Two Bulgarian Jewish organisations strongly condemned the statements and inappropriate comments by Valeri Simeonov, deputy prime minister and leader of the nationalist United Patriots, amid a controversy over a now-former deputy minister who had been photographed giving a Hitler salute to wax figures of Nazis.
At a May 18 news conference at Sofia Central Synagogue, Alek Oscar, president of the Shalom Organisation of Bulgarian Jews – the country’s EJC affiliate – and Central Israelite Spiritual Council President Sofia Koen said: “We are seeing an ugly manifestation of disrespect to the memory of the millions of innocent victims who died in the concentration camps during the Second World War”.
This displayed a debased political culture and insensitivity towards the greatest tragedy in human history, they said.
“When we talk about the Holocaust, joking is inappropriate,” said the statement, read out by Oscar.
After it emerged that Pavel Tenev, appointed as a deputy minister from the United Patriots quota in the coalition government, had been photographed giving the Hitler salute, Simeonov reportedly made comments to the effect that in the 1970s, he had been taken on a visit to Buchenwald and “Come to think of it, who knows what kind of joke photos we took there…can anyone say now, submit your resignation and go back to the village”.
The comments were reported by Bulgarian-language daily Sega. On May 18, Simeonov denied making them and said he would take court action against Sega. The daily responded by saying that it stood by its story.
Tenev resigned on May 17 after just two days in office.
At the news conference at the Sofia Synagogue, there were seven Holocaust survivors present, including a survivor of Auschwitz and of the Warsaw Ghetto. They expressed revulsion and dismay at “jokes” related to the Holocaust.
The joint statement said that this was not the first time that Simeonov made inappropriate jokes on ethnic, religious and community issues. “This rouses regret and concern that such people take leadership posts in the government of the country,” Oscar said.
The Shalom-Israelite Spiritual Council statement said that Bulgaria was known through the world for its inter-ethnic and religious tolerance and such statements regarding the Holocaust damaged the reputation of the country, and were contrary to its European and its shared human values.
MRF MP Hamid Hamid said: “We are calling for the immediate removal of extreme nationalists from this government and this coalition, which is literally tearing Bulgaria away from Europe. Let us consider that the sensitive Jewish community will not forgive this”.
Tenev has insisted that the photo of him giving a Hitler salute were one of a series taken at the Grevin wax museum in Paris, in which he struck poses intended to be “humorous”.