WASHINGTON (AP) — A street intersection outside the Bulgarian Embassy in Washington was renamed Tuesday in honor of a lawmaker from that country who is credited with helping spare the lives of tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.
The intersection in the city's Dupont Circle neighborhood will now be known as Dimitar Peshev Plaza, a recognition approved by the D.C. Council following a campaign by Peshev's supporters. Peshev, a former deputy speaker of Bulgaria's Parliament, drew attention to a secret deportation order that would have sent Jews in the country to German death camps. He circulated a protest petition and students, clergymen and others united in support of the Jewish population. The deportation order was ultimately suspended, as King Boris III sent Bulgarian Jews to labor camps but refused to deport them or turn them over to the Nazis. Historians say nearly 50,000 Jews were saved.
Peshev, who was later politically ostracized, has been recognized by Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, as "Righteous Among the Nations" — or those who shielded Jews from persecution during the Holocaust. He died in 1973.
"If there was a Dimitar Peshev in every country in World War II, there would be no Holocaust," Neil Glick, a former D.C. neighborhood commissioner and the leading advocate for the honor, said at a public ceremony at the embassy.
Glick said he learned about Peshev's deeds during a trip to Bulgaria in the 1990s and contacted the embassy last year to enlist support for the recognition. The embassy then signed off on a letter to the D.C. Council requesting approval for the intersection to be renamed.
But the seemingly straightforward request caused conflict in the spring when the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum expressed concern that the embassy, in advocating for the request, was not adequately reflecting Bulgaria's complicated history during the Holocaust. Museum officials objected in particular to the letter's characterization of Bulgaria as a "Nazi-occupied country" — the country was actually a German ally — and to the assertion that no Bulgarian Jews were deported to death camps. In fact, nearly 11,500 Jews from the Bulgarian-occupied territories of Thrace and Macedonia were sent to their deaths.
Elena Poptodorova, the Bulgarian ambassador to the United States, acknowledged those deaths Tuesday, calling them an "extremely tragic" element of the country's history. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who joined Poptodorova in unveiling the new sign, also seemed to acknowledge the country's checkered and nuanced history when he said, "Even the good moments in history are not perfect. They're often blemished."
He later added, "We're here to honor not just the individual but the country because Bulgaria did distinguish itself." Mendelson said he hopes people passing the newly named intersection will become curious about Peshev and learn about his actions.