deeply the figure of Peshev. It seems that one's political creed is more important than one's actual action. In other words, a man must be judged for his political label, and not as a human being. Peshev had taken sides against deportation just because he was frightened by the arrival of the Red Army.
The mythic exaltation of the red army does not consider a very important matter. The decision whether to hand in the Jews or not did not depend from the actual war scenery, but from the humane choices of some persons. In my book I emphasize a historical fact that should be remembered in the Jewish milieus in Sofia: in Hungary one year after Peshev's case, when the Red army was approaching and the Germans had decisively lost the War, the Horty government did not hesitate to hand in the Jews to the Germans. More than half a million of them ended up in concentration camps, because there was no Peshev to say no to Hitler.

Still Peshev, as I write in my book, showed great tolerance and understanding towards the ungratefulness of the Jewish Community. I asked Peshev's nieces if he had never really showed resentment, during his sad years of loneliness, towards the Jews who would not even remember him. As a matter of fact nobody even took the pain to visit him once in a while or invited him to participate in some event.
The nieces answered me that he did not blame this silence on the Jews, but rather that he considered it as an effect of the totalitarian régime.
That régime had, in a way, corrupted the behavior of the people.
Peshev was grateful for the economic help that a few Jews immigrated to Israel gave him, but he was not angry with the communist Jews in Sofia who would simply follow the régime's conformism.
Peshev was a very wise man till the end, in spite of persecution. If I had been in his place, I probably would have been less clairvoyant.

How can we honor Peshev's memory today, after more than half a century of silence?
One day Peshev saved the Jews, but he would have done it for anybody else who was persecuted.
He had written in his letter to the Minister of the Interior that the highest value in politics was to prevent genocides under every circumstance.
I am firmly convinced that today, fighting against Milosevic' Serbia to stop "ethnic cleansing" is morally connected with the spirit of Peshev.

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