The diplomat who listened to his heart

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LOCATION: Paris, France.
TIME: June-July 1940 following the German occupation.
“In those times one climbed to the summit by simply remaining human.”
The words of a diplomat who saved Jews by issuing them with visas,
thus allowing them to escape from Nazi-occupied Europe during WWII

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The diplomat who listened to his heart

  1. 1. THE DIPLOMAT WHO LISTENED TO HIS HEART LOCATION: Paris, France. TIME: June-July 1940 following the German occupation. “In those times one climbed to the summit by simply remaining human.” The words of a diplomat who saved Jews by issuing them with visas, thus allowing them to escape from Nazi-occupied Europe during WWII He was actually just an inexperienced junior diplomat, the Second Secretary at the Embassy of the Kingdom of Bulgaria in Paris and this was his first posting abroad. It was his second year in France and he considered himself very lucky to have been posted in Paris; even though he had come up first in the competitive examination at the Ministry, he was fully aware he was not well-connected in society. He was really happy there mainly because he was so much in love with French culture, French savoir-vivre and savoir-faire (which roughly translate as being able to delight in good food and good wine and being able to use a combination of wit and tact—like finding the right phrase so as to say nothing about something or vice versa, as the need might arise). He had studied French since he was in high-school and he went at it with a will; somehow he liked it better than German and Russian; he had read the French classics and when he studied law at Sofia University he read textbooks in three foreign languages besides his native Bulgarian. He considered himself a self-made man and his own man, with a philosophical penchant towards the left and the disadvantaged, but not very pronounced, not theoretical, not in a dogmatic way, rather youthfully, intellectually anarchistic if anything; it was obvious to all but those who refused to see life such as it was that the social system was unjust, but there was not much that one could do about that: the Bolsheviks seemed to be bent on radically changing the world, but the stories that were coming out of Stalin’s Russia and Spain, torn by civil war, were pretty chilling; in fact, they were so horrible that most people doubted their veracity. Maybe it was all Nazi propaganda (he was yet to find out that Bolshevik propaganda, was its mirror image, as was life under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat the mirror image of the Nazi dictatorship, but these discoveries were to be made years later). Now it was all so confusing. He certainly felt no urge to belong to a group or a party cell or any sect, or to embrace an ideology and repeat the slogans of the season and to get into a bind trying to explain away political acrobatics. He was too much of an individualist for that—a loner, a book- worm who had never even had time to learn how to dance, not even a slow tango, let alone a foxtrot, or a folk dance (which choreographically required much more intricate footwork than its ballroom counterparts), nor had he had time for any sport other than hiking in the high mountains. But hiking for him was not a sporting activity, it was more like a chance to get away from the crowd, a chance to commune with pristine nature, to experience the Divine grandeur of the rocky wilderness and the might of the elements. That may have been about as close as he got to God in his youth; the craggy peaks and cliffs had been
  2. 2. THE DIPLOMAT WHO LISTENED TO HIS HEART by Bogdan Atanasov his Cathdérale de NotreDame. He and his wife never let a weekend go by without going to an art museum or an exhibition, or some chateau in the vicinity of the capital or a leisurely ride on a riverboat down the serene and sluggish Seine. Bulgarian diplomats were poorly paid and now that he had a two-year- old boy and another child on the way he had to be even more careful with his salary. Neither he nor his wife were any good at managing their money, it simply slipped away through their fingers and they sometimes had squabbles as to who was the worse spendthrift and they would point accusing fingers at each other for having bought expensive art books, or tickets for l'Opéra or the Comédie Française or fashionable clothes or for entertaining too many guests too often. But the subtle charm of Paris— the "grands boulevards" and the squares, the "hôtels particuliers" as they call their posh residences, the churches and cathedrals and the parks and the monuments were there for all to enjoy and as free as the air. And then there were the little restaurants with their fine wines and "le patron", arms akimbo, watching you enjoy his culinary chefs-d’oeuvre… And another favorite place were the bookstalls along the Seine selling second-hand paperbacks with yellow covers that came unstuck as you handled them but they could be bought for next to nothing. And the pleasures of browsing, picking up one title, leafing through it, putting it down, then picking up another, then looking at some prints. He liked Toulouse-Lautrec for his audacity and Degas for his gracefulness and especially Daumier, the satirist—they were great favorites. Did Daumier have it in for the theatrical lawyers and yawning judges and brutish criminals and those "innocent" defendants! But most of all, it was the crooked and shameless politicians that the artist blasted and the young diplomat would smile knowingly. Just the way it was in his homeland. His slim, tastefully-dressed and well-educated wife, Theodora (they called her Theo for short) looked after the household and the baby boy and she spoke to him in French—he would be trained to be a European from the very start. She would push the dark blue baby carriage down to the embankment of the Seine and point to the river and say "l'eau, l'eau"-water, and, as if intending to mix the kid up with a bunch of related concepts, she would add: "c'est la riviere, la riviere, la Seine" Now if her husband had been there, that would have started him off on the best way of teaching a little child a foreign language—he loved to explicate, theorize and dispute and even quibble like a lawyer. But to tell the truth, he was never petty. He could definitely separate important issues from trifling ones. And once in the fray for a just cause he had the tenacity of a bulldog. It was 1938 and the diplomat smelt the smell of war in the air—the civil war was still raging in Spain: loyalist Republicans versus General Franco's Nationalists, to put it simply those were Socialists and Anarchists pitted against Fascists; there was a crisis over Germany's annexation of Austria in March; Czechoslovakia was under threat of imminent German invasion: the powerful Nazi dictator was poised to strike down that young democracy. Was he going to invade again and get away with it? And it was all wrapped in that new ghastly German intolerance of other nations, inferior races, cultures and ideas and that sort of drivel. He had been watching the Nazi propaganda machine become more and more strident and all-pervasive to the extent that he had got into the habit, when buying a German book, of looking at the date it was published and if he saw the year was post-1933, he would chuck it away with disgust because they would have had to make it sound ideologically correct. (Strangely enough, this is he how he was to react to literature printed in his own country after the Soviet takeover on 09/09/1944: every book would be suspect as the new tyranny would be even more thorough in warping published thought in every field of human endeavor and he would see that as yet another scourge of humanity, but that anguish was to be saved for the future.) The anti-Jewish hysteria in the Reich had become a national madness, and Kristallnacht, when the Brown-shirts smashed and looted the shops owned by Jews, had been an 2
  3. 3. THE DIPLOMAT WHO LISTENED TO HIS HEART by Bogdan Atanasov unpardonable atrocity—no civilized society should tolerate such thuggery. And the public burning of books by ideologically suspect authors! Wasn’t that an atrocity too! The burning of any books was uncivilized. Authors should be freely competing in the marketplace of styles and ideas, otherwise we would be stumbling along towards ever more unjust and corrupt societies. What was happening in the land of Kant, Beethoven, Schiller and Goethe? He could not grasp how German idealism, humanism and romanticism could have slid into the unintelligent blinkered blatherings of Herr Hitler and his pronouncements about the Germans being the Herrenvolk, the Master Race, and the racially pure blond Übermensch establishing a German Reich “über alles,” over all and everything. And the rest of the world were to be different shades of manure. But this political manipulation of racial hatred was the height of absurdity. Heine, Remarque, Zweig, Marx, Freud, and Einstein, too, were Jewish, and they like so many other German Jews had contributed so much to the German arts and sciences. Over the centuries they had become an integral part of German society and culture and suddenly they were to be weeded out and liquidated. These thoughts puzzled and worried him: what kind of a world was in the making. He remembered the Jewish friends he had at school and at university and also the outstanding professor Fadenhecht, who read international law. He was highly respected as an authority in his field by his colleagues and he was loved by his students for his clarity of thought, his progressive ideas, his sense of humor. A tough, but fair grader, he never pandered to the sons and daughters of the rich and the well- connected. The young man had got to know the professor’s daughters; the younger one was dating and would later marry a Jewish friend of his who was an actor and an outstanding director and was making quite a name for himself in Sofia society. They were all very fine people. Well, in actual fact, Hitler did strike again and he got away with it again and neither the Western Democracies nor Stalin's Russia put up more than a whimper as resistance. British Prime Minister Chamberlain had met Hitler twice and when he returned from Munich after his third meeting he promised the British people "peace in our time". Actually it was a sellout—that was evident. What a dupe of a stuffed shirt the British had for a Prime Minister, he couldn't see further than his nose, but the young diplomat did not share his thoughts with anyone because it was an open secret that Bulgarian diplomacy was quietly gravitating towards the Reich, just as it had before World War I. Still there was no doubt in his mind that everybody in Europe wanted peace and the Prime Minister had wanted it for England at any price. The memories of the trench warfare were still fresh in the minds of the war veterans on both sides. How well Goya had depicted war in "Las Desastres de la Guerra". The twentieth century had indeed made great "advances" in the art of warfare—there were machine guns, tanks, air raids, lethal gases, flame-throwers and land mines. He often reflected on the duplicity of governments who were organizing all these peace conferences and disarmament talks and at the same time were spending billions on developing new and more ghastly military hardware. And the war in Spain seemed to be a testing ground for Germany's new armaments. The diplomat's father, a major who had fought the British and the French in Macedonia in WWI for three years had told him about the horrors of trench warfare—how his soldiers had died daily from sniper fire even when there was a lull in the fighting, or from shelling, from land mines, in bayonet charges, from dysentery, and cholera, and the Spanish flu, and hunger, and from their festering wounds, or from gangrene that came from frost-bitten fingers or feet, they died in attacks and counter-attacks but they held the front despite the odds until the Bolshevik-inspired mutiny in 1918. And he and his mother and aunts and brothers had experienced the privations and poverty and famine and disease and the total lack of medicines in a poor peasant country at war. Nobody wanted to go through that again. He did not believe that the young generation would allow another war to be waged. No more Guernicas. No more war madness. That was what his peers were all 3
  4. 4. THE DIPLOMAT WHO LISTENED TO HIS HEART by Bogdan Atanasov saying. But he was watching the mad dictators in the newsreels and he read the newspapers and he knew the dictators were accomplished demagogues and wizards at whipping up old hatreds and picking on defenseless scapegoats and these were mostly Jews, left-wing intellectuals and outspoken clergymen. But most people tried their best to disregard the omens of war and they carried on as usual—life as usual, business as usual, fun as usual. And his lovely wife entertained the wives of other diplomats and she spoke fluent English, French and German without a trace of an accent, unlike her husband, who had not studied abroad, and they conversed about music, and conductors and singers and painters and actors and plays and the latest fashions (hats were especially important) and their various national cuisines, and delicacies, and how poorly trained and incompetent servants were nowadays and so-o-o expensive too, and the nannies were, if anything, even worse, and prices in Paris were exorbitant, it was really beyond words… And the next day she would be wheeling the baby carriage through the Parc de Monceau and pointing out the ducks and the swans to her little boy who was lisping in French, and the day after that they would be more adventurous and take the bus to the Bois de Boulogne. And all the time everyone was being determinedly oblivious of the gathering storm. Paris was and would always be a paradise on earth, the hub of refinement and culture, and she had set her mind that nothing and nobody on earth would spoil it for her and her small family. But spoilt it was very soon, quite suddenly, out of the blue… On a beautiful day, the first of September 1939, Germany attacked its much weaker neighbor, Poland, and two days later France and Britain declared war on Germany. Well, thought the young diplomat to himself, that was it, what everyone had expected, but had secretly hoped it could miraculously be avoided. Then he put his wife and child on a train, second class, via Germany and Hungary to relative safety in Bulgaria. Maybe his country could keep its neutrality. Maybe. Three days later he received a telegram informing him of their safe, but sad journey. What he could not at this moment have foreseen was that some months later he would be seeing complete strangers off to Bulgaria from the same railway station. These people, however, would be fleeing for their lives. It was ten months now after the outbreak of the War on the Polish front and the Germans had overrun Holland and Belgium; the British had barely managed to evacuate their forces back across the Channel and it looked like there was nobody to stand up to the big bully in Europe. The future seemed very bleak indeed. And so from racist theory the Nazis moved to racist practice and they began their extermination of the "lesser races"—Jews, Slavs, and Gypsies. Towards the West Europeans they were somewhat more lenient. Of course, it had not been all that much of a surprise—there had been many straws in the wind, like the pogrom known as the Night of Broken Glass. That was back in November 1938, but for years before that night of horror, Hitler had been ranting that "die Juden sind an allem schuld," the Jews are to blame for everything, and that Germany had to rid herself of that “noxious” tribe. On June the 14th the Germans entered a desolate and deserted Paris. Ironically, the French government fled south to Vichy, though hardly to take the waters at the famous watering place. The sense of defeat and shame was crowned by Marshal Petain, the country's hero from World War I, signing the armistice and establishing a pro-Nazi dictatorial regime. The cowed French nation was split down the middle: some believing that since they had not been able to resist the Germans they had better jump on their band-wagon, while others would not accept defeat, and like General De Gaulle, their undaunted leader in exile, believed that the Nazi evil would inevitably, sooner or later, be destroyed. Vichy became the seat of the collaborationist administration of unoccupied southern France and all the diplomatic missions of the neutral countries hurriedly moved down there. 4
  5. 5. THE DIPLOMAT WHO LISTENED TO HIS HEART by Bogdan Atanasov However, on the orders of Ambassador Balabanov, the junior diplomat Boyan Atanassov and the accountant, Kalinov, remained on the premises of the Embassy of the Kingdom of Bulgaria in Paris in order to wind the diplomatic mission down. The young diplomat's zest for life disappeared. He had hardly anything to do all day, he had received no instructions from the Ambassador in Vichy. His thoughts were often taking him to his family in Sofia: how was Theo coping with no domestic help? The little fellow had a bad stomach ache. Could it be something serious? Then he went back to the censored French and German papers and read about the conduct of the war and tried to read between the lines of the official upbeat communiqués and the editorials. He kept consulting his two wall maps of France and Europe and redrawing rough boundaries in red and blue pencil marks. What direction was the government's foreign policy going in? Then he walked down the Champs Elysees, now so grim and uninviting and the traffic was so much lighter (gasoline was rationed) and the sight of German uniforms and military vehicles and buildings flying giant swastika flags everywhere depressed him even more. Then he got a coded telegram from Vichy telling his to go to the Gare du Nord and see whether there were Wehrmacht troop trains heading for the Channel ports. Was an invasion of England imminent? Our government wanted first-hand intelligence. That at least was something to do and not too boring, either. However, his secret mission proved a failure—he could neither gauge the numbers of the troops, not even an approximation, nor did he get any information as to which German units were involved. That evening there was a knock at the back door. It was a young couple roughly his age. They asked, speaking educated Bulgarian, very timidly and with a lot of excuses for having disturbed His Excellency at this time of the day or rather of the night, if they might possibly talk with him about a very urgent matter. They glanced at each other now and again and seemed very uneasy and kept looking over their shoulders. Were they trying to flatter him with their repeated “Your Excellency,” or didn’t they know any better that a man in his early thirties could not be the Bulgarian Ambassador, not would he be opening the back door to total strangers in almost total darkness. He heedlessly asked them to come in and they stepped into an office and sat down. Now they came to the point immediately. Their family name was Solomon, he was David and she was Esther; they were from Sofia; they ran a small company here, they had not been to the Fatherland for quite a few years, they had no passports. He wondered if they had made a point of losing them? They wondered if His Excellency might repatriate them to Bulgaria as soon as possible. They were also short of cash. There were also a few acquaintances of theirs who would like to travel with them. Could the Bulgarian Embassy arrange for their transport. They were in the same situation. "Would it be all right if we stayed on the premises while the formalities are being taken care of?" asked Esther with a shy smile. "I hope we are not being too impertinent," she went on, she thought it would only be for a day or two. The diplomat thought one did not have to be uncommonly shrewd to grasp the situation. Evidently, they and their friends feared being arrested by the Gestapo or the military patrols and without much ado to be shipped to the concentration camps in Germany to be worked to death or be directly exterminated by the SS like vermin. From that moment, the young diplomat knew what he was going to do —he would listen to his heart; he also knew what he was not going to do —he was not going to ask permission from his boss in Vichy, nor from the Ministry in Sofia. He would tackle the mighty Nazi war machine on his own terms with diplomatic tact and Bulgarian determination. The diplomat told the young couple that they could stay at the Embassy while he drew up the necessary documents and permits and secured the visas and the carriages. Coincidentally, it so happened that Sofia had just issued an order that all Bulgarian nationals were to return to Bulgaria. News got around and within the next week the Embassy received something like a hundred calls. Anxious voices were making inquiries. 5
  6. 6. THE DIPLOMAT WHO LISTENED TO HIS HEART by Bogdan Atanasov There were workingmen and artisans, professional people and businessmen, former members of the International Brigade in Spain. Among them stood out the names of some twenty Jewish families. Some were intellectuals who had made a name for themselves in Parisian cultural life, some were businessmen in French-Bulgarian companies and international banks. Some of these people the diplomat had met at Embassy receptions or at business meetings. Some of them had come to the Embassy to get information and be advised as to their options. They stood in the office stunned with fear and were hesitant whether to sign up and take a perilous train ride though the heart of the Reich or stay behind and risk arrest and deportation. Over the next few days, by threes and fours, several Jewish families and scores of Bulgarians, some with their families, were granted accommodation on the first floor of the Bulgarian Embassy in the heart of occupied Paris in early August 1940. For two weeks this group had the use of the large reception room and another room out of the four habitable rooms of the premises. In one corner the Jews had a place for daily prayers. A smaller, raggle-taggle group of youngish Bulgarians remained pretty reticent; they just said that they had come from Spain and had no documents or money on them. They were not very refined persons, by any means; they were shabbily dressed, unshaven and famished. The diplomat figured them out unequivocally as members of the International Brigade who had managed to escape summary execution at the hands of General Franco's troops and had evaded detention by the French authorities and subsequent extradition back to Spain. Or they might have been dutifully handed over to the Gestapo. Their fate too was sealed—it was either the bullet “while trying to escape” or prison for life. The diplomat was acting under no orders from his superiors, he was just following his conscience. Had the Bulgarian Ambassador in Vichy known about what was going on in Paris he would have probably fired him on the spot. Luckily the accountant not only did not report him, but on the contrary, he offered to help by doing the shopping in the morning at a nearby market. He would haul back heavy bags of food under the suspicious looks of the Military Police. That had to be done for these people, who did not dare go out in the streets. And it would not have been a good idea to have a lot of coming and going at all hours at a foreign mission that was supposed to be closed down. The young diplomat knew that the really tough part was still to come. Everything in Paris and in occupied northern France was in the hands of the military. How in the world was he, a junior diplomat of a friendly but officially neutral country, going to make the Germans reserve two or three railway carriages so that a pack of perfectly useless Bulgarians might travel from one end of Europe to the other, just when the Reichsbahn, the German State Railways, had such a pressing need for carriages to transport their troops to ports on the English Channel in preparation for the greatest invasion of the British Isles in history. Day after day, he went from one military office to another, from the General Directorate of the German State Railways in France to the General Kommendatur of the City of Paris trying to get permission for one or two carriages. In the meantime the list of likely travelers was getting longer and by the end of the first week was getting close to one hundred, but he was not getting any closer to securing even a single carriage. He felt like he was being struck back and forth like a ping-pong ball. He was utterly frustrated but there was no way he could give up. What would become of these poor people? He could not leave them in the lurch. He would keep pestering those SOBs had to keep going. He just took a deep breath and started from square one. He got into the Citroen that he had all but commandeered. It belonged to Mr.Patsurkov, a Bulgarian businessman, who was selling the famous Bulgarian rose oil to French perfume manufacturers. The wealthy man was letting the diplomat use his car because the fellow had no gas coupons, while the Embassy had gas coupons, but no car and nobody 6
  7. 7. THE DIPLOMAT WHO LISTENED TO HIS HEART by Bogdan Atanasov who could drive a car. So they worked together as a team criss-crossing Paris trying to locate the office that would deign to pull those carriages out of officialdom’s magician’s hat. One thing you could rely on getting was the military giving that mechanical, shrill “Heil Hitler!” salute sometimes with a clicking of heels, though, to tell the truth, few were that well drilled. In response, the Bulgarian diplomat would produce a low-key “Hi” with a flip of the palm at belly level and his abhorrence must have shown through. He soon realized that he was being sent on a wild goose chase with the obvious intention that he should throw up his hands in exasperation and despair. In his briefcase the diplomat carried a three-page typewritten passport, called a passe-avant, containing the names of all the prospective passengers and certifying them as being subjects of the Kingdom of Bulgaria. This document had two unusual features, the diplomat saw them as being ruses to outwit the German authorities: firstly, it was stamped in every corner of every page and the pages were bound with a white-green-and-red ribbon (the national colors) and sealed with a seal in red wax; secondly, the twenty odd Jewish names did not come at the top or at the end of the list, but were interspersed among the obviously Bulgarian family names like Ivanov, and Petrovski ending in –ov or -ski. It was eleven days after his private war with the German military bureaucracy had started when there was a breakthrough. An army captain in charge of the allocation of carriages decided to try his hand at international politics and render the Kingdom of Bulgaria a service. He began thumbing through a time-table and a few minutes later he was dictating to his secretary: “…three third class carriages (which meant hard wooden seats) shall be consigned for the use of the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Bulgaria, Herr Boyan Atanasov. The same shall undertake to defray the transport costs amounting to 33,000 Reichsmarks…” He informed the Bulgarian diplomat, addressing him as Your Excellency the Ambassador, of a possibility of having three third class carriages ready at der Ostbahnhof in three days time (out of habit the diplomat referred to it as la Gare de l'Est). The German was not in a mood to quibble over place names. Of course the young diplomat had no authority to obligate the Bulgarian government to pay the travel expenses of all these displaced persons. He hesitated for a few long seconds, the captain noticed this and was on the point of pulling the sheet of paper away. "No, no. I'll sign it," he said knowing full well what he was getting himself into. Half a lifetime of salaries could hardly have paid that debt back, but he felt he had no option but to sign. A faintness had come over him. Was he going to have a stroke? The next hurdle was the transit visa from the Reichskonsulat, the Consular Office. That took two days of haggling over some legal points and the monocled German diplomat refused to accept the passe-avant because he saw those Jewish names on it. "If you just deleted the Jewish names from this list, you would get you visa immediately. Otherwise it might be impossible for me help you, my dear sir." He was no longer "Your Excellency." The Bulgarian diplomat began arguing that according to Bulgarian law all Bulgarian subjects have equal rights, that Bulgarian law does not differentiate between Bulgarians, Jews, or Turks. It was to no avail. On the following day the Bulgarian diplomat decided to bluff his German counterpart, and said that it would be regrettable if this straightforward, run-of-the-mill matter had to be referred to their respective foreign ministers to thrash out. “What are we, the diplomats, here for? We will become ridiculous if we send a simple matter such as this one to our superiors to resolve.” The maneuver worked and he soon had the precious life-saving visa in his hand. He felt a sense of elation: in time of war, insanity, cruelty and hatred, an act of mere humanity had prevailed. Three days later a party of Bulgarian émigrés, men women and children, got together with their bundles and baskets and suitcases gathered in the narrow street outside the Embassy building. The pandemonium was incredible. Traffic was blocked. Policemen were swearing. Taxis were being overloaded with passengers and baggage. 7
  8. 8. THE DIPLOMAT WHO LISTENED TO HIS HEART by Bogdan Atanasov Others were honking as they tried to weave through the crowd. But in the artificially created chaos, the twenty odd Jewish travelers managed to leave the Embassy premises, their safe haven, and merge with the crowd below. Stuck all over their baggage there were stamped bands, self-made Bulgarian flags and signed tags stating in French and German that the Government of the Kingdom of Bulgaria was responsible for the contents thereof. The diplomat got to the Gare de l’est more than an hour before the train was due to leave. It was night time, the station was dimly lit, but he did not need any help finding the three third-class carriages—the shrill cries and the chaos which reigned on the platform were indication enough. Some were sitting on their bundles and bags and suitcases, still hesitating whether to get on or stay behind; others had gotten cold feet and never showed. That was understandable. It was a long haul. He tried to get into one carriage and thought he might walk down the corridor and see if he could recognize some of the people but gave it up as soon as he squeezed in and somebody dug an elbow in his ribs as he tried to get past in the other direction. A noisy squabble had erupted between two gesticulating Bulgarians with their chubby wives chiming in; it was over two window seats coveted by both families. There was some name- calling which could easily have escalated to fisticuffs. In the same compartment a young Jewish couple were talking to each other almost in a whisper totally oblivious of the din around them. No one took any notice of him. Perhaps it was too dark. The train reached its destination—the Bulgarian border—safely and without any mishaps, although for many on board it was a nerve-racking three-day journey, as they expected to be hauled off and arrested at every stop the train made and every time men in military or police uniforms went through their ritual checks. Fortunately, these checks were performed unthoroughly, without any zeal. The only good evil men do is when they proceed without their wonted thoroughness. * * * Nine years later, after serving in Lisbon, Washington and London, the two parents decided it was time to return to Bulgaria as their two older boys could not (nor did they want to) read Bulgarian and they needed to get a Bulgarian education. The history textbooks their grandfather sent (to boost their patriotism) were horrible – printed on poor quality paper, the pictures were smudgy, and the words in that awkward alphabet too long. Actually, the diplomat was dismissed from the Ministry within a few weeks after their arrival. For not being a party member, for not kowtowing to the almighty Party, but chiefly for being educated and not working class. And having spent too many years in the capitalist world and always wearing a tie. That is unforgivable. An Orwellian situation. People who thought for themselves and did not repeat the latest Party slogans with wide-eyed fervor were more than suspect and no one outside the party could hold a key job. There was only one employer— the State and the only job they would let him have was loading scrap iron onto freight cars. Then he joined a bunch of debarred lawyers who had become glaziers, but after a week they asked him to give it up – he was clumsily breaking too many new panes. His sons, too, soon wised up as to the political situation—it was a one-party tyranny with no election campaigns and several times a year young and old had to march in those monstrous five-hour parades, waving little red paper flags. In school it was constant indoctrination. “One doesn’t write like that” was all that his brave old lit teacher had dared to warn the elder brother. What he had meant was more like “And keep your mouth shut at school and don’t express wayward views in your essays. Somebody may inform on you and we’ll both be in big trouble.” We had obviously all been caged to be tamed and there was no getting out. Not for four decades. The Pater families saw he had committed a grave error of judgment and the whole family paid for it dearly. Later and with hindsight, he 8
  9. 9. THE DIPLOMAT WHO LISTENED TO HIS HEART by Bogdan Atanasov considered himself lucky that he had not been exiled from the capital and forced to live in a remote village or sent to a labor camp for speaking his mind and telling a joke at the expense of the Party bosses and their one-track minds and simplistic ideology, things he did a little too rashly. And he was lucky to be earning his living by translating the monthly Bulgaria Today rather than be working in the railroad junkyard. It was unimaginably boring, infantile propaganda written by ideological hacks that sounded quite odd in good French. After eight hours at work, he would come home to devote himself to rendering his beloved Voltaire and Balzac and Maupassant and Romain Rolland into polished Bulgarian prose. He would start translating in the evenings and continue well into the small hours of the morning and, naturally, over the weekends. He could never meet the publisher’s deadlines for he was working for perfection, not to oblige the director’s annual economic plan. But he got away with it as he had made quite a name for himself as a translator. He went into early retirement so he could break loose from what he used to call “that conveyor belt for political crap” and devote himself to high literature and the high cause of saving his fellow countrymen from pesticides. So he translated Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. It caused a quite a stir in the stagnant waters of totalitarian bumbledom. He and his eco pals had a lot of trouble finding a publisher. He went on translating adding Swift and Hemingway and Faulkner and Heller to the long list of great novels he crafted. Faulkner was his special favorite. Sometimes he would spend hours reworking one single (labyrinthine) sentence of his. He invariably found the way out. His advice was beguilingly simple—“Just keep at it, hang on like a bulldog and don’t give in. It will all come out right in the end…” That was him all over, no matter what he was involved with. * * * One day, some thirty odd years after the Parisian odyssey, the former diplomat, no longer young nor a diplomat, was happily strolling with his first grandchild in the park. Then he noticed a grandfather and a grandson staring at him. He had been recognized by one of the Jews he had rescued. The elderly man stopped him and asked if his name wasn't Atanassov. “You were in the Embassy in Paris in 1940, weren’t you? You saved our lives, me and my wife’s! You remember me? I’m Philosof." The ex-diplomat smiled sheepishly but could neither remember the face nor the name. He did not pretend to either. They had a pretty friendly conversation and they recalled some memories of France and the War… But it was all so remote and somehow unreal. His idyllic life in pre-war France was so far removed from life under the evil eye of Big Brother in the Kremlin and his surrogate Communist Party and its secular arm— State Security Police. It seemed as though these remote events had never been. And France might as well have been on the Moon for he hadn’t even the remotest chance of seeing her again. He had never been allowed to travel abroad, nor his wife, nor his sons. “The Police will never deny me a Passport to travel abroad,” he would quip. “How’s that?” “I’ll never apply for one,” he would reply with a rippling laugh. These thoughts flashed through his mind for a second or two, but he did not consider such a fate a misfortune; he was happy to have his family, especially his grandson, his friends, his books, his translations, his books and journals on ecology, and his nature hikes in the mountains in all weathers. He would never moan (that would be personal), but he could be blisteringly critical of the political system and the country’s uneducated, bungling, grasping leaders. Then seconds later, snapping back to reality, he lightheartedly remarked that he never had to pay back that staggering sum of 33,000 Reichsmarks. “The captain must have mislaid the receipt when he had to moved out of his Paris office in a hurry,” he joked. The two old men laughed and then somewhat hurriedly they said their good-byes... The eternal dissident and the cautious follower who went with the flow went their different ways. 9
  10. 10. THE DIPLOMAT WHO LISTENED TO HIS HEART by Bogdan Atanasov Their grandsons were much too young to know what past, present and future were all about. Or how your past affected your present and future and your children’s and grandchildren’s future as well, nor could they know that the events of the past would slowly be wiped out of old people's minds, and be gradually forgotten by the media, and be finally ignored by the history books of the next generation except, perhaps, in a footnote or two. Would the young ever care, the grandfather mused on the way home? He was sure some ideas are worth caring about and people's lives are worth saving and some events are worth remembering. Yet how awkward it is to meet someone who is indebted to you and, strangely enough, you are to him, for without him and his predicament you would never have been tested. How flat and worthless the life that has not been put to the test! Yes, his life had been eventful and he was a truly happy man and he did not need money as a measure of his worth, of his success and, least of all, for his happiness. EPILOGUE The young diplomat in the story was my father, Boyan V. Atanassov (1909-1997). This is a true story in all but some of the dialogue and I tell it as Boyan recounted it a number of times to his three sons—Bogdan, Vassil and Pancho. The events related took place in Nazi-occupied Paris in the Summer of 1940, almost a year after the beginning of World War II, the final paragraphs—in Sofia. It should be noted that my father, Boyan Atanassov, is most probably the first Bulgarian to have saved Bulgarian Jews from annihilation in Nazi controlled Europe. The heroic rescue of the over 48,000 Bulgarian Jews (documented in Michael Bar-Zohar’s Beyond Hitler’s Grasp) happened in the Spring of 1943. When documents in the archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sofia were declassified, I actually found some of the names on that collective passport or "passe-avant" as it used to be called in French. Other documents have also been found by researchers of that period. I and my son Boyan and daughter Teodora represented Bulgaria when the gentile diplomats of some 50 countries or their descendants and the persons they had rescued or their descendants met in the hall of the Security Council of the United Nations in New York in April, 2000. The event was called “Visas for Life.” The UNO foyer housed an exhibition of photographs and outline biographies of these diplomats and consuls who saved Jewish lives, some just a few individuals, some scores of people, others thousands. Their stories not only read like thrillers, but were exceedingly moving and powerful human testaments. Most of these men had acted either without the approval of their superiors or even in defiance of express orders from their respective Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Some had to sacrifice their careers. Some were discharged in disgrace and later died in poverty. All went unrecognized, both at home and abroad, by Jews and gentiles alike. The exhibition, which was aptly called "Visas for Life," was organized by Eric Saul of San Francisco. This exceptional man and his friends achieved the "impossible" and brought to light the deeds of forgotten men who had saved the lives of civilians at a time when human life was cheap, when governments were using political ideologies to justify mass extermination and plunder. In conclusion, I would like to state that this piece only got written because of some questions that Eric Saul kept asking us: It would be great to know what these diplomats were like. What kind of people were they? What interests did they have in their private lives? What drove them to commit themselves to saving people whose lives were on the line not for anything they had done, but for belonging to a particular race and religion? What character traits did these diplomats have in common, coming as they did from different backgrounds, cultures, races and religions? One rough-and-ready answer is that these diplomats had much in common—they could not watch injustice and cruelty and genocide without making a stand, a personal stand, for the little guy, for the persecuted when they saw they had a chance to do something about it. They did their own thinking, they made their own decisions and acted accordingly because they knew that morally they were in the right. My father said as much in his interview with Dr. Ann Freed: when he was signing the papers obligating the Bulgarian government to the tune of 33,000 RM for the transport of the émigrés without being authorized and 10
  11. 11. THE DIPLOMAT WHO LISTENED TO HIS HEART by Bogdan Atanasov posing as the Bulgarian Ambassador, he was breaking the civil law, but by acting to save human lives he was obeying a higher Law – the Law of the Creator. These diplomats did not do what they were doing in order to make a fortune at the expense of those in peril. Their families were mostly badly off, and many died penniless. They obviously were people who liked all of humankind above the differences that the various races and religious groups and members of classes focus on so often, differences that too many are all too ready to fight over. These righteous diplomats were obviously people with a special kind of heart—a heart full of compassion for the downtrodden, a heart that knew no fear when fighting the good fight, who threw caution to the winds when the lives of good people were in danger. You could see integrity and resolution in their eyes and tenacity. What they had done once they would not have hesitated to do again. They were indomitable, unstoppable. For all our sakes, let us hope that they were not of a dying breed. EPITAPH On April 13, 2005, Boyan Atanassov (1909-1997) was posthumously recognized by Yad Vashem for his “humanitarian conduct at a time when such behavior was in short supply.“ On September 22, 1993, Boyan Atanassov gave an interview to Dr. Ann Freed. The videotape is in the Ann and Roy Freed Archive of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. ABOUT THE AUTHOR Bogdan B. Atanasov was a professor of English literature and translation at the American University in Bulgaria from its foundation in the fall of 1991 until his retirement in 2004. From 1990 to 1991, he was a member of the Union of Democratic Forces in the Constituent National Assembly and a member of its Foreign Policy Commission. As an MP he wrote the bill establishing AUBG—the first American university in an East European country. Bogdan B. Atanasov bbatanasov@yahoo.com (310) 473-500, (310) 707-6559 11

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