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How One Man Saved Bulgaria's Jews

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World War II Bulgaria didn't have a Schindler, and it didn't have a list. It had a white-bearded mystic named Peter Deunov and an entire nation standing behind him. Together, they saved Bulgaria's 48,000 Jews from the Holocaust.

Bulgaria wasn't in the best position during the Second World War. Fenced in by the Soviet Union on one side and Europe on the other, it was forced into the middle of the action. That's why it's all the more impressive that Bulgaria is one of only three mainland European nations where the entire Jewish population survived the Holocaust. (Denmark and Finland were the other two, but their relatively small Jewish populations were geographically isolated.) For staying strong in the face of Hitler and his Nazi directives, the Bulgarians credit one man—Christian mystic Peter Deunov. As Albert Einstein would later say, "The whole world bows down before me. I bow down before the master Peter Deunov."

Philosophical Fitness

Peter Deunov's philosophy wouldn't appear to be anything revolutionary at first. He based his beliefs on those of Christ and preached universal love and religious tolerance—only with a more mystical, cosmic slant. Known as Master Beinsa Douno, he garnered a following in Bulgaria in the early 20th century for his teachings, now known as Esoteric Christianity. In fact, during Deunov's time serving as the Vatican's ambassador to Bulgaria, the future Pope John XXIII called him "the greatest philosopher living on the Earth."

But Deunov had his controversial qualities, too. A strong believer in astrology and phrenology (determining personality traits based on the shape of people's skulls), Deunov also considered physical fitness to be crucial to spiritual development. He designed health camps for his disciples that included climbing to the 9,600-foot summit of Musala, Bulgaria's highest peak. In addition, he promoted strict vegetarianism and liberal doses of water. But perhaps most controversial was his belief in Paneurhythmy ("sublime cosmic rhythm"), sacred dances Deunov invented to utilize "positive energies." Unnerved by some of his more unusual ideas, the powerful Bulgarian Orthodox Church went so far as to denounce his teachings.

But far beyond scaling mountains and preaching the joys of good health, Deunov advocated world peace. Unfortunately, that too was seen as contentious by some. During one of his lectures in 1917, he spoke out against Bulgaria's entry into World War I on the side of the Central Powers. Although Deunov would later prove to be right about that decision, that didn't stop the government from exiling him for a year.

Avoidance Tactics

At the start of World War II, Bulgaria picked the losing side again. Hoping to reclaim the ancestral lands it'd lost during WWI (Thrace and Macedonia), Bulgaria joined the Axis powers in 1941. And although the Nazis did gain control of those territories, Bulgaria reclaimed them in name only. What's worse, Hitler forced the Bulgarian government to pass oppressive laws against its Jews as part of the deal.

Thanks to a tolerant national population, Bulgaria's Tsar Boris III was able to avoid enforcing anti-Semitic policies—at least for a while. Eventually, though, the political and military pressure from Hitler became too great.

In March 1943, Boris was bullied into signing off on the deportation of 11,343 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia to Auschwitz. Of them, only 12 survived.

When the deportation became public knowledge, most Bulgarians were so outraged that Boris went into hiding. Anything he faced would be a lose-lose situation—whether it was the wrath of the Nazis or the wrath of his own people. When Hitler demanded the deportation of all Bulgarian Jews, Boris caved.

Hide and Go Seek

What happened next was one of the most fateful strokes of luck in history. The signed directive from Boris passed through the ranks and into the hands of one of Deunov's followers, who quickly informed his guru. Eager to stop the deportation, Deunov sent one of his most trusted devotees, a senior official named Lyubomir Loulchev, to try and change Boris' mind. Deunov knew that Boris respected him (in large part because Deunov had "predicted" the devastating results of WWI), but he also knew the tsar respected Loulchev. Deunov told Loulchev: "Find the tsar and tell him that if he lets Bulgarian Jews be sent to Poland, that will be the end of his dynasty."

Unfortunately, locating the tsar wasn't an easy task. Boris was still in hiding, and not even his most trusted advisors knew his whereabouts. Loulchev desperately searched the country, but he was running out of time, so he returned to Deunov for help. According to one biographer, Deunov meditated on Boris' location in his room for a few minutes, then opened the door and said one word: "Krichim," the name of an obscure town in southern Bulgaria. Loulchev left for the town immediately and arrived to discover a very surprised tsar.

Not long after, Boris called for the release of all Bulgarian Jews awaiting deportation. It's uncertain whether the about-face was the result of Loulchev's appeal to Boris' conscience, the power of Deunov's advice, or the pressure he discovered he was receiving from other top Bulgarian officials. Members of the parliament had banded together to try and protect their Jewish population, but with the tsar in hiding, their hands were tied. Deunov's involvement changed all of that.

The Fury of a Führer

Hitler was more than a little irritated by this turn of events, as well as by Boris' refusal to engage in war with the Soviet Union. In August 1943, the Führer summoned the tsar to a private meeting in East Prussia—a trip from which Boris never recovered. He returned exhausted and depressed, and died mysteriously just days later, at age 49. It's widely suspected (but still unproven) that foul play was involved.

Unfortunately, there wasn't a happy ending for Deunov, either. In 1944, Soviet forces invaded Bulgaria, and the Christian guru died two days before Communist authorities could arrest him for his spiritual teachings. The government continued to harass and persecute his followers until the fall of Communism in 1989.

Since then, however, there's been a rise of interest in Deunov's philosophies, and his teachings have slowly spread throughout Europe. But even those Bulgarians who aren't particularly inspired by his religion still respect Deunov for his vital role in saving 48,000 Bulgarians from the Holocaust. But perhaps the main reason 0605.jpghe's remembered so fondly is because he inspired his nation to do the right thing. In 1998, the Anti-Defamation League honored the entire country of Bulgaria with its Courage to Care Award. And while due credit has been given to Boris III, Bulgarians also remember that the tsar could just as easily have allowed his Jewish subjects to perish (as he'd done to Jews in the ancestral lands) were he not convinced otherwise. Of all the Bulgarians who played a role in their nation's proudest moment, none are more esteemed than Peter Deunov.

This article originally appeared in the September-October 2007 issue of mental_floss. Learn more about the magazine, or just go ahead and subscribe.


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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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