There presently is a rift between Moscow and Sofia concerning the rescue of Bulgaria’s Jewish population during the Holocaust. Each claim the title of being the savior of the Jews. But only one of them is correct. The verdict is a definite YES for Bulgaria and a NO for the former Soviet Union.
We all know how Denmark saved its Jews by smuggling them out of the country to safety in nearby neutral Sweden. The story of Bulgaria is lesser known, but is of tremendous historic value.
Bulgaria was allied to Nazi Germany, not because of genuine friendship, but rather because Bulgaria was seeking Germany’s help in restoring its lost territories in Thrace and Macedonia to Greece at the end of the First World War in 1918.
At the time, war broke out in 1939, there were approximately 50,000 Jews living in Bulgaria. Jews first settled there after the Roman conquest in the year 46 of the Common Era. Ruins of a beautiful second century synagogue have been unearthed in Plovdiv.
Bulgaria’s Jews were an integral part of Bulgarian society. If there was any anti-Semitism, it was hidden and invisible. Jews and non-Jews lived together and worked together side by side with never any conflicts between them.
When the Nazis first demanded the deportation of Bulgaria’s Jews, King (Czar) Boris III agreed to the German allies’ demand to deport the country’s Jews to concentration camps in Germany and in Poland, but the Deputy Speaker of the Bulgarian Parliament persuaded the king to change his mind and to resist.
Bulgaria was the only country in eastern Europe that united to protect its Jewish citizens against deportation, ultimately supported by King Boris III.
In 1943, Bishop Haralampiev stated to his fellow priests “if we, the Church, allow the Jews to be deported, we will betray our most sacred obligations; we must help the Jews”.
Metropolitan (highest title in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church) Kiril of Plovdiv and his outstanding colleague, Metropolitan Stefan I of Sofia led tens of thousands of ordinary Bulgarian Christians to the railway depots and laid themselves on the railroad tracks to prevent the trains from deporting the Jews.
Metropolitan Stefan I made a public announcement: “if the Jews are deported, the Germans will have to deport me with them”.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church under the leadership of Patriarch Stefan I, made a huge public outcry to its people and thousands of Bulgarian Christians took to the streets in a national protest against the Nazi Germans attempt to deport the Jews.
With their bodies, they blocked main roads to prevent German tanks, trucks and cars from passing.
Fifty-thousand Bulgarian Jews were saved from the gas chambers and concentration camps.
At the end of the war, most of Bulgaria’s Jews left for Israel. Currently the Jewish population of Bulgaria is approximately 2,200.
Proudly, 7 Bulgarian Jews have served as members of the Israeli Knesset.
In July 2007, I flew from Tel Aviv to Sofia for a private audience with His Holiness, the Pope of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Maxim, to thank him and to express gratitude to his Church which defied the Nazis and also their King Boris III, and by their sacred efforts the lives of 50,000 Jews were saved.
At the meeting in the Holy Synod, His Excellency Bishop Naum served as translator. There was a photo session and an exchange of gifts.
His Holiness, the Pope of Bulgaria, said to me, “We do not need to be thanked; we only did the Christian thing to save our Jewish brothers and sisters who have lived among us for 1,000 years.”
During my stay in Sofia, I attended daily morning prayers in the famed Jewish synagogue of Sofia, a magnificent building established in 1909 with a seating capacity for 1,300 worshippers.
It is the second largest Sephardic synagogue in the world and the largest synagogue in southeastern Europe and the third largest synagogue on the European continent.
At its opening ceremony on September 9, 1909, His Majesty King Ferdinand I was present and he blessed the new synagogue and its Jewish worshippers.
For some inexplicable reason, today’s Russian government is competing with Bulgaria to claim the title of defender and savior of the Jews. While the Red Army of the Soviet Union had been helpful to many Jews in their occupied areas, there is absolutely no truth to their claim of having saved Bulgaria’s Jews.
That honor belongs to the people and the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria and to them alone. Bulgaria should have a special place in the heart of every Jew.
As it is written in our religious teachings, “He who saves one life is as if he had saved the world.”