Washington — A seemingly innocuous move to honor a Bulgarian politician who helped save Jews during the Holocaust has triggered an unexpectedly fierce debate about the less than heroic role played by the Balkan nation during World War II.
At issue is a nondescript small green sign bearing three words: “Dimitar Peshev Plaza.” A former Washington city official is pushing to have it erected on a corner of the nation’s capital, in front of the Bulgarian Embassy.
The sign memorializes the vice president of Bulgaria’s parliament during the war, who managed to postpone deportation of some of the country’s Jews to Nazi death camps.
“This is a story of what one man did to fight evil,” said Neil Glick, a former city commissioner who is pushing the measure. “Peshev’s actions show us that one person can make a difference.”
Peshev’s actions are not in question, and Yad Vashem has already declared him a Righteous Gentile.
But Holocaust scholars fear that highlighting the virtues of one person could miss the broader issues about Bulgaria’s treatment of Jews during the Holocaust: its willful alliance with Nazi Germany, the draconian laws it passed stripping Jews of their rights and its handing over to the Nazis of thousands of Jews.
In the broader picture, Bulgaria’s stand was much closer to national collaboration than the resistance undertaken, for example, by Denmark, where the government and its people took mass efforts to save Danish Jews from deportation to death camps.
“There are some in Bulgaria who seek to say, ‘We were just like Denmark.’ But they weren’t,” said Paul Shapiro, director of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.
Bulgaria’s mixed record has been the stuff of academic historical debate for years. It’s somewhat surprising that, 70 years after the fact, the debate has reached the Council of the District of Columbia.
Safe to say, it’s not an issue that has gripped the city. On May 28, in an almost empty hearing room, Glick, who works as a real estate agent, presented his case for honoring Peshev in Washington.
Most council members skipped the hearing, and seats reserved for the residents remained empty. Apparently, setting the record straight on a faraway history lesson is less attractive than other items on the council’s agenda, like a lengthy discussion on arcane zoning issues and closure of city alleys.