In 2007, I was invited to Sofia, capital of the Republic of Bulgaria. There were two main purposes for my visit. The first and primary one was to have an audience with The Metropolitan of Bulgaria. the Orthodox Church’s equivalent of the Roman Catholic Cardinals.
I felt it extremely incumbent upon me, as a Jew and a spiritual leader of Jews, to convey to His Holiness the gratitude of the Jewish people for Bulgaria’s historic stand in defiance of the Nazi demand to surrender the Jewish population of the country.
During the war years of 1939-1945, Bulgaria was an ally of Nazi Germany and its government largely followed German orders. But in the case of the deportation of the Jews, Bulgaria defied the Nazis.
Some members of King Boris’s government, not particularly anti-Semitic, saw its obligation to comply with its Nazi German ally. Many did not agree, including His Majesty King Boris. He was a beloved monarch of his people, including the Jewish population among whom he had many personal friends.
It was later rumored that the Nazis poisoned the Bulgarian king for his refusal to turn his Jewish citizens into deportees to German death camps.
But the greatest of all the Bulgarians, was the Patriarch of the nation, the equivalent to the Catholic Pope in the Vatican in Rome, who demanded that every Bulgarian citizen must aid and offer protection to their fellow Jewish neighbors.
When the Nazis announced, in spite of some protests from the government, that Bulgarian Jews were to be rounded up and marched to the railway station where trains were ready to deport them to the Nazi death camps in Poland, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church organized mass street protests of thousands of Bulgarian Christians to defy the Nazis and to defend the Jews.
“Jew have been living in our country for a thousand years. They have contributed in great numbers to the literature, art and culture of Bulgaria. They are Bulgarian citizens of the Jewish faith who have maintained their loyalty to God and to His Torah since Moses revealed the law to them from Mount Sinai. It is our duty as Christians and fellow Bulgarians to do whatever we can to grant shelter, aid and protection to our Jews”.
The aged Patriarch marched with the priests and nuns of the Cathedral and made their way to the railroad station. He announced to the Nazi officers in charge that he would not permit the deportation of Bulgaria’s Jews. He further threatened to lie himself on the railway tracks to prevent the trains from moving. His brave Christian and humanitarian spirit was contagious and thousands of Bulgarian Christians took to the streets of Sofia and successfully defied the Nazis.
Christians in other Bulgarian cities were urged by their priests to follow the example of the Patriarch of Bulgaria in Sofia.
Due to the bravery, courage, love, respect and tolerance of the Bulgarian church, all 55,000 Jews were saved from the Holocaust.
Bulgaria, the blessed nation, was and remains the highest example of brotherly love and tolerance of other religious faiths.
Later, I prayed daily in the Great Synagogue of Sofia, the largest Sephardic synagogue in Europe. It was built between 1905-1909 by an Austrian architect and has seating capacity for 1170 seats for men and the womens’ balcony above. At its dedication in 1909, the Czar of Bulgaria, accompanied by members of the royal family, were in attendance.
The Central Synagogue contains a museum of the history of the Jews in Bulgaria. There is a daily minyan at 8 o’clock in the morning, and following prayers, the women serve a hot breakfast. Kabbalat Shabbat services are held every Friday evening and Shabbat morning services at 10 o’clock.
After the end of the war a few thousand Bulgarian Jews emigrated to the new State of Israel. More Jews followed after the collapse of the communist regime in Bulgaria.
Few nations on the European continent have shown and demonstrated more love for their Jewish population as have the good people of blessed pogrom-free Bulgaria.
It was a visit which touched me emotionally and even now, eleven years later, I recall with happiness every precious moment of my time with the Bulgarian church leaders and the leaders of the Jewish community.
To meet with non-Jews who have, as a people and nation, shown respect and tolerance for my people, is an unimaginable source of pride.
BOG DA BLAGOSLOVI NARODA I NARODA NA BULGARIYA. GOD BLESS BULGARIA, THE BLESSED NATION.