Many people protested against the restrictions in the Law for the Protection of the Nation and helped the Bulgarian Jews in Shumen, said Niko Mayerov in an interview to BTA on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the rescue of Bulgarian Jews. The 93-year-old Mayerov was a direct witness of the events from 1941 to 1944 in Shumen, when under the Law for the Protection of the Nation the rights of Bulgarian Jews were restricted.
In the first months, we did not feel any serious restrictions. After the autumn of 1941, however, badges were introduced for Jews, restrictions on movement, on work, on study,” Mayerov said. “There were older students who tried to insult us. We put up with them, we had to, but I am very grateful to my teacher and class teacher Vasil Ostrev,” he continues, adding, “He was a very kind person. It was like he was saying – children, don’t be afraid, I am with you”.
On March 10, 1943, 52 people were detained in Shumen, who had to be put on a train and taken away, Mayerov recalls. “Among them was my uncle, a well-known tailor. We found out that they had arrested the three daughters of a cabman, who were members of the Left movement. We didn’t know what their fate would be, nobody said anything. Late in the evening the arrested started to return,” he says. After September 9, 1944, they found out who had ordered the detention and who were against.
“This year we unveiled a plaque of gratitude to the people of Shumen for saving the Jews during World War II. I know one of them – Stiliyan Chilingirov, but we should also mention several Shumen MPs such as Marin Tyutundzhiev, Lyuben Dyukmedzhiev, Nikolai Nikolaev, who objected to this law, not only when it was adopted, but acted to limit what it envisaged,” Mayerov noted. Here follows the full text of the interview: Q: What do you recall about the restrictions imposed on Bulgarian Jews under the Law for the Protection of the Nation? A: The Law for the Protection of the Nation was adopted conclusively at the beginning of 1941. Initially, in the first months, we did not feel any serious restrictions. After the autumn of 1941, however, the badges were introduced for the Jews, the restrictions on movement, on work, on study. We were three or four Jewish children studying at 2nd Middle School. There were older students, who tried to insult us. We put up with them, we had to, but I am very grateful to my teacher and class teacher Vasil Ostrev. In 1943, I enrolled at 2nd High School. Then, because of the war, we studied only one term. We wore yellow badges. There was a sign on our apartment, which said “Jewish house”. More than once hooligans banged on the doors, broke the windows of our house. At school there was no segregation, especially in middle school. In high school, by the time we got to know each other, the term was over and we were disbanded because of the war. However, they refused to enroll me in the next grade because a certain percentage of the total number of students could be Jewish. Well, September 9, 1944 came and then I went, enrolled and continued my studies at high school. Q: You mentioned your teacher Vasil Ostrev. What are you grateful to him for? A: He was a very kind man, very educated, a good teacher. He taught us Bulgarian, he also taught us French. He was trying indirectly to curb some of the activities of the youth organization Brannik. (“Brannik” was a pro-fascist youth organization in Bulgaria in the period 1940 – 1944) It was as if he was saying “Children, don’t be afraid, I am with you.” At least that’s how I felt. Q: What do you remember about events that took place on March 10, 1943 in Shumen? A: I remember March 10, 1943 very well. I was 14 years old then. My father was very religious and every day he went to the synagogue in Shumen. He prepared to go there for the morning prayers that day too, but he came back anxious because there was a blockade. We didn’t know why, and what the purpose was. We saw policemen passing in the street. I left for school, however the policeman turned me back. We were gripped by embarrassment and fear, because we didn’t know what was going on, what they were looking for. In the afternoon the blockade was lifted. Then we found out that they had arrested who knows how many people. Later we learned that 52 people from Shumen had been detained. Among them was my uncle, a well-known tailor. We found out that they had also arrested the three daughters of a cabman, who were members of the Left movement. We didn’t know what their fate would be, nobody said anything. Late in the evening the arrested began to return. After September 9, 1944, we found out who ordered the blockade, who set the number at 50, while they detained 52. Wagons had been distributed, and from Shumen there was one wagon for 50 people. A complete organization was set up for the deportation. Those from Southern Bulgaria were moved to Northern Bulgaria. Preparations for the execution of the Jews, few in the beginning, were underway. After September 9, 1944, we also found out who were against. Q: Who were against? A: Then the name of Dimitar Peshev came up. It became clear that writers like Stiliyan Chilingirov, Elin Pelin, Lyudmil Stoyanov and others, the Union of Lawyers, protested against these restrictions and deportation. We didn’t know at first, but later we found out about the position of the Holy Synod, of the majority of the bishops. Our salvation was due to the insistence of the bishops, of Dimitar Peshev and his colleagues, of several MPs who gave an ultimatum to the Minister of the Interior and the Prime Minister, and they were simply forced to cancel the deportation. Serious pressure had indeed been exerted. Dozens of documents have been preserved which went to the Interior Ministry, to the Commissariat for Jewish Affairs – protests, petitions, demands, the records of the meetings of King Boris III with the bishops. Q: What was the Jewish population in Shumen then and how many Jews are there now? A: As far as I know there were about 500 – 550 Jews in Shumen. In May – June 1943, 2,000 Jews came from Sofia. Most of them left after September 9, 1944 and at the beginning of 1945. Maybe 15-20 families remained of them, because their houses in Sofia were completely plundered. Now the Jewish community in Shumen numbers about 20 people. On several trips, almost all of the other Jews also left for Israel, from December 1948 to December 1949. There were others who left in the early 1950s.
Q: Where and under what conditions did the Jews who were deported to Shumen live? A: The Jews of Sofia were resettled all over Bulgaria. Those who were deported to Shumen (1943) lived on mats, in a vacated dormitory building in the town, in terrible conditions. When they were accommodated, they were told that they had to stay inside the building, and could go to the outhouse only. By the second or third day they were allowed to go into the surrounding area, and after two weeks they were allowed to look for work. It was only in September-October that they were allowed to move to another place. Q: What would you say, in conclusion, from the distance of time, about the Law for the Protection of the Nation in Bulgaria and the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews? A: Unfortunately, I see a resurgence of anti-Semitism, a new revival of fascist ideas or similar, and things that have to do with hatred. To emphasize the difference between people, to seek to restrict others, to put forward oneself, these things should not be seen today. There are also many people who protested against the restrictions set out in the law and helped Bulgarian Jews. This year we unveiled a plaque of gratitude to the people of Shumen for saving the Jews during World War II. I know one of them – Stiliyan Chilingirov, but we should also mention several Shumen MPs such as Marin Tyutundzhiev, Lyuben Dyukmedzhiev, Nikolai Nikolaev, who objected to this law, not only when it was passed, but acted to restrict what it envisaged. Perhaps we should also add the name of the Shumen-born academic Metodi Popov, who was harassed for his views against the racial theory of Nazi Germany. Bio: Niko Mayerov was born on November 4, 1929 in Shumen. He graduated in philosophy from the Sofia University. He did research on problems of family education. He worked in the system of the Fatherland Front as an instructor and as a correspondent of the Fatherland Front newspaper. He served as an organizational worker in the Madara plants and in the regional committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party in Shumen. He is married and has three daughters. He has worked for the local community centre. For 25 years he was a member of the board and vice-chairman of the Dobri Voynikov community centre. A donor. At the end of the 1960s he became a member of the Cinema Club in Shumen, which was restored in 1958. For more than 20 years he was also its chairman. He is a member of the Board of the Federation of Alternative Cinema in Bulgaria. A local historian, he has a number of studies on the history of Shumen. He has authored a book, “The Jewish Neighbourhood in Shumen in My Memories”. In 2008, the Municipality of Shumen awarded him the Golden Badge of the city of Shumen. In 2019 he was made a Freeman of the city of Shumen. Bulgaria will be marking the 80th anniversary of the salvation of Bulgarian Jews in 2023. The anniversary raises many historical and historiographical questions about who the rescuers were, what made this great humanitarian act possible and why it happened in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian News Agency (BTA), in partnership with the Alef Jewish-Bulgarian Cooperation Center, set itself the task to recall the events of the past and the participants in them, and to present the importance of the rescue and the rescuers. Bulgaria and Denmark are believed to be the only countries that did not allow their Jewish citizens to be deported to Nazi death camps. Nearly 50,000 lives were saved in Bulgaria. According to information on the website of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center, Bulgaria had 50,000 Jews before World War II and zero victims. It is the only country with zero victims.