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Nadège Ragaru, « Et les Juifs bulgares furent sauvés… » Une histoire des savoirs sur la Shoah en Bulgarie

Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2020
Nadia Malinovich
Référence(s) :

Ragaru, Nadège, « Et les Juifs bulgares furent sauvés… » Une histoire des savoirs sur la Shoah en Bulgarie, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2020, 381 p., ISBN : 978-2-7246-2650-6.

Texte intégral

1The starting point of Nadège Ragaru’s magisterial meta-history of the fate of Bulgarian Jews during World War II is the mythic story of the non-deportation of that country’s 48,000 strong Jewish population and the eclipsing of another, lesser known story: that of the deportation of the vast majority of Jews living in those parts of Bulgaria (now Northern Greece and Macedonia) annexed to the country in 1941. The issue is not the active suppression of facts – the deportation of 11,343 Jews in occupied Bulgaria has always been known – but rather the facts that we have chosen to focus on and why. Locating her scholarship within the field of memory studies, Ragaru illuminates the myriad political, emotional and identitarian purposes that the production of narratives pertaining to the fate of the Jews of Bulgaria has served for a diversity of actors, both Jewish and non-Jewish, over the past seventy-five years. The book is organized chronologically, with each of her five chapters focusing on a particular set of sources that illuminate how the story of the “saving” of Bulgarian Jews has been produced and questioned from the end of World War II until the present.

2Chapter 1 focuses on the war crimes trials that took place in Bulgaria in 1946. Ragaru maps the ways in which judges, lawyers and witnesses together established an interpretative framework for making sense of an immediate and traumatic past. Evoking a growing body of literature that challenges the notion that there was a silence about the destruction of European Jewry in the two decades following the Holocaust, Ragaru demonstrates that confronting antisemitism was in fact central to these immediate post-war trials. Ultimately, however, the specificity of anti-Jewish persecution was reframed within a broader narrative emphasizing the victimhood of the Bulgarian people as whole. It was also during these trials that a narrative of saving was articulated in such a way that it removed agency from Bulgarian Jews who had lived through those dark years. Indeed, within the framework of the saving narrative, only Jews who had joined the partisan movement were understood to have been active participants in their own survival. While the universalizing of anti-Jewish persecution was useful political fodder for the post-war Bulgarian state, Ragaru notes that it also met the needs of post-war Bulgarian Jewish elites seeking to convince the general population of their allegiance to the state. The emigration of 90% of the country’s Jewish population to Israel between 1948 and 1952 subsequently gave rise to a counter-narrative that pitted Jewish communists and Zionists against one another, as the latter adopted a more critical view of the behavior of both the Bulgarian government and the general population.

3In Chapter 2, Ragaru turns her gaze to the production of the saving narrative during the communist era through the vector of popular culture. She focuses on the 1959 film Zvezdi/Sterne (Stars). Shot by East German filmmaker Konrad Wolf in collaboration with Bulgarian scriptwriter Angel Wagenstein, this film focuses on the deportation of the Jewish population in the occupied zone. The film challenges, to a certain extent, the heroic savior narrative established in the post-war trials, and illustrates that the deportation of Jews in occupied Bulgaria was never fully forgotten in the public mind. However, as Ragaru demonstrates in her detailed analysis of the film’s creation and reception, its objective – like that of the war 1946 trials – was to deploy the story of Jewish persecution to universalist ends. Zvezdi/Sterne, she notes, does not aim to represent the specificity of the Jews’ fate, but rather instrumentalizes it as means to illustrate Nazi cruelty (p. 133). This approach, Ragaru notes, was not specific to the communist bloc. Scenarists in Western Europe and the United States telling Holocaust stories in the 1950s and 1970s, most of whom were Jewish themselves, also sought to make the specificity of Jewish suffering more approachable by placing it within a universalist framework. This chapter also provides a gender analysis of representations of Jewish persecution, as Ragaru notes that Jewish suffering is represented primarily through a female character, thus associating stereotypes about female and Jewish passiveness.

4Chapter 3 focuses on a very different kind of filmographic production: short film clips of the roundups of Jews in occupied Bulgaria that were never intended to be viewed by the general public. Situating her discussion within historiography on public spectacle and the social life of things, Ragaru tracks the migration of these images over time and through groups with different political orientations. These clips demonstrate clearly the deportation of Jews in the occupied zone by Bulgarian police, and were used as evidence to convict war criminals in the 1946 trials. In later years, they were integrated into a documentary film, where they paradoxically came to function as “evidence” of both the Bulgarian state’s alleged role in saving its Jewish population and the courage and bravery of both Jewish and non-Jewish civilians who rose up against persecution.

5In Chapter 4, the analysis moves to the post-communist era. Over the course of the 1990s, a coincidence of historical developments favored the amplification of controversies about the past. These included Bulgaria’s bid for membership in the European Union, a new transnational emphasis on gathering survivor testimony, a pivot towards the Holocaust as a key Israeli identity point and a “search for roots” among second- and third-generation Bulgarian Jews living in Israel and the United States. In contrast to the pre-1989 era, when controversy centered around disagreement between the communist and Zionist camps, a cacophony of conflicting voices emerged, spinning the history of Bulgarian Jews in accord with a wide variety of political, ideological and emotional registers. For example, the efforts of Bulgarian-origin Jews in Los Angeles to plant a “Bulgarian forest” near Jerusalem sparked the ire of Israeli descendants of residents of the occupied zone. This controversy, which began in 1993, sparked debates and disagreements in the political, journalistic and intellectual spheres in Bulgaria, Macedonia, the United States and Israel for the remainder of the decade. The post-1989 era also opened the door to the rehabilitation of the figure of King Boris III. Some argued that he deserved equal credit, if not more, than the communists for the “saving” of Bulgarian Jews.

6In Chapter 5, Ragaru focuses on the acrimonious uses of the Bulgarian Jewish past that have dominated the public and academic spheres in the first two decades of the 2000s. At this time, the Holocaust became a subject of study in Bulgarian universities, and archival collections and published primary sources pertaining to the Jews of Bulgaria during World War II became widely available to researchers. This scrutiny produced new challenges to the nationalist and whitewashing narratives of the Bulgarian state that absolved it from responsibility for the deportation of Jews from the occupied zone. The new hyper-nationalist government of the Republic of Macedonia that swept into power in 2006, for example, countered Bulgaria’s savior narrative for its own purposes: the creation of a “cartography of victimhood” that advanced the idea that the Macedonian and Jewish peoples were natural allies as victims of German and Bulgarian persecution. Tellingly, the 2013 celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the non-deportation of Bulgarian Jews sparked ire in Macedonia, where Bulgaria was called upon to acknowledge its role in deporting Jews from the occupied zone. In the first two decades of the 2000s, debates and disagreements concerning the fate of Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust became increasingly transnational. They figured into the European Union’s efforts to push back against attempts of its newer (and aspiring) members in the ex-communist bloc to equate the crimes of Nazism and communism. They also arose in debates as to how the story of Bulgarian Jews should be represented in Holocaust museums in Bulgaria, Macedonia and elsewhere in Europe, as well as at Yad Vashem in Israel and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). Ragaru concludes by noting that the increasingly transnational visibility of this debate has not led to any kind of consensus about how the story of Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust should be told, but rather to the “institutionalization” of disagreements in the political, academic and popular culture realms.

7“Parler de la Shoah, c’est-à-dire d’autre chose.” This phrase, taken from Ragaru’s conclusion (p. 348), encapsulates in a nutshell what she has demonstrated very convincingly in «Et les Juifs bulgares furent sauvés… ». It is also here that Ragaru offers a very helpful summary of the “other things” that the saving (and non-saving) of Bulgarian Jews has been used to talk about. This summary is particularly welcome because the book would have benefited from a more rigorous editing process. Readers may find themselves lost at times in the dense plethora of evidence and analysis that Ragaru presents. Plowing through to the end is, nonetheless, well worth the effort for francophone scholars of Jewish, Holocaust and East European studies, as well those interested more broadly in the links between history, memory, politics and identity.

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Nadia Malinovich, « Nadège Ragaru, « Et les Juifs bulgares furent sauvés… » Une histoire des savoirs sur la Shoah en Bulgarie »Balkanologie [En ligne], Vol. 17 n° 1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 30 septembre 2022, consulté le 25 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Nadia Malinovich

Maîtresse de conférences HDR, Université de Picardie
Affiliated Researcher, Groupe Sociétés, Religions, Laïcités (UMR 8582 EPHE-CNRS-PSL)

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