Unfortunately, Bulgaria has never eschewed the sort of antisemitism
prevalent in the rest of Europe in general and Eastern Europe in
particular. That said, over the centuries antisemitic sentiments have
rarely turned violent. Bulgaria has never witnessed Russian or
German-style anti-Jewish pogroms, and even in the darkest years of the
Defence of the Nation Act, the state’s enforcement of anti-Jewish
regulations was at worst tepid.
While the earliest acts of antisemitism predate the official
Christianisation effected by King Boris I in 865, the first real
anti-Jewish polemic appeared in the writings of early Mediaeval
Bulgarian writers. Yoan Ekzarh, Presbyter Kozma and others now taught in
Bulgarian schools often indulged in acrid antisemitic speech.
An instance of violent antisemitism occurred in the mid-14th Century
when King Ivan Aleksandar divorced his Bulgarian wife and married a
Jewess, Sarah. Sarah converted to Christianity, but the king still
ordered mass lashings and banishment of a sect thought to be associated
with Judaism. One possible explanation for this was the plague which was
ravaging Europe at the time: popular belief had it that it had been
started by Jews poisoning Christian wells. Another is that the Bulgarian
aristocracy wanted an easy way out of its burgeoning debts, owed mostly
to Jewish merchants and tradesmen.
Bulgaria was conquered by the Ottomans in 1393-1396. An urban myth was
put into circulation that the gates of Tarnovo, the Mediaeval Bulgarian
capital, had been surreptitiously opened for the invaders by a Jew, an
act of high treason that would condemn Bulgaria to 500 years of Ottoman
"yoke." The myth lives on to this day. The great man of letters of the
Bulgarian National Revival, Ivan Vazov (1850-1921), produced an
unusually acrimonious rhyme about that "dirty Jew"; and as late as 1930
Angel Karaliychev, a popular writer of children’s fiction, published a
story about this "Jewish treachery."
In the late 15th Century the number of Jews in the Bulgarian lands
increased significantly when the High Porte in Constantinople welcomed
thousands of Sephardic Jews fleeing persecution in Spain and Portugal.
The Sephardis were exempted from some Ottoman taxes and in some places
even allowed to mint their own coins. Antipathy between the Jews and the
indigenous Christians grew as these privileges were often seen as
evidence of a Jewish confederacy with the occupying force. The folklore
of those years abounded in images of Jewish usurers conspiring with the
Ottomans against the Bulgarians. One example lasting to this day is the
Orthodox rite of baptism: the godfather of a child says to the mother:
"I took from you a Jew, I give you back a Christian."
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers