SOFIA, Bulgaria — Bulgarians on Sunday commemorated public protests that led to the rescue of more than 48,000 Jewish countrymen from deportation to Nazi death camps.
Ceremonies across the country marked the 70th anniversary of protests by Bulgarian clergymen, intellectuals, politicians and others that ultimately stopped the Nazis from deporting any Jews from Bulgaria.
Though an ally of Germany during the war, Bulgaria was the only Eastern European country that saved its Jews from the Holocaust. This act of salvation is a unique chapter in the history of the Holocaust, but its full story remained largely unknown until the fall of communism in Bulgaria in 1989.
Parliament, however, admitted for the first time on Friday that Jews were deported to Nazi concentration camps from areas under Bulgarian control during World War II.
"The objective evaluation of the historic events cannot ignore the fact that 11,343 Jews were deported from northern Greece and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, then under German jurisdiction," legislators said in a declaration and expressed regrets that "the local Bulgarian administration had not been in a position to stop this act."
The Shalom Organization of Jews in Bulgaria had repeatedly demanded the state to take responsibility for the deportations.
"The Bulgarian government must assume the moral responsibility for the Nazi death camp deportation of ethnic Jews from the regions of Thrace and Macedonia regardless of the fact that Bulgaria saved its almost 50,000 Jews," the group's chairman, Maxim Benvenisti, told The Associated Press before the declaration.
Later Sunday, Shalom will unveil a memorial sign near parliament for the deported Jews, after which a solemn ceremony will be held at the Sofia Synagogue.
At a ceremony in Brussels earlier this week, Israeli President Shimon Peres called the rescue "unique in Europe" adding that "no other country, no other people have shown this sort of courage that the Bulgarian people did."
He expressed, however, deep regret that what happened in Bulgaria had not been emulated in Greece and Macedonia "whose Jewish communities all but disappeared at the hands of the Nazis."
In 1943, Bulgaria signed a secret agreement to deport 20,000 Jews to Nazi death camps in Poland.
This plan was partially put into effect: 11,343 Jews from Macedonia and Thrace, then administrated by Bulgaria, were placed on trains and sent to their deaths.
But thanks to the efforts of the then vice president of parliament, Dimitar Peshev, the deportation of Bulgarian citizens of Jewish origin was prevented.
On March 9, 1943, the boxcars already were lined up to receive a first wave of 8,500 Jews as the news about their imminent deportation leaked, triggering protests throughout Bulgarian society.
Peshev moved fast to publicize the secret deportation deal, forcing temporary cancellation of the order. He galvanized 42 fellow legislators to sign a protest petition to the king.
Orthodox Church leaders in Sofia and Plovdiv also spoke out, and professors, doctors, lawyers, students, labor leaders and peasants staged protests, including marches and street demonstrations.
Afterward, King Boris III told the Nazi leadership that he needed the Jews as construction workers. He moved them into labor camps but refused to deport them or hand them over to the Nazis.
Peshev and the archbishops of Sofia and Plovdiv have been honored as Righteous Gentiles by the Israeli Yad Vashem Institute for rescuing Jews.
"Seventy years ago, Bulgaria succeeded to save more than 80 percent of the entire Jewish population under Bulgarian administration, which is 100 percent of the Jewish population living within the limits of Bulgaria," former Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi said in an AP interview.
"This is indeed a unique act and proof that civil society could exist even under fascism, even in a country allied with of Hitler," he said.
Pasi called on the European Union, as a holder of the Nobel Peace Prize, to nominate its member country Bulgaria for the award for saving its Jewish population from the Holocaust.
About 45,000 of Bulgaria's Jews emigrated to Israel after its establishment in 1948. Today's Bulgarian Jewish community numbers about 5,000, most of whom live in Sofia.