Light in Great Darkness

“Whoever destroys a soul of Israel, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life of Israel, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” Talmud, Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5.

Throughout Europe during World War II the Protestant and Catholic church and other organizations did very little to rescue the Jews that faced deportation and death in Hitler’s concentration camps.

There were individual Christians who raised their voices for the Jews across Europe but the organized churches were mostly silent. The one exception to this was the Bulgarian Orthodox Church which was the only one in Europe to openly oppose Hitler’s Final Solution for the Jews.

In Bulgaria, some other small Evangelical churches as well as some in the  Catholic community also added their voices to condemn this injustice. But the driving force behind this opposition to persecuting and deporting the Jews was the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

Bishop Stefan’s and Bishop Kiril’s voices were the most influential and adamant ones. They literally became the heart and soul of the Bulgarian nation in an unprecedented movement to save the Jews.

These two great souls made it their mission to stop this terrible injustice and refused to let the Fascist Bulgarian government deport the Jews to Treblinka in Poland where they would have been killed immediately.

Treblinka was the worst imaginable place on earth. It was hidden deep in the Polish woods where no one could hear or see what went on there. The Nazis murdered over 800,000 people primarily Jews in a ten month period in this Hell on Earth in 1943.

One of the worst decisions Bulgaria ever made was to adopt the Law of the Protection of the Nation in 1941. It was the Bulgarian version of Germany’s infamous Nuremberg Laws. It set the stage for the dehumanizing and deportation of the Bulgarian Jews. On March 1, 1941 Bulgaria became an ally of Nazi German in the war.

Bishops Stefan and Kiril and the rest of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church protested vigorously against this law because it denied all Jews living in Bulgaria the most basic of human rights.

Even people like Dimitar Peshev, the Deputy Speaker of the Bulgarian parliament who had voted for the law did not realize that it would be used to justify the deportation of the Jews. Later Peshev would become one of the great heroes in this life and death fight to save the Jews.

Alexander Belev, the Commissariat for the Jewish Question and Captain Theodor Dannecker of the German SS had signed a secret agreement, unknown to the Bulgarian people, in February 1943 to deport twenty thousand Jews. These Jews would come from Bulgaria and the occupied territories of Macedonia and Thrace. Twelve thousand would be taken from the territories and eight thousand from Bulgaria.

Jewish leaders in Bulgaria received a warning of the impending deportation and asked Demitar Peshev to help them. He and others confronted Interior Minister Petar Gabrovski, a Nazi lover and anti-Semite on March 9 and demanded a cancellatiom of the order. After Peshev threatened to bring it to the floor of the parliament and cause a national scandal, a word came late that night that the order to deport the Jews was being put on hold.

The delayed order had not yet reached Plovdiv and on the following morning 1,600 Jews were being held in a school yard near the train station waiting for their deportation to Treblinka.

Earlier that day the Metropolitan of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in Plovdiv, Bishop Kiril, had sent King Boris a one sentence telegram that said, “In the name of God, have mercy on the Jews.” Kiril had already threatened civil disobedience by saying he would lie down on the tracks in front of the trains if the deportation was carried out.

Even this was not enough for this great soul. He rushed to the place where the Jews were being held that morning and told the police that he wanted to speak to the people. He was told that he couldn’t. After hearing this, he climbed over the fence surrounding the area and his words to the people were, “Don’t worry my children. You are staying here and if they send you away, I am going with you.” He quoted from Ruth 1:16 in the  Bible, “Wherever you go, I will go! Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God, my God!”

At 3 p.m. that afternoon, the order came to release the Jews and set them free. The young and the old ran into the streets with their bags of clothes crying, “We’ve been freed.” This was a moment of great triumphant and victory but the order to send the Jews to the death camps from Bulgaria was only delayed not cancelled. The forces of evil were still planning to find a way to force King Boris into giving up Bulgaria’s Jews.

Following the delay of the deportation order, on March 17th Dimitar Peshev and 42 other parliament deputies sent a letter of protest to the Prime Minister Bogdan Filov and King Boris. They demanded that the order to deport the Jews be cancelled permanently. This greatly angered the Prime Minister and the King  and the order remained in effect.

The letter of protest meant political and personal disaster for Peshev. He was stripped of his position in the parliament on March 30th and was never allowed to serve in public life again. His life was ruined and his part in the rescue was over. He spent the rest of his life in poverty and destitution unable to serve in any position or work in any profession.

During this same month, Bishop Stefan, the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was on his way to the Rila monastery when he happened upon a train loaded with crying people locked inside boxcars. He heard the voices of hundreds of trapped men, women and children begging for water, food and air. The train quickly disappeared from his sight but the images and the sounds burned in his mind.

Only God could have arranged this divine appointment on the road to the Rila Monastery that would forever change his life and destiny. What he had witnessed that day were the Jews of Thrace packed like sardines inside boxcars with no food or water, no toilet facilities, no place to sit down or to rest on their way to the death camp at Treblinka. God’s chosen people were being treated worse than animals and virtually no one in Bulgaria even knew about it.

This horrible scene challenged everything Bishop Stefan believed in as a man of God. Like Jesus, Bishop Stefan had come to save men’s lives not to be a part of destroying them. As a Bulgarian, he understood that this despicable treatment of the Jews was against everything men like Levski, Botev, Rakovski and so many others had died for.

Bulgaria’s great heroes had laid down their lives for justice and equality in the belief that one day a nation of people would arise from the chains of 500 years of slavery to be the champions of men everywhere who believed in freedom and the dignity of man.

Bishop Stefan raced to the monastery and immediately sent a telegram to King Boris and begged him to intervene in this tragedy. The King told Bishop Stefan by return telegram, “everything possible within the law would be done.”

Bishop Stefan, brokenhearted, started his journey back to Sofia. On his way he stopped in a small town to conduct a service and he was shocked that the streets were empty. Bulgarian Jews were under house arrest, awaiting deportation and the local people were refusing to leave their homes in sympathy with their Jewish friends.

Bishop Stefan made a telephone call to the Bulgarian Prime Minister demanding that the house arrest orders for the Jews be canceled. The Prime Minister was so taken by surprise at Stefan’s boldness that he immediately lifted the order.

The church where Bishop Stefan was conducting the service filled up that day with the Jews of the town. They came to say thank you for saving them and to greet this great man with “Shalom.”

Tragically, nothing was done to save the Jews on the train that Bishop Stefan had seen that day. These were not Bulgarian Jews and the King said his hands were tied and he could not help them. The train continued on its way to Treblinka and everyone was dead within three hours after their arrival at the camp.

The Law for the Protection of the Nation passed by the Bulgarian parliament and signed by King Boris in January 1941 prevented the granting of Bulgarian citizenship or any form of protection to Jews that were not already Bulgarian citizens. These Jews and others from Macedonia were made people without a country and Hitler demanded their deportation. Sadly, the Bulgarians complied and did as they were told.

Most historians believe Bulgaria could have done more to save these Jews. The government’s disregard for their plight and participation in gathering them up represents a great stain on the history of Bulgaria that the Bulgarian people do not deserve.

The Nazis continued to seek ways to carry out the deportation of Bulgaria’s Jews. Alexander Belev and Theodore Dannecker announced a new plan to deport 800 of Sofia’s Jews.

Bishop Stefan immediately went to the royal palace to see the King. He was told that the King was ill and could not see him. Bishop Stefan told the staff that he would wait in the palace until the King felt well enough to see him. The King saw that Bishop Stefan would not leave so reluctantly he agreed to meet with him. Bishop Stefan told the King that if he allowed this deportation to occur, he would open the churches and monasteries as a place of sanctuary for the Jews. The King believed that Bishop Stefan would do this so again he agreed to  postpone the deportation. The Bulgaria’s Jews were saved once again because a good man refused to let them go but this life and death drama was not over.

On April 2nd, Bishop Stefan calls a special meeting of the Church leaders and it was agreed and reconfirmed by all there that day  that the Church would not support the anti-jewish and unchristian laws passed by the government.

On April 15th King Boris invited the Bulgarian bishops to the palace where he tried to persuade them for “the love of the country” to agree to the deportations. “After all,” he said, “other countries have dealt the same way with the ‘Jewish Problem’.” Again the Bulgarian Church leaders stood firm and refused to go along with the King’s request.

The bishops continued to demand a cancellation of the anti-jewish laws and ask that all Jews that had been baptized by the Church be recognized as Christians. It was clearly understood by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and other Christian churches in Bulgaria at the time that these baptisms were acts of mercy not a change of faith on the part of the Jewish people. It pained the Jews to agree to such things but they knew this was offered to them in an attempt to save their lives so they went along with it. These brave men of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church never changed or altered their determination to save the Bulgarian Jews throughout the war.

In a two and a half month period the Church bishops  met 8 times on the Jewish question, sent 5 letters to the King, met with the Prime Minister twice and sent circulars out concerning this to the churches.

King Boris was presented with two options from SS Captain Dannecker and Alexander Belev to deport the Jews. Plan A: deport the Jews to the death camps immediately or Plan B: deport them to labor camps in the Bulgarian countryside near the Danube River in the north of the country.

King Boris chose plan B and he issued an order on May 21st to send the Jews to the labor camps. They were given two weeks to get rid of their property and report for deportation. Sofia, the Bulgarian capital looked like a giant market as the Jews sold their belongings for almost nothing. People came from everywhere in wagons to haul their stuff away.

Bishop Stefan continued to write the King and plead with him “do not persecute the Jews, so that you, yourself, will not be persecuted. The measure you give will be the measure returned to you. I know, King Boris, that God in heaven is keeping watch over your actions.”

The Jews were very frightened because they believed that the deportation to the Bulgarian labor camps would actually just be an excuse to get them on the trains and then deport them across the border to the death camps.

May 24th, was the holiday that honors Saint Cyril and Methodius, the originators of the Cyrillic alphabet in Bulgaria. The Jews were told by Bishop Stefan to use this occasion to protest their deportation.

Thousands of Bulgarian students turned out for the holiday  in 1943 and gathered at the famed Alexander Nevski Cathedral to celebrate the day with their friends and hear speeches by government and Church officials. The Bulgarian Council of Ministers along with the members of the Bulgarian parliament were all there to join in the celebration. However, King Boris was nowhere to be found. He was missing and no one knew where he was.

Bishop Stefan, as the head of the Church, addressed the large gathering of students and government officials that day as was his custom to do. He immediately began to tell the thousands of people there that someone was missing from the celebration. He said it was the Jewish students who were forbidden to be there. He began to speak against the government policies concerning the treatment of the Jews and promised to  ban from the church anyone who persecuted them. That day he stood up once again for the Jews and spoke as the voice of the God, the Bulgarian church and nation.

The Bulgarian Prime Minister Bogdan Filov was furious and told Stefan after his speech that this would in no way change the directive to send 20,000 Jews to the countryside.

When the King reappears from his place of hiding he tells Stefan that as King, he doesn’t have the power to change the law himself to stop the deportation.

The Jews did as Bishop Stefan told them and they used the holiday to peacefully protest in front of the King’s palace. Five hundred of them were beaten, arrested, jailed and sent to the labor camps in northern Bulgaria but no one was deported to the death camps.

The deportation of the Jews to Treblinka or any of the other death camps never took place. King Boris died suddenly in September 1943 and by this time the Germans were losing the war and the Bulgarian Jews were no longer an urgent matter for them.

Without the courage of these brave bishops and countless others the ending to this story would have been totally different. Bulgaria’s Jews like those in Poland, Hungary and so many other countries would have been lost.

Bishop Stefan continued in his position as Metropolitan of Sofia and was elected as the official head of the Bulgarian church following the war and Communist takeover in September 1944. He had many problems with the Communist regarding removing religion from the schools and the church’s involvement in the political life of the country.

He resigned in 1948 from this leadership position in the Bulgarian church which was by then engaged in a symbiotic relationship with the Communists. His resignation came following a disagreement with his Bishops over an insignificant matter. This was never fully explained and the true reason for his resignation would forever remain a mystery.

He thought that he would be allowed to remain the Metropolitan of Sofia but instead he was arrested and banished to the small village of Banya, near Karlovo. He was kept there in a private villa under house arrest for the next 9 years until he died in 1957.

He was never allowed to be a priest again. He was often sick and alone and had no visitors except his immediate family. The Synod of the Bulgarian church in Sofia helped him some but he was considered too dangerous to be allowed to return to Sofia or the priesthood.

On May 12,1957 Bishop Stefan died in Banya at the age of 78. By this time, ninety five percent of the Jews that he had helped save had already left Bulgaria for Israel. They left because they wanted their own country but with great gratitude and appreciation for Bishops Stefan and Kiril and the Bulgarian nation.

Bishop Kiril was elected as the first Patriarch of the restored Bulgarian church during Communist times and became one of the Church’s prolific historians. He died March 7, 1971.

The Israelis honored Bishop Stefan and Bishop Kiril with their Righteous of the Nations Award in 2001 but their greatest reward was in heaven where they heard the words of Jesus who said, “You are good and faithful servants. I left you in charge of only a little, but now I will put you in charge of much more. Come and share in my happiness!” Matthew 25:21