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Bulgarian honor bid in DC stirs Holocaust debate

Tuesday - 5/7/2013, 3:02pm  ET

This photo provided by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, shows Aleksander Belev, center, facing camera, the Bulgarian Commissioner for Jewish Questions, overseeing the deportation of Macedonian Jews from Bulgarian occupied Skopje, Yugoslavia, in March 1943. German soldiers can be seen at left. A request by the Bulgarian Embassy to name a Washington street intersection after a favorite native son, a man credited with helping save the country’s Jewish population from deportation, has gotten tangled up in a broader debate about whether Bulgaria is accurately accounting for the actions of its leaders during the Holocaust. A tense exchange between the embassy and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has played out behind the scenes as the D.C. Council prepares to consider honoring Dimitar Peshev this month. The debate underscores not only the complexities of Holocaust history but also the difficulty countries can face reconciling the heroic deeds of an individual during World War II with the record of a nation as a whole. (AP Photo/U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum via Central Zionist Archive)

ERIC TUCKER
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A request by the Bulgarian Embassy to name a Washington intersection after a favorite native son -- a man credited with helping save the country's Jewish population from deportation -- has gotten tangled up in a broader debate about whether the nation is accurately accounting for the actions of its leaders during the Holocaust.

The debate involving the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has played out behind the scenes as the D.C. Council prepares this month to consider honoring Dimitar Peshev. The discussion underscores not only the complexities of Holocaust history but also the difficulty countries face reconciling the heroic deeds of an individual during World War II with the record of a nation as a whole. It also comes as historians and Jewish organizations encourage nations to take unvarnished stock of their actions in Nazi-era Europe.

"You have to tell both sides and people have to understand, try to understand, what the complexity is. That's why it's critical," said Frederick Chary, a retired professor at Indiana University Northwest who specializes in Bulgarian history.

The issue arose in December when the embassy voiced support for naming an intersection for Peshev in a letter that put a favorable spin on Bulgarian treatment of Jews during World War II. The letter was partially drafted by a real-estate agent with an interest in Bulgarian history, put on embassy letterhead and signed by the ambassador. But the Holocaust museum, invited by the D.C. Council to review the accuracy of the letter, said the request -- along with a recent declaration by Bulgaria's Parliament -- glossed over a more checkered history.

As vice president of the Parliament, Peshev publicized a secret deportation order that would have sent tens of thousands of Jews of Bulgarian origin to German death camps in Poland. He circulated a protest petition among fellow legislators in 1943 as clergymen, students and others united in support of the Jewish population. The deportations were suspended and King Boris III sent Jews to labor camps in the country but refused to turn them over to the Nazis, saying he needed them as construction workers.

The rescue story has won Bulgaria praise as the rare European country to buck Nazi demands, and Peshev is recognized by Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, as "Righteous Among the Nations."

The D.C. museum says it doesn't quarrel with recognizing Peshev or question his historical significance, but says any honor must be placed in larger context.

It has objected in particular to the letter's characterization of Bulgaria as a "Nazi-occupied country" and to the assertion that no Bulgarian Jews were deported to death camps. The museum and other historians say the letter obscures the reality that Bulgaria was an ally of Nazi Germany and that 11,343 Jews were deported from Macedonia and northern Greece -- territories then under Bulgarian control.

"The callous and devious attempts to distort the history of Bulgarian Jewry is insulting to the victims of the Holocaust and is damaging to the image of Bulgaria, which, until recently, was perceived as a country which approached correctly the dark shadows of its past," Radu Ioanid, director of the museum's international archival programs division, wrote in unsolicited letters in April to the chairwoman of Bulgaria's National Assembly and to Bulgaria's U.S. ambassador, Elena Poptodorova.

The museum sent separate correspondence to the D.C. Council stressing the complexities of Bulgaria's history.

Poptodorova says she was insulted by the museum's "very rude" response to the embassy's letter, which she says she signed but did not herself write. She said she had simply agreed to support a request that was presented to her. She said she's always acknowledged the painful side of Bulgaria's history and is tremendously moved by the Holocaust. During an interview at the embassy, she wiped away tears as she spoke of Jewish children being herded onto boxcars to face certain death.

"I feel Jewish," she explained, "every time I talk on this subject."

She said that although her country had a Holocaust-era record of which it could be proud, her goal was to honor the deeds of one man -- not the entire government.

"It all has to do with Dimitar Peshev -- full stop," she said. "No apologies made, no attempts to resolve bigger matters."

The tone of the museum's letter to the embassy was triggered by a March ceremony in which the Bulgarian Parliament, commemorating the 70th anniversary of protests that ultimately stopped the deportations, expressed regret but not responsibility while acknowledging for the first time that more than 11,000 Jews from areas under Bulgarian control were deported to Nazi death camps.

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