WINCHESTER – During an assignment in Bulgaria in the late 1980s, Ambassador Hugh Kenneth Hill learned of a remarkable tale of the rescue of 50,000 Bulgarian Jews during World War II. The historical event, unknown to many, tells the story of how a country saved its population from gas chambers and death.
Hill, a resident of The Village at Orchard Ridge in Winchester, penned his experiences in his memoir, “Hugh Kenneth Hill: Memoirs of two diplomatic assignments to Bulgaria,” and he has been sharing his story with area organizations – most recently with Beth El Congregation in Winchester.
Appointed by former President George H. W. Bush in 1990 as ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the People’s Republic of to Bulgaria, Hill served for three years during a grave period of reformation after the fall of communism in Europe.
“My first assignment to Bulgaria was during the communist era. You can only imagine the difficulties we faced,” Hill said. “But my second assignment allowed us to be more intertwined with its culture and its people. One of the first things we learned upon our arrival was how the Jewish population was saved during the Holocaust.”
During World War II, Hill said the Bulgarian government, under the Czar Boris III, fought an increasingly radicalized country under the rise and power of Hitler and the Germans. He said Bulgaria’s alliance kept them comfortable and obedient. However, in April 1943, the Bulgarian government was notified to collect its Jewish population for deportation to concentration camps for their imminent death. Hill said protests were held in city streets, but unlike other countries that didn’t rally for their Jewish population, the Bulgarian outcry was heard.
“Unlike any other country in Eastern Europe, the Bulgarians told the Germans ‘no’,” Hill said. “And because of it so many lives were saved.”
Despite the immense pressure put onto the country by the German government, the Bulgarians kept their population within their borders by telling Hitler their citizens were needed for various duties around the country.
“Basically the Bulgarians hid 50,000 people from the Germans,” Hill said. “Because they simply wouldn’t accept the hate.”
In 1993, upon the completion of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., Hill was scheduled to attend its opening with Bulgarian President Zhelyu Mitev Zhelev. However, as Hill noted, someone working for the museum didn’t do his or her historical research.
“The president of Bulgaria was going to pull out of the ceremony,” Hill said. “It became a diplomatic crisis, even though it was something that could have been planned and researched to be avoided.”
Hill recalled resolving the crisis by telephoning Vice President Al Gore and explaining the situation. Hill sent a memo stating that Gore was to meet with the president of Bulgaria the following morning a few hours before the museum’s opening and its ceremony.
“I explained to Gore that he was threatening to pull out because the organizers didn’t realize that the Bulgarians had saved their Jewish population,” Hill said. “Gore was excellent.”
“Gore told the president that he knew the story of the Bulgarians. And said, ‘When I introduce President Clinton at the opening of the Holocaust Museum, I will tell Americans what your country did.’”
Hill said the Bulgarian president smiled and replied, “Than I must come.”
“I mean it was just a wonderful solution to what had been a diplomatic crisis,” Hill said.
During his three-year ambassadorship, Hill and his wife Yvonne had the opportunity to share American culture with the Bulgarians. Yvonne Hill recalled one of her favorite memories at the time was when the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, flew over the country for the first time.
“He [Hugh Kenneth Hill] persuaded them to come to Bulgaria and perform,” Yvonne Hill said. “They had never seen anything like it before.”
The Blue Angels performed for the Bulgarians for two days; the first day was a practice run to have a sense of the geographical area in which they would be operating. Roughly 1,000 Bulgarian veterans were invited to watch the practice run along with Bulgarian state employees.
The second day was the official presentation.
“Everyone from the president of the country to the head of the Supreme Court, to the head of their parliament came to watch the demonstration,” Hugh Kenneth Hill said. Over 30,000 Bulgarians came to witness the show in person, while four million watched it on TV that evening. “It was an incredible presentation of the United States of America. It’s the sort of thing that makes you feel proud to be an American.”
Other assignments during his career included Lusaka, Zambia, where he served as charge d’affaires, political officer for the U.S. embassy in Yugoslavia, and a consular officer in Frankfort, West Berlin, and in Jerusalem.