Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev told a Boston audience Thursday evening about the long-standing affinity between his country and the Jewish people, including the State of Israel.

Plevneliev’s visit to America’s so-called “cradle of liberty” followed his participation in the United Nations General Assembly, and was designed to shed light on Bulgaria’s role in saving Jews during the Holocaust.

Addressing more than 200 local Jews and Bulgarians, Plevneliev called Bulgaria “a proud European nation which has a special story in Europe, a story that is needed in a moral sense.”

Though their government was officially allied with Hitler’s Germany, Bulgaria’s citizens effectively prevented the deportation of most of the country’s 50,000 Jews in 1943. King Boris III, influential Orthodox Church leaders and ordinary citizens demanded non-compliance with Hitler’s “Final Solution,” and worked collaboratively to prevent the deportation of the country’s Jews.

“The people of Bulgaria, and not the politicians, saved their Jewish friends and neighbors,” Plevneliev said, alluding to Bulgarian leaders’ initial collusion with the Nazis.

The Bulgarian president delivered his remarks at the opening of a Boston University Hillel House exhibition entitled “The Power of Civil Society: The Fate of Jews in Bulgaria During the Holocaust, 1940-1944.” Created by the Bulgarian government and intended for display around the world, the touring exhibition focuses on Bulgarian citizens’ efforts to save their Jewish neighbors during the war.

Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev addresses 200 guests at Boston University's Hillel House at the opening of the exhibition. (Photo credit: Matt Lebovic)

Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev addresses 200 guests at Boston University’s Hillel House at the opening of the exhibition. (Photo credit: Matt Lebovic)

“We were raised with the Danish story,” remarked Rabbi Joseph Polak, the longtime director of the Boston University Hillel and a child Holocaust survivor from the Netherlands. Referring to Denmark’s dramatic evacuation of 7,200 Jewish citizens to neutral Sweden in 1943, Polak urged an “attitude adjustment” on the part of American Jews in their assessment of other countries’ rescue efforts.

“The hero of this extraordinary effort in Bulgaria was the Orthodox Church,” Polak said. “Only the church had the moral power and strength to convince the people not to play along with the Nazis.”

A great friendship exists between Bulgaria and Jews, said Adam Portnoy, Bulgaria’s Honorary Consul General in Boston and the grandson of Holocaust survivors. He described the aftermath of the July 18 terror attack in Burgas — in which five Israeli tourists and one Bulgarian were killed — as creating the sort of solidarity that led to  Bulgarian citizens’ largely forgotten efforts to rescue Jews 70 years ago. (In his own remarks, Plevneliev briefly mentioned the recent violence, portraying it as a source of renewed solidarity between the countries.)

‘The people of Bulgaria, and not the politicians, saved their Jewish friends and neighbors,’ the country’s current president says

“The story of Bulgaria during the war stands in favorable contrast to the other European nations,” Portnoy said.

Despite the exhibition’s rosy take on Bulgaria’s wartime behavior, a slew of critics and historians have accused the country of “whitewashing” other aspects of its role in the Holocaust. The government helped deport 13,000 Ladino-speaking Jews from Thrace and Macedonia, known as “Old Bulgaria,” to the Treblinka death camp, according to official archives.

Bulgaria enacted strict anti-Semitic legislation in 1940, even before joining the Axis. Later in the war, more than 20,000 Jews were expelled from Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia. Additionally, tens of thousands of Jewish citizens were pressed into forced labor at 112 Bulgarian work camps, where many of them perished, according to Yad Vashem.

“Thirteen-thousand Jews were tortured with the direct participation of the Bulgarian government in their alliance and volunteer partnership with the Nazis,” claims author Shelomo Alfassa in his 2011 book, “Shameful Behavior: Bulgaria and the Holocaust.” The Bulgarian government hid its full role in the Holocaust in part to gain entry into the European Union in 2007, Alfassa alleges.

First shown in Europe in 2008, the exhibition will run in Boston, its first US staging, until Oct. 15. Photographs, personal letters and legal documents are arranged chronologically to explain the complex and largely unsuccessful implementation of the Holocaust in Bulgaria. The words of anti-Nazi church leaders and public figures hold particular sway, especially when juxtaposed against a timeline of the genocide elsewhere in Europe.

As Germany faced defeat in 1944 and the Red Army approached, Bulgaria left the Axis and declared war on the Nazis

As Germany faced defeat in 1944 and the Red Army approached, Bulgaria left the Axis and declared war on the the Third Reich. More than 30,000 Bulgarian soldiers were killed fighting the Nazis during this last phase of World War II. The majority of the country’s Jews moved to the new State of Israel starting in 1948.

Ties between Bulgaria and Israel have strengthened in recent years, despite the Jewish state’s chillier relations with other European countries. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and a delegation of 12 cabinet members visited Israel to formalize bilateral agreements in health care, IT, education and other spheres. Bulgaria was the first country to assist Israel during the December 2010 Carmel fires, sending 92 firefighters to assist local efforts.

“The Bulgarian people and the Jewish people have lived side by side for centuries,” Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nicolay Mladenov said recently. “Next year we will jointly commemorate the rescue of the almost 50,000-strong Bulgarian Jewish community. There are many lessons to be drawn from the events back then, particularly against the backdrop of present-day attempts to deny the Holocaust and revive anti-Semitism.”