Official commemoration of the contribution of Dimitar Peshev and other deputies
to the saving of the Bulgarian Jews, held in the Bulgarian National Assembly
SPEECH GIVEN BY MR. GABRIELLE NISSIM,
AUTHOR OF THE BOOK "THE MAN WHO STOPPED HITLER"
Your Excellency, my dear Vice President, distinguished
Members of Parliament! There is an Italian feature film titled 'Life
is Wonderful', which will most probably be nominated as the best foreign
motion picture and honoured with the Oscar Academy Award in the next fabulous
Hollywood night. In this film a famed actor, named Benini, is trying
to make his child believe that what is going on in the concentration camp
is nothing but a big game. When the SS commander utters before the
prisoners some terrifying words in German, the Italian actor conceals the
truth from the child and assures him instead that he would soon be able
to return home and resume his joyful carefree existence. In a paradoxical
dialogue Benini manages to express the unattainable desire of the millions
of Jews doomed to die, their wild dream that in the very last moment the
German executioners and their manifold accessories might, guided by their
human conscience, show mercy towards their victims.
Dimitar Peshev was the only politician in a country belonging
to Germany's allies in the years of World War II, who succeed in preventing
the deportation of an entire nation's Jewry. Thanks to his venture
the orders to deport nearly 50,000 Bulgarian Jews to the concentration
camp at Auschwitz were cancelled at the last moment.
Dimitar Peshev's story does not compare to that of personalities such as Oscar Schindler, nor to the story of many a righteous man across Europe who, guided by their altruism, got involved in rescuing hundreds of Jews doomed to extermination in the concentration camps.
Dimitar Peshev's story ranks on a different scale. It is more monumental. Dimitar Peshev's story is more profound. Dimitar Peshev was not just another decent person acting within the society in an attempt to counter evil. He was an individual belonging to the highest levels of government, who fully utilised all of his authority in order to accomplish what no other politician from the Axis alliance ever felt any desire to accomplish. Dimitar Peshev acted from within, inside of the mass destruction machine. He operated inside the very control-room where a single politician's choice could be conducive to the survival or demise of thousands of people.
The Vice President of Bulgaria's Parliament was in a position to cause the very people to undergo a change, those same people who until the previous day had never had the bravery to exercise any initiative and had turned themselves into accomplices in the 'final solution of the Jewish question' (die Endlösung). It was Dimitar Peshev who turned such people into one of the levers for the rescue of all the Jews in his country. He succeeded in converting key politicians, who had until then been turning their heads in the opposite direction or had fallen under the influence of the Germans, into persons listening to their own conscience and acting in accordance with their own will and convictions. Just like in the most improbable of all fairy tales, he succeeded in convincing the interior minister himself, who had already elaborated scientifically the secret deportation plan, to call all the prefectures and cancel earlier orders.
Following the refusal of the then prime minister Bogdan Filov to see him, Dimitar Peshev together with several fellow deputies sharing the same views managed to get into the interior minister's office… With his determination to cause a political scandal he not only scared the minister, but succeeded also in making him feel ashamed of the horrible order he had issued.
In his memoirs Dimitar Peshev wrote: 'He was rather upset since he could not believe that despite my protests, despite my objections he could maintain that nothing was being done against the Jewry. And then I thought that he had simply found a way out of his embarrassment. This was what convinced me that he was not going to put his plan into operation.'
It was exactly in the interior minister's office that the orders for the deportation of the Jews were cancelled. And this was certainly the only such case in all of Europe. Nowhere else in the entire continuance of the Holocaust had the desperate families standing by the Auschwitz-bound trains heard that they were allowed to return to their homes, that there had been just a mere misunderstanding.
Dimitar Peshev, however, was not satisfied with the interior minister's word alone. He was aware that the fate of the Jewry was still hanging by a thread since the deportation order had been suspended only. It was necessary to send a clear political signal just as well. He therefore worked a second miracle within the parliament by inducing 43 deputies to sign a paper calling for prompt action to avoid tarnishing the country's reputation.
This was definitely a miracle indeed, since Dimitar Peshev did not simply gather the signatures of the opposition members of parliament alone, but managed actually to involve one third of all deputies who had until then let themselves be spellbound by Hitler. That is to say, he succeeded in making those deputies grasp a truism that neither Hitler's supporters in Germany, nor Mussolini's supporters in Italy, nor the Hungarian parliamentarians backing the government, nor those in Romania or in Slovenia actually realised what they were doing. Submitting the Jewry to the Germans would put a stigma on the national history for many centuries to come. The extermination of the Jews would mean the destruction of an entire race and would damage the moral reputation of a whole nation. This is what nowadays Mr. Miloshevich, the great inspirer of the ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, has been failing to realise. He has not only exterminated thousands of Bosnians, but he will obligate the future generations of his country to pay for his genocide policies.
Back then Dimitar Peshev managed to reclaim the political conscience of Bulgaria's politicians. The then political leaders of Bulgaria in their vast majority were not anti-Semitic, but were pressured by Hitler into finding manifold ways to remain entirely unconcerned as to the Jews' future. It was not for reasons of ideological nature that they had been turned into accessories of evil. Triumphant at that time was the atmosphere, recognised by philosophers as the 'banality of evil'. And Dimitar Peshev succeeded just like no one else in Europe in destroying this banality of evil. He made everyone who had acted as an accomplice to the die Endlösung to feel ashamed. He broke the alibi of everybody who pretended they knew nothing and could see nothing by inspiring many a person with courage to act and think using their own heads. And they all awoke to the truth and to the danger!
Dimitar Peshev had to forthwith pay a dear price for his exceptional bravery. On March 25, 1943, Bogdan Filov, with the consent of Tsar Boris III, convened the parliament with the intention of pressuring the deputies into taking a decision on Peshev's political destruction. He was characterised as a liar, an infamous man, who had acted for money and for dishonourable purposes. Then, having been denied the right to speak and defend himself before his fellow deputies, a motion was put to a vote whereby he was divested of his privileges and functions as the vice president of the National Assembly. This conveyed a rather clear and indubitable message Dimitar Peshev's fate had been predetermined in case the Germans were to win the war.
The war, however, ended differently from what Hitler had dreamt for. The Allies won a victory and hence the exceptional story of your vice president could have become well-known across the globe. The name of Peshev should have been studied at all school-desks in all schools along with the name of an Amsterdam girl, Anne Frank, since he was the only politician of high rank in a country allied with Germany who broke the atmosphere of complete collective silence with regard to the Jewry's lot.
At the same time he provided Bulgaria with the most consequential national resistance to Nazism. Even though he never carried a gun himself and never combated with the Germans either, he was their most powerful enemy, the most dangerous partisan in all of Bulgaria. He personally fought against Hitler in a very decisive battle and won the Jews are still alive.
No army in the world, no western head of state, no Pope was ever able to inflict so crushing a defeat on Nazism in its war against the world Jewry! Only in Denmark did something similar occur.
But Dimitar Peshev was a man who used to think with his own head, who did not succumb to the enticements of the time. Therefore, shortly before the Red Army began to enter the country unopposed, Dimitar Peshev cautioned the parliament against the impending danger of slow emergence of a new totalitarian regime. While other members of parliament, such as Kimon Georgiev and Damyan Velchev changed sides and joined the communists, Dimitar Peshev did not agree to be involved in another dictatorship. This cost him a dear price he was indicted with being anti-Semitic and for opposing the Soviet Union.
In the course of the trial the prosecution went as far as to insinuate that Dimitar Peshev had acted in favour of the Jews driven by love of money alone. Thus the man, who defeated evil thus rescuing the Jews as well as an entire nation, had to suffer a most abject humiliation.
In the Sofia City Court in January 1945 he found out that it was by sheer chance the communist people's court had not condemned him to death.
With an exceptional professional mastery his Jewish attorney Yossif Nissham Yasharov saved his life. Dimitar Peshev was sentenced to 'just' 15 years of forced labour. In the dock, among the other defendants sentenced to death, he noticed a dear friend of his, the engineer and the deputy Spas Ganev with whom they had been side-by-side in all political battles. Having heard the judge presiding over the people's court, Dimitar Peshev realised that 20 out of the 43 members of parliament who had signed the letter of protest against the plan of genocide and in defence of the Jews had been sentenced to death, six to life imprisonment, eight had received prison sentences of 15 years, four had been sentenced to a term of 5 years imprisonment, and one to a year in prison.
It was at this moment, as he later wrote in his memoirs, when he realised that his resistance to the evil force which would have taken all the Jews to Auschwitz had failed to serve the purpose. A new evil was emerging in his country and thousands of people were being sent to be 're-educated' in the labour camps.
Dimitar Peshev was fortunate to escape the GULAG. This certainly was not due to the mercy of the then authorities, but thanks to his neighbour Boris Kokin a staunch supporter of communism who had however retained his feeling of gratefulness to his friend Dimitar for a favour granted in the past.
While still living Dimitar Peshev got to know a rather specific kind of demise the blotting out of both memory and recollection. He lost his home, his books, his profession. He did not have a chance to marry and in the course of many years was practically forced to vegetate from early morning until late at night in waiting for his end to come. Very few were brave enough to thank him publicly whereas at the same time, while he was living in disgrace, the communist party usurped the credit for the rescuing of Bulgaria's Jewry and even went as far as to nominate Todor Zhivkov as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Communism blotted out all traces of the feat performed by Dimitar Peshev and his supporters. Vladimir Kurtev, the Macedonian revolutionary who gave the warning to the Jews from Kyustendil, was assassinated and his son would never come to know anything about his fate; the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Exarch Stefan, who delivered a speech in defence of the Jews, was forcibly confined to the village of Banya to find his death there; the member of parliament Mr. Mikhalev who supported Dimitar Peshev in his emergency action before the minister of the interior Gabrovski, was likewise fated to die a slow death; the tradesman Switch Mazov, who had been bold enough to travel to Sofia with the delegation from Kyustendil, witnessed the communists strip him of all his holdings. All of this, in my opinion, did not occur accidentally.
The new totalitarian regime was unwilling to tell the story of those righteous men who had the bravery to show determination and oppose evil. Their story could easily become a dangerous example, a rebellious pattern instigating action against the new regime of labour camps. Such example could easily incite others to rebellion. This was why people like Dimitar Peshev and his fellow parliamentarians had to be obliterated.
What would be nowadays the most appropriate way to honour the memory of Dimitar Peshev? Many a time have I discussed with Mr. Peshev's kinsmen and nephews the message we would like to relay to the generations of today, starting with their uncle's story.
We do not feel like having Dimitar Peshev commemorated in an obsolescent manner, as the prominent Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov would probably put it. We do not need to tell his story to satisfy our whims alone or to the end that light be shed on an event which used to be manipulated prior to today. We need to have a discourse upon Peshev's feat, so that he can be an up-to-date example in the battle to prevent new instances of genocide.
Commemorating Dimitar Peshev would only make sense if people come to realise that a politician's most cardinal virtue, which will be valid even in the new millennium notwithstanding the computers and regardless of the Internet, a politician's most meaningful merit that will stay valid in the next millennium as well, is genocide prevention.
I would like to put forward a proposal that your parliament should establish an international award named after Dimitar Peshev to be bestowed annually upon a personality who will have made a material contribution to combating genocide and to observing human rights. And I believe that if Dimitar Peshev could only listen to us now, he would be very happy to hear this.
Let me thank you, distinguished members of parliament, and I specifically wish to thank you, because I have been extremely happy and privileged, indeed, to have had this chance to narrate in my book this exceptional, phenomenal story. And I do owe my sincerest gratitude to the Bulgarian people for this opportunity of writing this book. I can assure you that for me this has been a most precious gift which I appreciate most keenly.