As buds of grass push itself from the half-frozen Earth, Jewish entrepreneurs Raphael and Leon Arie are rushed to the gallows in Sofia Square, scarcely before dawn. It’s April 1st, 1943, and they’re accused of price gouging—a crime worthy of death in Nazi-aligned Bulgaria.
“We’re innocent!” one of them allegedly screams. But alas, their fate is sealed: At 6 am, they die by noose. The bodies are discarded.
As news of their deaths reaches their families, Bulgarian officials rejoice, including Alexander Belev, the newly named Commissariat of Jewish Affairs in Bulgaria. The destruction of Bulgarian Jews was in full swing—just two years prior, Bulgaria joined the Axis Powers. If that meant destroying Bulgaria’s most beloved beauty brand, so be it, the anti-Semites assured themselves.
Here unfolds the tragic story of Mignot-Boucher: How it landed in Arie possession, its popularity, and how the Nazis led to its demise.
How Mignot-Boucher Became Jewish
While Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein fought over America’s booming cosmetics market in the early 1900s, Bulgarians knew of only one name: Arie.
Their history in Bulgaria starts, oddly enough, with essential oils. Centuries before MLM’s hawked it as a cure-all, the Arie clan dominated the essential oil market, popular during the Ottoman Empire’s reign. They headquartered themselves in Samokov, located 34 miles southeast of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capitol—a sound business decision, as it was “an important trading center in the Ottoman Empire,” according to Leah Cohen.
Swimming in wealth, they, like many entrepreneurs, sought to secure more lucrative investments. In 1916, that included Mignot-Boucher¹, a French cosmetics brand known for its iconic line Germandrée.
Patented in 1875, Germandrée featured both perfume and face powder scented with germandrée, an aromatic shrub of the mint family. Supposedly the smell was reminiscent of mint and garlic (a unique scent for sure). But its face powder proved most popular, as its delicate rice powder, scented with germandrée, graced the faces of Bulgaria’s most beautiful women: Its rich socialites, working class women, and girls coming-of-age.
No other company could hope to compete against this new investment. As explained by Leah Cohen in The Cruel End of the Balkan Rothschilds:
For comparison, at the same time, today’s world-famous cosmetic giant L’Oréal (with a business amounting to 22 billion euros) has only a few branches on the territory of France and is still a small factory that mainly produces cheap shampoos and hair dyes. In the Balkans, our company has no competitor in the cosmetics industry due to its variety of items and the specificity of its secret recipes.Note: This is a translation of her work into English; the original text is in Bulgarian.
As cosmetics increased in popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, this only increased the Arie fortune, granting them access to the finest art, cars, and even a family mansion. Their investment had paid off. But over 900 miles away, the demise of Mignot-Boucher drew near. That’s because in Berlin, anti-Semitism was on the rise—and Jewish business owners became lucrative targets.
How Nazism Ended Mignot-Boucher
Just a few months after Adolf Hitler took power in 1933, white Germans staged a nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses, called Judenboykott. From dawn until dusk, non-Jews refused to enter any Jewish businesses—something which Hitler claimed was “a defensive measure against anti-Nazi propaganda abroad for which he blamed the Jews.”²
To mark these businesses, Nazis drew the Star of David and the word “Jude” on shop windows, as seen here:
Of course, Hitler’s claim was untrue: Jews had not secretly infiltrated foreign media, broadcasting anti-Nazi propaganda. But it mattered little. Jewish business owners felt threatened—some even confronted the Nazis graffiting their storefronts. News of Judenboykott reached neighboring countries too, where similar boycotts took place.
Though mostly unviolent, the Nazi victory here was the slow, but calculated, dehumanization of Jews. As explained by Samantha Pickette in the Boston University exhibit “Final Sale: The End of Jewish Businesses in Nazi Berlin”:
First came nonviolent, economic sabotage—the Nazi Party cut their connections with non-Jewish business owners, blocked their channels of supply and service, and gained the support of chambers of commerce throughout the city. Systematic violence followed, with pogroms that attempted to cripple not just Jewish business owners but the entire Jewish community.
Pogroms targeting Jewish business owners reached an apex in in November 1938. After news broke that German diplomat Ernst von Rath had been assassinated in Paris by a Jewish teenager, Nazis and citizen alike flooded the streets, ransacking Jewish stores. As they destroyed storefronts and pocketed whatever merchandise they found, the shattered glass decorated the streets like glistening crystal, earning it the name Kristallnacht.
A few days later, the Nazi party struck again: They decreed that Jewish people no longer could sell goods or operate their businesses. More importantly, they were gearing up for the extermination of the Jewish population.
That bode ill for the Arie family in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian government had allied itself with Germany, and with it faced intense pressure to amp up its “pressure on the Jews.” The government would acquiesce to these demands.
In 1941, it began with the Law for Protection of the Nation—something that the Arie clan didn’t take seriously at first.
As explained by Leah Cohen:
The men of the Arie clan looked with some disdain on these laws, considered them an “imitation” of German behavior, and did not initially believe in their serious application. The “final decision” became completely clear, however, after August 1942, when the Commissariat for Jewish Affairs was created, headed by the avowed anti-Semite Alexander Belev and under the direct leadership of the Minister of the Interior, Petar Gabrovski.
The first task assigned to Belev, under instruction of Nazi Germany, was the economic destruction of Bulgarian Jews. He eagerly set the plan in motion. Soon, the Arie family found their bank accounts frozen, forced to hand over most of their assets. In 1942, the oppression intensified: They were forced to mark their products as being Jewish made.
Acquiescing, the Arie opted for the Star of David, placed on the side of their Germandrée face powders. It fulfilled the demands of the anti-Semitic government. But the worst was yet to come.
The Entrapment of Leon and Raphael Arie
By August 1942, the Arie family faced financial ruin. The Bulgarian laws had stifled their ability to sell anything, in addition to accessing their accumulated wealth. Most of their products had been confiscated—a consequence of the government seizing Jewish assets.
The remaining inventory, which included soap and face powder, sat undisturbed in their factory. What to do? Raphael Arie, the strapping young 36 year old, suggested a risky option: Selling the unused soap to Vladimir Milkov Slakov, a grocer who had re-sold their goods years prior.
Uncle Leon Arie, the 56-year-old elder, announced his reluctance—Could this really help? But he acquiesced as news arrived that military defeats increased among Hitler’s army. Hoping that the war’s end drew near, both of them sold the leftover inventory to Slakov.
But as the soaps enter Slakov’s possession, men lurk in the shadows, hidden from view: The police.
As explained by Leah Cohen:
Rafael and Leon Arie are completely unaware that they are being followed by the police on the orders of the Commissariat. They also underestimate the fact that the soap they sell is included in the list of “strategic” products and trading it during periods of shortage is controlled by the Law on Speculation (ZOSRC).
Selling the soap at inflated prices was a crime, one that the police intended to uncover. Under the guidance of inspector Danail Kolarov, they hatched an undercover sting. In November 1942, three undercover policemen met with Raphael Arie, offering huge wads of cash in exchange for the soaps, an offer that most people could not refuse. But, disappointingly, Raphael insisted on being paid their actual worth—no shady black market schemes going on here.
That wouldn’t stop the police anyhow. On November 11th, they arrested Raphael and Leon Arie.
Their next stop? Sofia Prison.
The Demise of Mignot-Boucher
Due to a lack of evidence, prosecutors were dead set on a confession. So, for the next 20 days, the police demand one—by way of daily, tortuous beatings.
Bludgeoned and exhausted, they lament their confessions, but only to stop the agony. Swiftly, the police bring the uncle and nephew to court, where additional lies pad their false confession: Using illegal ingredients, accusations of “violating Bulgarian girls,” and accumulating profits too quickly.
In Nazi-aligned Bulgaria, their sentence is all but guaranteed. Both Raphael and Leon Arie are guilty. Now the gallows wait them. As winter blossoms into an early, wet Spring, they wait in their cells, the hope of freedom long passed—and, as expected, Mignot-Boucher falls into state hands.
So, as dawn scarcely breaks the horizon, the two Arie men are guided to the gallows, the cool spring air welcoming their arrival. One of them cries he is innocent, to no avail: They are hanged.
When news reaches the rest of the Arie clan, they wallow in grief. Inside the massive mansion, the windows are blacked out, the echoes of their voices shaking against the walls. Claudia Arie, Leon’s daughter, is inconsolable with grief, making “inhuman sounds,” as Edith Arie recalls.
As Belev celebrates the destruction of Jewish life and the Bulgarian state swathes itself in seized riches, the Arie family is falling apart, children deprived of their parents.
It’s evil in many forms, which the Nazis proudly embrace.
When I first learned about the history behind Mignot-Boucher and the curious Star of David stamp, I immediately thought of present day America. The ramping up of violence—and the habitual denial and deflection by the alt-right—seems like a repeat of Nazi history.
What can we learn from it? I think the most important lesson is realizing that yes, fascism is a legitimate threat. It’s not a joke perpetuated by edgy teenagers or just a difference of opinion. We must actively challenge fascist beliefs as they begin.
It’s hard, yes. But this suffering should not be repeated.
¹ The previous owner, Charles Boucher, died following conscription into the French army.
² “Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany” by Marion A Kaplan, NEW YORK TIMES. (http://movies2.nytimes.com/books/first/k/kaplan-dignity.html).