Every February, extremists from across Europe flock to Sofia to pay tribute to a notorious Bulgarian anti-Semite whose movement helped the Nazis send more than 11,300 Jews to their deaths in Treblinka. Nazi symbols are put on display in the heart of the Bulgarian capital, and marchers in dark clothing shout vile slogans while parading through the city with torches.
They call themselves nationalists, but they are no less than hardcore neo-Nazis gathering to honor the leading Bulgarian promoter of the Holocaust: Hristo Nikolov Lukov.
The Sofia municipality calls annually for a ban on this march, and annually, it continues unfettered under heavy police protection. This year, the World Jewish Congress and the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria, Shalom, joined forces with the support of more than 170,000 signatories in a petition to demand that the government enforce an administrative ban and curb this glorification of hatemongers.
Lukov was a Bulgarian military and political figure who led the ultra-nationalist Union of Bulgarian National Legions from the 1930s until his assassination in 1943. He was minister of war from 1935 to 1938, and fostered close ties with senior Nazis in Germany; after retiring, he remained highly influential and advocated for the Bulgarian Law for the Protection of the Nation, modeled on the infamous Nuremberg Laws that stripped Jews of civic rights.
Marriages between Bulgarian Jews and non-Jews were prohibited, and Jews were forced to pay a punitive tax on net worth. Jews were expelled from universities, civil service and other professions, properties were confiscated and many were forced into labor camps.
Members of the Lukov movement beat Jews without respite and led pogroms on homes and shops. Their legionnaires’ motto was: “We should expel from Bulgaria everyone who does not have Bulgarian blood.”
In 1942, Bulgaria formed a Commissariat for the Jewish Problem that promised to hand over 20,000 Jews from the Bulgarian-controlled territories of Greece and Yugoslavia to Germany. But they overestimated the number and devised a plan to include 8,500 Jews from Bulgaria.
In 1943, German forces rounded up Bulgarian Jews and led them to a square in Plovdiv. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church stepped in to stop the deportation, and in this great act of courage — supported by most of society — an estimated 48,000 Bulgarian Jews were saved.
But for more than 11,000 Jews living in Bulgarian-occupied territories in Greece, Serbia and Macedonia, it was too late: They had already been put on cattle trains and ships, to be murdered in Treblinka.
Lukov was one of Adolf Hitler’s willing helpers. Seventy-five years later, his hateful messages are still promoted, and every year on the anniversary of his assassination on Feb. 13, 1943, ultra-nationalists, fascists and neo-Nazis take to the streets to honor his despicable legacy.
The Bulgarian government’s calls to ban this march repeatedly fall on deaf ears, and across Europe, similar far-right marches continue unhindered.
We must stop this phenomenon. We cannot stand by in silence as neo-Nazis and anti-Semites march through the streets in the same dangerous manifestation of the very ideology that brought about the near destruction of European Jewry.
Last month, Bulgaria assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union council. In this position of great responsibility, it must uphold the values of the EU, including tolerance and the rejection of extremism and anti-Semitism.
Bulgaria has made welcome efforts to combat anti-Semitism. We urge it to stand firm in its opposition to the dangerous glorification of Nazi ideology and intimidation of minorities.
We call on all governments to unite in ensuring the security and well-being of their citizens.
Across the globe in recent weeks, millions of people came together for the World Jewish Congress’ #WeRemember initiative to combat anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred, genocide and xenophobia. The result has been overwhelming; let’s hope the impact will be too.
We owe it to the victims of the Nazis, in Bulgaria and elsewhere, to ensure that their memory is not forgotten; we owe the same to all righteous people who courageously saved Jews from certain death. We must remember because the survivors among us are dwindling, and their stories will soon be just memories. We must remember —because if we don’t, it could happen again.
Robert Singer is executive vice-president and CEO of the World Jewish Congress.