Who actually saved the Bulgarian Jews? Was it King Boris III? Was it the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and Bishops Stefan and Kiril? Was it Dimitar Peshev?
The answer is a qualified “yes” because these people mentioned all played a role in the rescue but their part in the rescue was by no means all that took place. Their stories are fairly widely known among historians and interested people who know about Bulgaria’s history during WWII.
Regrettably, however, most people have never heard the story of what happened in Bulgaria during the war that resulted in the rescue of almost 50,000 Jews.
After 1989, when Communism came to an end in Bulgaria, the true history of one of the greatest rescues in the war began to emerge. For almost fifty years, the Communist had taken credit for saving the Jews in Bulgaria and hid the real truth that they actually had nothing to do with it.
Here’s the amazing truth hidden for many years. The Jews of Bulgaria were saved by an ordinary citizen, someone with no position or standing in the nation, no power and no influence. She was not a politician, never met with the King or sat with the Bulgarian Church Bishops.
Her name was Lilliana Panitza, a young girl in her late twenties from Varna on the Black Sea Coast. She had no university degree or higher education but she did have a father that studied at the Robert’s University in Istanbul. This was the first Christian school of its kind in the world and with his training he learned 7 languages and instilled in his daughter a love for honor and decency.
The only thing Lilliana could do was speak fluent German and type. Because of this she was selected in a typing contest in Sofia in 1942 to become the secretary of Alexander Belev and work in the office of the Commissioner for the Jewish Question in Bulgaria.
Alexander Belev, the commissioner, was a Bulgarian with a rabid hatred for the Jews. He was sent in 1941 to Germany by the Interior Minister, Petar Gabrovski, to study the infamous German Nuremberg Laws that stripped the Jews of everything. He learned well from the Nazis and returned to Bulgaria to help draft Bulgaria’s version of this called The Protection of the Nation Law. It essentially was a copy of Germany’s laws.
In February 1943, Alexander Belev and SS Captain Dannecker decided to put in motion their plan to deport the Jews to the death camps. Lilliana knew about all the secret reports, plans and decisions. She typed all the orders and deportation lists. No one else knew about this but Belev, Dannecker and the King.
The plan was to deport 12,000 Jews to the death camps in Poland from Thrace (Greece) and Macedonia and 8,000 from Bulgaria. It would be done in secrecy and would be over before anyone knew about it. What they didn’t plan on was Lilliana Panitza going to Nisum Buko Levy who was the Chairman of the Jewish Consistory in Sofia, handing him a copy of the deportation order and telling him, “Your name is on the list. Don’t go home tonight, they are coming for you.You and many others are going to be deported to the death camps.” Levy and the other leaders immediately began to take action to save the Jews of Bulgaria.
They could not save the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia. The order signed by Belev, Dannecker and King Boris III was a secret document and it was carried out without the knowledge or consent of the Bulgarian people in what was known as Old Bulgaria. 11,383 from the occupied territories which Bulgaria had administrative powers over were put on trains and deported to Treblinka where virtually all perished. Not a single Bulgarian Jew was among those deported nor did any ever cross the Bulgarian border on a death train.
The amazing thing in all of this is that Lilliana Panitza was the first to sound the alarm in Bulgaria! She risked her life and career to tell the Jews before anyone else did that the Jew haters were coming for them and that no one would be spared.
Terror and fear spread through the Jewish community like a wildfire after she told them. They knew that if they were put on the trains they were doomed. Lilliana’s early warning gave them a fighting chance to save themselves and thwart the plans of the Nazis.
Meetings between Nisum Buko Levy and Lilliana Panitza would occur several more times over the following months because Alexander Belev and his henchmen continued with their efforts to deport the Jews. The information she provided gave the Jewish leadership access to top secret documents and plans. They organized, wrote letters and met with people who could help prevent their deportation.
Had this happened in other countries occupied by Germany or allies of the Third Reich like Bulgaria, the history of the Holocaust would have been completely different. Unlike the Jews in most places that went like lambs to the slaughter, the Bulgaria Jews worked to save themselves. They personally took the battle to the streets and villages, cities and towns across the country. The Bulgarian people wrote thousands of letters and telegrams and flooded the King’s palace and the Bulgarian government with their protest.
The Doctor’s Union, Writer’s Union, Lawyer’s Union and countless individuals and church leaders exploded with indignation and protest. The leader of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Bishop Stefan, threatened to open the churches across the nation and give the Jews sanctuary, daring the King to come get them. Bishop Kiril threatened the government with civil disobedience. He told the King he would lay down across the railroad tracks in front of the death trains or board the trains and go with them if the Jews were deported.
All this because one single person in the beginning of a great tragedy did the right thing and didn’t say, “It’s not my problem.” Lilliana Panitza paid a terrible price for her bravery. She is basically unknown to the world even to this day and has been denied her rightful place in history. Her actions were hidden and dismissed for many years. Yad Vashem, the organization in Israel that designates the Righteous of the Nations Award for non-Jews that risk their lives to save the Jews has denied her the honor. Twenty Bulgarians have received this honor including Bishop Stefan, Bishop Kiril and Dimitar Peshev but not Lilliana Panitza. Their decision was final and will not be reviewed.
Following the Communist takeover in Bulgaria and the end of World War II, Lilliana Panitza was arrested and charged with anti-Semitism (a total miscarriage of justice). She was found innocent of the charge in April 1945 but was kept in prison until August 1945. There she was brutally beaten, raped and tortured by the communists. They were convinced that she knew the whereabouts of Alexander Belev, who was thought to know where millions in currency was hidden during the war.
A few days after she was released from prison in September 1945, at the age of 31, she dies of peritonitis, an inflammation of the thin layer of tissue covering the inside of your abdomen and most of your organs. According to others in prison with her, she was kicked around like a soccer ball but never lost her spirit or interest in the well being of others.
Her only reward is the enduring example that she left for the people of Bulgaria and the world to follow. How one person could choose not to follow orders and shirk the responsibility for saving the Jews as so many did in those days. She was at a moment in time that called for her to rise up and do the right thing. She will forever be remembered as the first person in Bulgaria to sound the alarm. Like Paul Revere, during the American Revolution, who rode through the countryside shouting, “The British are coming,” she went into the streets of Sofia in the dark of night and told the Jews, “The Nazis are coming for you.”
Tens of thousands of Jews owe Lilliana Panitza their lives. It’s our great honor to tell you what she did and the price she paid for her actions. She is still unknown to most of the world but forever known to God who promised to “bless those that bless the Jews and curse those that curse them.”