The Jewish community in Bulgaria numbered more than 50,000 between World War I and World War II, nearly one percent of the population at the time. In March 1941, Bulgaria joined the Axis and enacted anti-Jewish legislation that excluded Jews from public service, restricted where Jews could live, and limited their participation in many professions. In February 1943, Bulgaria entered into an agreement with Nazi Germany for the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to Nazi extermination camps in occupied Poland. Public outcry from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and wider society forced authorities to abandon the deportation of Jewish Bulgarian citizens. Nevertheless, Bulgarian authorities did deport more than 11,000 Jews from territories it had occupied in Macedonia, Thrace, and Pirot to German-held territory. The Nazis then sent them to Treblinka in German-occupied Poland, where the majority were killed. In May 1943, the Bulgarian government began to expel Jews from Sofia to the countryside. Within two weeks, more than 20,000 Jews had been expelled from the capital city. Many of the men and young males were put into forced labor camps, and Bulgarian authorities confiscated Jewish property that was left behind.
While almost all Jews deported from Bulgarian-occupied territories in Thrace and Macedonia perished, nearly the entire pre-war population of Jewish Bulgarian citizens survived the war. The community was impoverished and lacked economic opportunities. The Communist regime in Bulgaria permitted emigration to Israel, and more than 32,000 Jews had left Bulgaria by May 1949. According to the World Jewish Congress, there are 2,000 to 6,000 Jews living in Bulgaria.
Shalom, the organization representing the Bulgarian Jewish community, runs all the social programs for Holocaust survivors, including food delivery, homecare, heating allowances, health care, and medicine reimbursement through its CEDEKA Foundation. These programs are funded by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (approximately $3.3 million for 2019), which also provides special pensions directly to the recipients. According to Shalom, approximately 10-15 persons have not been granted the special pension due to their inability to provide documentary proof of their survivor status. There are no government-funded programs specifically targeted towards Holocaust survivors.
The Bulgarian government has not issued an official apology for the treatment of the Jewish community during this period. However, former president Georgi Parvanov (2002-2012) has publicly acknowledged, on several occasions, the anti-Semitic ideology, legislation, and actions of the Bulgarian government of the time and its responsibility for the fate of the Jews deported from Thrace and Macedonia.
Immovable Private, Communal/Religious, Heirless Property
After World War II, the Law on Settling the Property Issues Derived from the Revocation of the Anti-Jewish Laws (March 1945) provided for “restitution to Jews, Jewish cultural, political, and other organizations and legal persons of all immovable property expropriated or confiscated by the state” in the 1940s. The law further stipulated that heirless property became state property except for movable property, housing property, studios, garages, and plots designated for housing development, which became municipal property. The Communist government subsequently nationalized all personal and community property, including Jewish property.
After the fall of Communism, Jewish organizations and individuals could reclaim ownership of, or receive compensation for, communal and private — but not heirless — property nationalized by the Communist regime. The Law on Restitution of Ownership on Nationalized Immovable Property of 1992 and the Law on Compensating Owners of Nationalized Property of 1999 provided mechanisms for restitution and/or compensation of both communal and private property, including through government bonds when restitution or the return of substitute property was not possible. Individual claimants did not have to be Bulgarian citizens, but eligible non-citizen claimants were required to sell any returned property. The deadline to submit claims was November 2007. According to Shalom, almost all claims to communal property have been settled. One property located on the grounds of the Naval Academy in Varna remains in dispute with the Ministry of Defense, which refuses to restore it to the Jewish community, claiming it is used for strategic communications. Bulgaria has no restitution legislation for confiscated heirless property but is a party to the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947, which calls for the return of unclaimed and heirless Jewish property.
Movable Property: Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Art, Judaica, and Jewish Cultural Property
Bulgaria endorsed the Washington Principles on Nazi-looted Art 1998. There are no known outstanding claims regarding Nazi-confiscated or looted art, or looted Judaica or Jewish cultural property present in Bulgaria. Bulgarian museums and galleries have not conducted provenance research on their holdings. Bulgaria has not addressed bank accounts that were taken from Thrace and Macedonia.
Access to Archival Documents
Claimants generally have access to archival documents that could be relevant to prove ownership. The State Archives Agency has posted on its website an inventory of the archival fund of the Bulgarian Commissariat on Jewish Affairs, responsible for the property confiscations in the 1940s, which contains personal property declarations.
Since 2005, the State Archives Agency has provided records to Bulgarian and foreign, mostly Israeli, citizens for the purpose of facilitating one-time payments of financial compensation to Jewish persons who were forcefully deported to the interior of the country and interned, subjected to forced labor, and/or placed in ghettoes in various cities during World War II. The State Archives Agency and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum signed a five-year agreement on archival access in 2010. It was automatically extended for two one-year periods and expired in 2017.
Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites
Bulgaria became a full member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in November 2018. A Deputy Foreign Minister serves as national coordinator for combating anti‑Semitism. The Ministry of Education and Shalom are collaborating on the development of a Holocaust curriculum for public schools. NGOs provide regular training on Holocaust-related issues to educators. In February and March 2018, the Ministry of Education organized visits by Jewish community representatives to high schools throughout the country to conduct student outreach and education on Holocaust issues.
Bulgarian authorities and Bulgarians generally tend to focus on how the country saved its Jewish citizens but avoid discussing the country’s role in sending thousands of Jews from Bulgarian-occupied Thrace and Macedonia to the death camps. Senior government leaders participate in the annual March 10 commemoration of the rescue of Bulgarian Jews, held at the Salvation Monument outside Parliament, as well as in International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 and other events. There are Holocaust monuments and plaques around the country in towns that had large Jewish communities or where Jewish people were interned and subjected to forced labor in the 1940s. There is also a memorial to the Jews deported from Bulgarian-occupied Thrace and Macedonia in Lom, Bulgaria.