History of Bulgarian Jewry
Jews began residing in Bulgaria before the 2nd century CE, with Sephardic exiles from Spain migrating to Bulgaria beginning in 1494 following the Inquisition. Rabbi Haim Asa descended from these Sephardic exiles and grew up speaking Ladino (a Judeo-Spanish dialect) in his home. Bulgarian Jewry was known to be ardently Zionist and the majority of Jews residing in Bulgaria made Aliya following the establishment of the State of Israel.
The Rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews during the Holocaust
In 1941, the Bulgarian King and government acceded to German demands and entered into a military alliance with Nazi Germany and eventually adopted German anti-semitic policies and legislation which were opposed by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, politicians, professional associations and the public. In response to pressure from Nazi Germany, the Bulgarian government issued orders to deport Bulgarian Jewish citizens to concentration camps in Poland. These orders were cancelled at the last minute due to protests carried out by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and highly placed politicians. In the end, not one Bulgarian Jewish citizen was deported or murdered by the Nazis.
Following the Second World War, Bulgaria became part of the former Soviet Union and was ruled by communism until the end of the Cold War in 1989. This unique story remained largely untold until the Communist downfall when the last great secret of the Holocaust era began to be publicly acknowledged.
Rabbi Asa’s Experience during the Holocaust
Rabbi Haim Asa’s father, Avraham Assa, was one of the leaders of the Jewish community of Burgas, the city where Rabbi Asa was born and raised until the age of 13. In 1943, Avraham survived a brutal attack by local Nazis solely due to the intervention of a non-Jewish general in the Bulgarian army with whom he served during World War I. After months of recuperation, Avraham secured a legal visa and arrived in Palestine in 1944 with his wife and son Haim.
In the event that the deportation of the Jews to concentration camps would have been carried out, Avraham had arranged for Marika Kolarov, the wife of his non-Jewish employee and close friend, to ensure the safety of his son Haim. Marika had volunteered to take Haim to live with her relatives in the mountains and would have hidden his Jewish identity by saying that he was an orphan.
Rabbi Asa’s Efforts to Recognize Bulgaria for the Rescue of its Jews
The rescue of Bulgaria’s 48,000 Jewish citizens during the Holocaust is a story that has only recently begun to be internationally recognized and publicized. Rabbi Asa, however, was one of the first individuals in North America to tell this story. Over the course of almost 50 years, he made it his life’s mission to publicize the heroic efforts of Bulgaria in rescuing its Jewish citizens. In 1963, he completed his Master’s thesis for his rabbinical ordination at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio which was titled, “The History of the Bulgarian Jewish Community during the Second World War”.
Beginning in the early 1980s, Rabbi Asa was instrumental in efforts to acknowledge the role of the Bulgarian people and nation in saving the Jewish citizens of Bulgaria during the Second World War. In 1993, Rabbi Asa was part of an international committee which honored the state and people of Bulgaria as part of the 50th anniversary celebrating the saving of this Jewish community during the Holocaust. Rabbi Asa also took part in ceremonies recognizing the Bulgarian Orthodox Church for its courageous efforts in saving Bulgaria’s Jews.
Publicizing the Rescue of Bulgarian Jewry during the Holocaust
The synagogue building for the Zemer HaZayit Congregation in Efrat will be dedicated not only in memory of Rabbi Asa but also in honor of Bulgarian Jewry. As a way of continuing Rabbi Asa’s legacy, the synagogue will serve as a platform to publicize the rescue of Bulgarian Jewry during the Holocaust. A photo exhibit chronicling this unique story will appear in the lobby of the synagogue building as a way to recognize the Bulgarian nation for its heroism. The Congregation plans on hosting an annual event close to Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) to share the story about how Bulgaria’s Jewish citizens were saved and to recognize Bulgaria and its people for their critical role in this rescue. The first such event took place on April 20, 2017 and was co-sponsored by Zemer HaZayit and the Efrat Community Center. At this event, the movie “Salvador” was screened which tells the story of the capsizing of a ship in 1940 bringing Jews from Bulgaria to the British Palestine Mandate. A panel of speakers, including a representative of Yad Vashem, gave a broader historical perspective to the Salvador story by sharing the experiences of Bulgarian Jewry during the Holocaust.
Rabbi Haim Asa participating in a ceremony to honor the Bulgarian Orthodox Church for its efforts in rescuing Bulgarian Jewish citizens during the Holocaust
"Bulgarian church nominated for Nobel Peace Prize for saving Jews” – Jerusalem Post, March 13, 2017, by Tamara Zieve
Letter from the Governor of Sofia, Bulgaria, posthumously acknowledging Rabbi Haim Asa’s efforts to recognize Bulgaria for saving its Jews during World War II.
Rabbi Haim Asa’s Master’s Thesis: “The History of the Bulgarian Jewish Community During the Second World War”, March 14, 1963
Co-Sponsored by Congregation Zemer HaZayit and the Efrat Community Center, April 20, 2017, Efrat.