The Righteous in the Balkans
Yugoslavia and Bulgaria belonged to those countries which, from the 1930's and mainly for opportunistic reasons, supported the annexation policies of the Third Reich. They expressed this by joining, in March 1941, the so-called Pact of Three" (an agreement between Germany, Italy and Japan). However, Bułgaria remained in it until September 1944. Yugoslavia was invaded by the Third Reich after having refused to allow German troops to pass through its territory. On 6th April 1941, the Germans, together with its allies Italy, Bulgaria and Hungary, entered Yugoslaviia and Greece. In that same month, these countries capitulated.
The victors shared the territory acquired. Yugoslavia, consisting at that time of Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dalmatia and Slovenia, was destroyed. The Third Reich annexed northern Slovenia. Italy joined southern Slovenia and north-west Dalmatia, at the same time stretching its protectorate over Montenegro. Albania, which by April 1939, had already been incorporated into Italy, received Yugoslav land, which was inhabited by ethnic Albanians - Kosovo and a small part of Macedonia. Bułgaria was granted Macedonia and Western Thrace, while Hungary incorporated Wojewodina, part of Slovenia (Prekmurhe) and parts of Croatia (Barania and Medimurje). In Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Independent State of Croatia (NHD) was established, fully dependent upon Italy and the Third Reich. German troops controlled two countries - Serbia and Greece.
Following the capitulation of Yugoslavia in 1941, the area of central Serbia, northern Kosovo and the Banat region came under German military administration. On 1st September 1941, the collaborationist National Givernment of Salvation was formed, headed by Milan Nedić who, before the War, had held the post of Minister of War.
Before the War, about 30,000 Jews lived in the Serbian part of Yugoslavia. After the borders changed in 1941, the German-occupied section contained around 16,000. The first anti-Jewish regulations, which appeared in April 1941, concerned the obligation for all Jews living in Serbia to register and to submit for forced labour. On 30th May 1941, the German military commander in Serbia, Helmuth Förster, issued a regulation affecting Jews and Gypsies (Verordnung Betreffend die Juden und Zigeuner), in which the concept of "Jew" and "Gypsy" were defined and in which Jews were ordered to be removed from the public service. Read more about anti-Jewish laws in the Third Reich »
Subsequently, regulations required Jews to wear Star of David armbands. They were forbidden to work in public institutions or to work in the free professions such as a lawyer, doctor, dentist, veterinarian or pharmacist. It was also forbidden for them to go to places of entertainment, such as cinemas or theatres, as well as public baths, sports fields and markets. In the summer of 1941, there was a forced "Aryanisation" of Jewish property - namely, a forced acquisition.
The Holocaust of Serbian Jews
From July 1941, as part of the retaliation for increased partisan activity, the Germans carried out mass executions. To November 1941, around 5,000 Jews were murdered, as well as tens of thousands of Serbs. In December 1941, the Germans began deportations of Jewish women and children to the Sajmište concentration camp near Belgrade, where victims were gassed in a special car. To May 1942, 7,000-10,000 people were murdered.
In August 1942, the Germans reported that the "Jewish problem" in Serbia "no longer existed”. Apart from occupied Poland and the Soviet Union, Serbia was the only country from which the Germans did not deport Jews to death camps. Instead, they were murdered on the spot.
The number of Jewish victims in Serbia is estimated at around 14,800 people.
Those, who survived, did so in the Italian-occupied zone, interritories located within the borders of Bulgaria, Macedonia and Kosovo. Historians assume that several hundred Jews managed to hide within Serbia. They found refuge, especially those from Belgrade, in Toplica in southern Serbia, on the slopes of Kopaonik and Rudnik, as well as in villages in the eastern part of the country.
The Death Penalty for Helping Jews in Serbia
The activities of the Germans against the Jews were actively supported by the Serbian civil administration, the police of the Nedić government, volunteer units (the Serbian National Guard), as well as by members of the Serbian nationalist, fascist party ZBOR, headed by Dimitrij Ljotić and its armed organisation, the Serbian Volunteer Corps.
Serbia was also one of the few countries where the death penalty threatened those who helped Jews. To 2018, the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem has honoured 139 Serbs with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. Among them is Miroslav Stojadinović, a Belgarde local government official who provided Jews with fałse identity documents, in that way saving eighty people. Also honoured was Dr Dušan Jovanović, who saved twenty Jews, hiding them, where he worked, in the city hospital in Novi Sad.
In 1941, following the defeat of Yugoslavia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina created apuppet Independent Croatian State (NHD) which, despite its name, remained fully dependent on the Axis countries. At its head stood Ante Pavelić, leader of the Croatian fascists - the "Ustasha".
At that time, 35,000-40,000 Jews lived within the NHD. Already by April 1941, the first anti-Jewish regulations were introduced by the NHD. They were based on Third Reich legislation. Jews were forced to wear yellow armbands with a yellow Star of David and the letter "Ž”. The regulatiion, entitled Racial Belonging - the Protection of Aryan Blood and the Honour of the Croatian Nation, dated 30th April 1941, defined Jews into racial categories. However, what was exceptional, was that Jews were separated from those in mixed marriages and the "semi-Jews", who qualified as "Honoary Aryans. They were treated more leniently and they were not touched by persecution.
The Deportation and Murder of Jews in Croatia
The next chapter of the anti-Jewish policy was the deportation of Jews from the cities to concentration camps. Beginning in December 1941, camps were established in the NDH at Danica and Kruščica, to which communists, political prisoners and Jews were sent.
In the autumn of 1941, the Jasenovac-Stara Gradiška camp was established. It was called "the Yugoslav Auschwitz”. Almost 19,000 Croatian Jews were murdered there.
In August 1942, a mass deportation began of around 5,000 Jews from the NHD. They were taken to German death camps, mainly to Auschwitz. In May 1943, another deportation was carried out. The only Jews who remained in Croatia were those who qualified as "honorary Aryans', considered important to the Croatian state. They were issued with a special letter - a schutzbriefe.
In total, during the period of World War II, approximately 32,000 Croatian Jews perished. It is estimated that around 7,000-9,000 survived. Croatian citizens and some of the Catholic clergy, who supported the state's antisemitic policy, participated in the crimes initiated, in the main, by the Ustasha.
Help Extended to Jews by Croats
There were also those who, as best as they could, tried to rescue Jews. Among those was Bishop Alojzy Wiktor Stepinac (1898–1960) who, in April 1941, protested against the stigmatisation of the Jews and, in the following October, condemned the destruction of a synagogue, by the Ustasha, in Zagreb. He also intervened with Ante Pavelić on the subject of the Jasenovać extermination camp. He called upon state officals to cease persecuting Jews. He urged those of faith to help them and called upon parishes to arrange care for Jewish children and orphans. Stepinac was also involved in the operation to transport Jewish children to Palestine. In May 1942, during the mass deportation of Jews from Zagreb, he offered to assist the city's Chief Rabbi, Miroslav Šalom Freiberger, to escape the deportation, However, the rabbi did not accept his assistance.
Some Jews remained in hiding with the help of Croats. Żarko Dolinar (1920-2003), a famous tennis player and gold medal winner in that discipline in 1939 in Cairo, together with his brother Borys, arranged false papers for his Jewish friends. In this manner, he saved almost 300 people. Many Jews also found refuge by joining the communist National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia, led by Marshall Josip Broz Tito.
To 2018, 117 Croats have been honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
Following the occupation of Greece by the Axis powers in April 1941, the country was divided into three parts. The north (Northern Thrace), where 5,000-6,000 Jews lived, was incorporated directly into Bulgaria. The rest of the country was divided into two zones - German (western Macedonia, eastern Thrace, western Crete and islands in the northern Aegean Sea), where the majority of Greek Jews lived (around 55,000) and Italian (Central Greece, eastern Crete, the islands in the southern Aegean Sea, islands in the northern Mediterranean Sea and islands in the Ionian Sea),inhabited by around 13,000 Jews. At that time, a total of about 72,000 Jews lived in Greece.
The Extermination of Greek Jews in the German-Occupied Zone
Under German occupation, the largest concentration of Jews in Greece (around 43,000) was in Thessaloniki. In February 1943, regulations appeared concerning the marking of Jewish stores and Jews were ordered to move into a separate part of the city - a ghetto. Subsequent regulations obligated the Jews to carry identity papers, to mark their apartments, dental surgeries and law chambers, as well as to wear armbands with the Star of David. Soon after, they were forbidden from leaving the ghetto or from using any means of communication.
The first phase of the deportation of Greek Jews to extermination camps extended from 20th March until 19th August 1943. During that time, more than 40,000 Jews from Thessaloniki were sent to Auschwitz, where the vast majority of them were murdered.
In March 1943. the extermination of Greek Jews, living in Bulgarian-annexed territory, began. More than 4,000 people were deported to concentration camps within the country and then, later, to the Treblinka death camp.
Greek Jews in the Italian-Occupied Zone
Greek Jews, living under Italian occupation, found themselves in a much better situation. The Italians ignored German demands for discrimiating against the Jews and for their extermination. So thousands of Jews from the German zone fled to the relative safety of the Italian zone. That situation changed in September 1943, when the Third Reich occupied the Italian zone.
There, the Germans continued their extermination of Greek Jews. In March 1944, around 1,600 Jews from Athens were deported to Auschwitz (among them, many refugees from Thessaloniki), in June, about 2,000 from the island of Korfu and about 260 from Crete and, in July, more than 1,600 from the island of Rhodes. During World War II, more than 80% of Greek Jews perished. The remainder were in hiding with the help of Greeks and around 1,000 Jews fought with partisan units associated with the National Liberation Movement - the Greek resistance.
Helping Jews in Greece
Among the Greeks who rescued Jews was the Mayor of the Island of Zakynthos Loukás Karrer (1909–1985) and Metropolitan Bishop Chrysostomos (1890-1958), who prevented the deportation of 274 of the island's Jewish inhabitants. When the occupation authorities demanded that a list of local Jews be drawn up, the Bishop provided only two names - his own and that of the Mayor. In the mean time, the Jews took refuge in the mountains, villages and in the homes of Christians. They survived that way on the island until the end of occupation - until October 1044.
Similar activity to save the Jewish residents of the city of Volos was taken by Metropolitan Demetrios Bishop Ioakim (Alexopoulos, 1873-1959). In September 1943, together with the rabbi of the local Jewish community Moshe Pesach (1869-1955), who worked with the Greek resistance movement. They refused German demands to provide a list of the city's thousand-strong Jewish community. They feared that such a list would aid in their deportation to extermination camps.
In answer to German demands, Ioakim replied, "The Jews are me”.
With the help of the residents of Volos and neighbouring towns, almost 700 people were hidden in the Pelion mountains. Aid activities were also supported by the Archbishop of Athens, the head of the Orthodox Church in Greece Damaskinos (1890-1949). He not only instructed the Orthodox clergy and monasteries to hide Jews but, together with the police chief Angelos Evert (1897-1970), he organised false papers for around 1,200 Athenian Jews.
To 2018, 347 Greeks have been honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
In April 1939, when Albania was incorporated into Italy, it contained more than 400 Jews, a significant percentage of them being refugees from Germany and Austria. Following the inclusion, into the borders of Albania, of Kosovo and parts of Macedonia, in April 1941, that number increased significantly. It was the result of an influx of over 1,000 refugees from Macedonia and northern Serbia, as well as from Germany, Austria and Poland.
The Situation of Jews in Albania Under Italian Occupation
The rapid influx of people resulted in the first anti-Jewish decrees, issued by the Albanian government under the control of Italy. It banned further Jewish immigration and announced the deportation of recent arrivals.
Subsequent regulations eliminated Jews from economic, social and political life. However, they were not strictly enforced by the Italians, so that the Jews felt themselves to be relatively safe in Albania. That situation changed following the Wannsee Conference in January 1942. Pressured by the Third Reich, the Italians gathered 51 Jews in a camp in Pristina and, in March, handed them over to the Germans, who deported them to the Sajmište concentration camp where they were murdered. The Italians placed the others in a camp in Berat, where they remained until Italy capitulated.
Repressions Against Jews in Albania Under German Occupation
The occupation of Albania by the Third Reich in November 1943 resulted in a change to the situation of Jews living in that country. About 800 Jewish refugees from the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and other European countries were living in the northern and central parts of teh country. (Other sources indicate about 2,000). The Germans introduced anti-Jewish regulations. However, the Jews did not need to wear markings.
Already by November, they demanded that the Albanian collaborationist authorities draw up a list of Jews living there. However, that order was ignored. However, this did not prevent the deportation of Jews from Albania. In April 1944, members of the Albanian Muslim Nazi 21st Mountain Division of the SS "Skanderbeg” arrested 281 Jews from Pristina, who were deported to Bergen-Belsen, where more than half of them perished.
Besa - Albanians Helping Jews
The majority of Jews found refuge with Albanian families, with whom they could remain safely until the end of occupation. Even before the Germans took control of the country, Jews left the city en masse, seeking refuge in mountain viollages. In that way, Muslim Albanians saved almost 2,000 people.
Albanian peasants, in accordance with the usual rules of hospitality (known as besa), hid them or transported them to Adriatic ports from where Jews could flee to Italy.
Jews also joined partisan units. When, on the eve of leaving the town of Vlora, the Germans planned to arrest all the Jews living there, the partisans from the nearby mountains surrounded the town. They danced and sang, thus exerting psychological pressure on the Germans - who left without taking anyone with them.
In Pristina, when the local authorities arrested 60 Jews with the intention of sending them to extermination camps, a doctor, Spiro Lit, stood in their defence. He convinced the German authorities that the Jewish prisoners were suffering from typhus and that it was necessary to put them into hospital in order to prevent the spread of an epidemic. The Jews were taken to Berat, where they were provided with false documents and then relocated to the provinces.
Local authorities also stood up in defence of Jews in Albania, refusing to provide the German administration with lists of Jewish residents and providing them with new identity documents. To this day, the attitude and behaviour of the Minister of the Interior of the collaborationist Albanian government, Xhafer Deva (1904-1978), raises controversy. Minister cooperated with the Germans. He supported the 21st Mountain Division of the SS "Skanderbeg” and brutally suppressed all forms of resistance. However, in November 1943 and then in the spring of 1944, when the Germans demainded a list of all the Jews living in Albania and the gathering of them all into one place, Deva refused to do so.
It is estimated that several hundred Albanian Jews survived the War in hiding. To 2018, 75 Albanians have been honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
As a result of the invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece by the Axis powers in April 1941, Bułgaria, as an ally of the Third Reich, expanded its borders to include Macedonia, Thrace and Dobruja. At that time, in Bulgaria alone, there were around 48,000 Jews, with another 15,000 in the incorporated territories.
Beginning in the summer of 1940, the Bulgarian authorities began implementing regulations which limited the rights of the Jewish inhabitants of that country. The regulations defined who was "a Jew" (at the same time, introducing the category of "privileged Jew" - comprising about 1,000 people). They resulted in the dismissal of Jews from the civil service and limiting their participation in the free professions. In addition, in 1942, the Bulgarian parliament passed a law protecting the nation, which limited the rights of Jews. Among other things, they were forbidden from serving in the military, from marrying Bulgarians and from using Bulgarian names. These regulations, however, were not strictly enforced and their adoption triggered protests from many circles, including the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
The Deportation of Jews in Areas Incorporated Into Bulgaria
In January 1943, the Germans ordered the deportation of 20,000 Jews from Bulgaria to the death camps.The Bulgarian government, handed over to the Germans, those who were living in the incorporated territories - from Thrace and Macedonia - in total, 11,343 people. Towards Jews within Bulgaria itself, a different policy was implemented which protected them from the deportations which, according to German plans, were soon to take place.
On hearing news of the arrest of the local Jews, the residents of Kyustendil, a small town near Sofia, tried to stop the transports. Forty people went to Dimitar Pešev (1894-1973), Deputy Speaker of the parliament and a leading activist of the ruling party, expecting intervention. Pešev met with the Minister of the Interior, Petar Gabrovski (1898–1945) who, under pressure, demanded that the local authorities stop the transports.
Information about the deportations of Jews from occupied territories, as well as the planned deportation from Bulgaria itself, caused a protest amongst Bulgarian opposition politicians, the clergy and intellectuals.
Metropolitan Plowdiw Cyryl (Kiril, 1901–1971) also stood in defence of the Jews. Later to become Patriarch of Bulgaria, he issued a declaration that, if the Jews were deported from his diocese, he would lie down on the tracks to prevent it.
Official Interventions Against the Deportation of Jews
Deputy Speaker Pešev also became involved in trying to stop the deportations. He publicly condemned the policy of the Bulgarian government. On 19th March 1943, he sent a letter to the Prime Minister and to the King of Bulgaria in defence of the Jews. It was signed by 42 members of the ruling party. As a result of his actions, Pešev lost his positios, which triggered further protests.
Then, Metropolitan Stefan I (1878-1957) intervened in the matter. When, at the beginning of March 1943, he learned that the Bulgarian government intended to deport 8,000 Jews from Bulgaria, among them 800 Jews from Sofia, he convinced Tzar Borys to veto the order. He persuaded the clergy and monastaries to offer refuge to Jews. He also issued them with conversion confirmation documents.
Jews Rescued in the Provinces
On 24th May, on the feast day of Cyryl and Methodius, demonstrations against the anti-Jewish policy of the government took place throughout the country. Influenced by the protests, the Bulgarian government sent around 20,000 Jews from Sofia to the provinces, thus protecting them from being deported. Those people, in the main, found refuge in the villages.
To 2018, 20 Bulgarians have been honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations, among them being Dimitar Pešev, as well as Metropolitans Kiril l and Stefan I.
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