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The diplomat who listened to his heart

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LOCATION: Paris, France....

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 The diplomat who listened to his heart Presentation Transcript

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