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Saved Jews, Few Were Heroes

May 26, 2001

They Saved the Jews, but Few Were Heroes


Ever since the end of World War II, Bulgarians have been fighting over who deserves the credit for saving the nation's Jews from annihilation. The monarchists insisted King Boris III rescued them; the Communists claim they were the saviors, while most Bulgarians believe it was the citizens who came together to frustrate the Nazis' deportation plans in 1943.

Now, the Bulgarian social critic Tzvetan Todorov says that none of those versions are wholly accurate. In a new book that collects a wealth of recently uncovered documents, Mr. Todorov argues that the fate of the Jews was not determined by a battle between legions of heroic Joan of Arcs and Hitleresque villains, but rather by a series complex individuals who supported the Germans and authoritarian rule but were nevertheless repelled by the deep anti-Semitism.

"There are many ways in which a good action can fail and there are very few ways in which a good action can succeed," Mr. Todorov said during a recent visit to New York. The title of his book, "The Fragility of Goodness: Why Bulgaria's Jews Survived the Holocaust" (Princeton), which is to come out in July, refers to the tenuous chains of events that frequently determine moral action. In this case, the chain was set in motion by the now forgotten vice president of the National Assembly, Dmitar Peshev, and supported by the King.

"It went through responsible political figures to individuals who were ready to take action," Mr. Todorov said. "All of this was aided by the lack of anti-Semitic feelings in the population. The point is that all levels of society contributed for the good to occur. A failure on any one of these levels would have made the rescue impossible."

Mr. Todorov, 62, a fellow at the National Center of Scientific Research in Paris, has spent the last two decades picking apart the myths that are embedded in the identities of nations, political groups and victims.

In "Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps" he struggled to find examples of moral behavior amid inhuman conditions. In such works as "On Human Diversity: Nationalism, Racism and Exoticism in French Thought," he has defended the values of the Enlightenment from cultural relativism. More recently, he has argued that NATO's intervention in Kosovo in 1999 fueled human suffering and helped propagate atrocities.

Moral choice, he says, requires an ability to embrace ambiguity, to search for answers amid the confusing mix of darkness and light in all human beings. Victims have good reasons not to see any trace of humanity in their torturers, he argues in "Facing the Extreme." But the work of the moral philosopher, he says, is to question such assumptions and to understand, as the concentration camp survivor and writer Primo Levi did, that under the right conditions most of us have it in us to be, at the very least, silent accomplices.

"We understand evil by scrutinizing our own intentions and motivations," he said. "This is not a plea for relativism. It is a plea to understand. In the end, judgment and justice have to be performed."

To say, for example, that it was something in the German character rather than the human gene pool that made the Holocaust possible, he argues, is ignore the dark forces within us. It is nearly always true that professed convictions have little real influence on behavior, he says, especially when people are faced with death.

It was living in a totalitarian country, Mr. Todorov said, that forced him to confront his own moral inadequacies. (The communists took over Bulgaria in 1943 and killed or jailed many political figures, including Peshev, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison, though he served only two). Mr. Todorov's father was dismissed as the director of the National Library in Sofia in 1948 because he employed nonparty members that the regime considered suspect, although he retained his position as a professor of library science at the University of Sophia. His mother was also a librarian.

Mr. Todorov is convinced that no one can escape complicity, on some level, with evil, even if they ultimately carry out moral acts.

"We believed that because our private lives were free we could obey the authorities in our public life," he said. "But this made everyone an accomplice, a victim and a perpetrator. We believed we were victims. We used the personal pronoun they. All the guilt went to them. It was their fault. We did not even have to name them. It was an easy way of not inculpating oneself. But I believe we can never draw a straight line and consider ourselves as completely innocent. This is why I do not like moral figures that always point to the sin in others, not realizing they, too, are responsible."

Mr. Todorov did his doctoral thesis with the literary theorist Roland Barthes and considered himself a structuralist, interested in how meaning is determined by language's connections or structure.

He left Bulgaria to study literature in Paris in 1963. But he was disturbed by the fragmentation he encountered in people's lives. "We do not unify our lives, our political views, our professional interests," he said. "This first impressed me when I came to France as a 24-year-old student. Those around me had the very enviable life of young bourgeoisie. They spent their days discussing in cafes. But they wanted to foment a revolution. They wanted to build a dictatorship of the proletariat, one that would have destroyed their wonderful lifestyle. In Bulgaria we could not imagine anyone defending such an ideology. These students lived in a dream world. They lived one way while pretending that they wanted to live another way."

It would be 18 years before he would visit Bulgaria again.

By the late 1970's, he grew restless. He wanted, he said, to "give up the narrow methodology of the study of literature and get involved in the larger social and cultural issues literature deals with."

He continued: "My own existence became the starting point to reflect on the plurality of cultures and the status of foreigners and how it related to the universality of human beings. I wrote a book on the conquest of America in 1981. I tell the story through contemporary accounts by the conquistadors and the Indians. This encounter between two populations is well documented. My identity as a foreigner in France was not the subject of the book, but it was the motivation. This has been the way I have proceeded ever since."

He is something of a recluse in France, especially given the volubility and public exposure of many French intellectuals. Indeed, he is wary of writers and intellectuals who engage in political crusades, suggesting that the eagerness of Susan Sontag and many French intellectuals who waged a campaign for NATO intervention in Bosnia and especially Kosovo was motivated by arrogance.

"One of the major dangers in democracies is this tendency to adopt a moral stance and give lessens in the name of human rights," he said, "to use what Vaclav Havel called, in his unfortunate phrase, humanitarian bombs on distant countries that do not comply with our ideal. Susan did this in Sarajevo and Kosovo. We don't solve these problems by bombing one part of the population in the name of the other."

Yet ask him how he would have stopped the Bosnian Serb army from bombarding the besieged city of Sarajevo with over 1,000 shells a day and he replies that he was not "well informed at the time."

"Some kind of intervention was necessary," he continued, "but political problems are not an either-or situation. I do not like the presentation of these problems by asking should we stay home and repeat Munich or should we bomb. There are a variety of choices between bombing and Munich. I don't think we explored this variety."

Mr. Todorov says the intervention, colonialism and abuses committed by Western democracies during the last century have been carried outunder the cover of what he calls "a mask of humanism." His book "The Imperfect Garden," (Princeton), due out in English later this year, is a study of the legacy of humanism. He borrows its title from the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne.

"Montaigne described human existence as an imperfect garden," he explained. "You can improve it, but you can never make it perfect. Humanism supports this limited project. It is not utopian. It does not promise happiness for all, terrestrial paradise. But it is not fatalism either. It does not believe that things should remain as they are. It believes in local reform, improvement, personal change, not in the definitive elimination of evil."

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