The Rescue of Bulgarian Jews was a historical event that consisted of the planned rescue of about 50,000 Jews living on Bulgarian soil in the period 1943-1945. The most notable people behind the rescue were Dimitar Peshev and Exarch Stefan of Bulgaria and Kiril, Metropolitan of Plovdiv, who managed to overcome Bulgaria's pro-Nazi bureaucracy and convince the then-tsar Boris III to stand behind Bulgarian Jewry. The deportations, set to take place after the arrival of the Holocaust trains on March 10, 1943, were never carried out. The rescue has been praised by public figures worldwide, including former Israeli President Shimon Peres.
The Bulgarian government under tsar Boris III acted, to a large extent, as a puppet to Nazi Germany. The rise of Hitler saw an increasingly radicalised Bulgaria, as it eventually adopted German antisemitic policies. Bulgaria's alliance with Germany during World War II placed the former into a position of obedience and conformity. In addition, the Bulgarian government was overridden with politicians that held pro-fascist and anti- democratic sentiments. Such was the case of Prime Minister Bogdan Filov, who, on October 8, 1940, marginalised the country's Jewry by passing the Law for the Protection of the Nation (Bulgarian: Zakon za Zashtita na Naciyata), which restricted the rights and activities of Jews. Another crucial figure in the antisemitic movement in Bulgaria was the head of Jewish affairs for the government Alexander Belev, who was responsible for the expulsion of over 11,000 Jews from Greek Thrace and Vardar Macedonia to the Treblinka extermination camp. He signed a secret agreement with Germany's Theodor Dannecker on 22 February 1943 that aimed to achieve an efficient and unpublicised deportation of Jews from these regions, which had been taken over by Germany but were under administration by Bulgaria. The Jews of Greek Thrace, eastern Macedonia, and Pirot in Serbia, were rounded up the night of 3-4 March 1943. They were transported by train to Lom on the Danube, then by boats to Vienna, and again by train to the killing camp of Treblinka. By 15 March, all but about a dozen of the Jews had been murdered at Treblinka.
The Bulgarian government was divided on the Jewish issue as pro-Nazi officials and those who valued collective security more, and were willing to compromise integrity, were in favour of antisemitic restrictions and laws; while the Orthodox Church, joined by progressive politicians and intellectuals, was opposed to the ongoing dehumanisation of the Jews. Nevertheless, the prevalent public opinion opposed the actions of the government. This led to internal political and social tensions that further segregated people. In January 1942, Germany outlined what it called the Final Solution to the Jewish Question at the Wannsee Conference. This included the creation of camps designed, not to house deportees, but solely to execute them as quickly as possible after they arrived. Shortly thereafter, in June 1942, a Commissariat for the Jewish Problem was created within the Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior, and Alexander Belev, a notorious antisemite, was appointed its head. The Commissariat took swift action to satisfy the aims of the Nazis and promised the Germans that 20,000 Jews would be delivered to them. The plan was to deport Jews from the Bulgarian-controlled territories of Thrace and Macedonia to the Nazi extermination machine. But the Bulgarians overestimated the number of Jews living there and so were forced to come up with a plan to include approximately 8,000 Jews from Bulgaria itself.
The beginning of anti-Jewish policies in Bulgaria could be traced back to 1939, but the escalation of those into a nation-wide phenomenon was greatly contributed to by Alexander Belev and his Law for Protection of the Nation in 1940. The passing of the law by Parliament in January 1941 paved the way for the first deportations to take place in November of the same year. Expressions of dissent grew as Bulgarians protested against any Jews being deported from Bulgarian soil, and the Bulgarian government was flooded with petitions from organizations of writers and artists, lawyers, and religious leaders, among others. Tsar Boris III was persuaded, after fierce and prolonged debate, to withdraw his decision to send Bulgarian Jews across the border. The anti-Nazi effort was headed by Dimitar Peshev, deputy speaker of the legislature. Metropolitans Kiril and Stefan led the protest by the religious community.
Some who had previously supported deportation of Bulgarian Jews recanted and refused to cooperate when their imminent death became clear.
Bulgarian politicians, including Dimitar Peshev, were originally in favour of anti-Jewish legislation and only opposed requests for deportations of Bulgarian Jews. The Bulgarian government gave no protection at all to Jews living in Macedonia and Thrace. Alexander Belev, who was responsible for the Jewish problem in this region at the time, met little resistance when he sent Jews from there to the Treblinka extermination camp. Belev's actions were never scrutinised or morally questioned until he turned to Bulgarian Jewry when he could not meet the 20,000-person quota without including them. Moreover, Tsar Boris III neither acted to help Bulgarian Jews, nor showed any empathy for them.
There was an intense national outcry. Protests were held throughout the country, with both ordinary citizens and religious leaders threatening to block the path of Holocaust trains by laying on the railroad tracks.
Under immense pressure, Boris III was dissuaded from continuing the deportations and instead assigned Jews to forced labor groups throughout the country, telling Adolf Eichmann and Adolf Hitler that Bulgaria needed them for railroad construction and other industrial work.
Anti-Jewish propaganda gradually intensified with Bulgaria's rising economic and political dependence on Nazi Germany. This led to the introduction of anti-semitic legislation, starting with the Law for Protection of the Nation in 1940. This restricted the civil rights of Jews and was complemented by further laws, such as the establishment of a Commission on Jewish Affairs on 29 August, 1942. The commission was tasked with the organisation of the expulsion of Jews and the liquidation of their property. This Act can be interpreted as the immediate precursor of the decision to deport Jews to extermination camps in March 1943.
In 2013, a street intersection outside the Bulgarian embassy in Washington DC was named Dimitar Peshev Plaza. March 10, 2016 – the 73rd anniversary of the rescue – was commemorated in Bulgaria as Holocaust Memorial Day.