On a cold night in early March 1943, Metropolitan Stefan, head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in Sofia, Bulgaria, came to a stop at an isolated railroad crossing. A train was slowly passing by. From its cars, Stefan heard cries—the sobs of men, women, and children begging "for mercy, for help, for water, for air," as he wrote immediately in protest to Bulgaria's king.
The train he had seen was carrying Jews from Bulgaria's western territories, which Bulgaria had newly acquired by treaty from Germany, to the gas chambers in Treblinka, Poland. Over the next few days, those cars would deport over 11,000 Jews to their deaths. Stefan, who was already vigorously opposing Bulgaria's new Law for National Defense that severely restricted the rights of Jews, now promised himself he would renew his efforts to help his country's Jews.
Only recently, with the collapse of communism, have the details of Stefan's work as well as that of his fellow priest Metropolitan Kyril, and the keen political maneuvering of Dmitur Peshev, vice-president of Parliament and an Orthodox Christian, been publicly acknowledged in Bulgaria. What these three men and other people of like mind accomplished through their opposition can be seen in one telling statistic: more than 50,000 Jews resided in Bulgaria before the war; by war's end that number had actually slightly increased. That Bulgaria's Jews were largely spared is all the more remarkable considering that Bulgaria was allied with Germany and had thousands of German troops on its soil. Here is the untold story of the massive rescue of Bulgaria's Jews—a story of faith in God, of clear-headed convictions, and of righteous action.
By the beginning of World War II, a pro-German government had been installed by Bulgaria's pragmatic King Boris, even though the king's personal sympathies were Anglophilic. A formal alliance with Germany followed in 1941, which allowed German troops to pass through Bulgaria and for naval and military installations to be based there. In return, Germany gave back to Bulgaria regions over which it had long claimed sovereignty. There was an additional price for the new territories: the Law for the Defense of the Nation that was modeled on the Nuremberg Laws. It not only severely restricted Jewish participation in Bulgarian life but also imposed an economic burden through special taxes on Jews.
If the repossession of lost lands (Dobrudzha, Macedonia, and Thrace, which were lost again at the war's end) was popular among the Bulgarian people, the anti-Semitic laws were not. Though they were passed by Parliament after just three days of debate, various church leaders, intellectuals, and professional organizations protested. The Germans were soon complaining about the laxity of enforcement of the new laws. One telltale sign: the size of the Stars of David that all Jews were required to wear was the smallest in all of Europe, and only 20 percent of the total number of stars set to be manufactured were actually made—"electrical problems" halted production.
At the time of the war, Jews were well integrated into Bulgarian society. The original proto-Bulgarians were themselves an ethnically mixed group ("Bulgar" derives from the Turkish verb "to mix"), and during 500 years of Ottoman rule, Greeks, Armenians, and other nationalities were at least as active as the Jews in commercial activities and banking. But if there was little anti-Semitism in general, admirers of Hitler had gained powerful positions in Bulgaria's government, and they had plans to implement Hitler's Final Solution—the extermination of all Jews.
The deportation of Jews from the new territories was part of a larger plan to remove all Jews from Bulgaria proper. The first phase of this operation was to begin on March 9, not long after Stefan had witnessed the death train. But leading Jews in the provincial city of Kiustendil who had learned of the plan (ironically, from the mistress of the head of the Bulgarian agency administering it) contacted Peshev, their representative in Parliament.
Outraged, Peshev, with several other representatives, marched into the office of the minister of the interior, Petur Gabrovski, and demanded an explanation. A startled Gabrovski denied any knowledge of the deportation order, but Peshev promptly called the governor of his province, who confirmed it. Peshev then demanded that Gabrovski cancel the order, which, by his own admission, had been issued without his authorization. Otherwise, Peshev insisted, he would raise the issue in the Parliament that evening, discrediting the government. Cornered, Gabrovski said he would comply.
Not trusting him, however, Peshev called the district governor from the minister's office. The other representatives began to follow suit. Gabrovski, realizing he had been defeated, summoned his secretary and ordered him to telegraph the news to every district governor.
Some regions did not receive the telegram in time, however. In Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second-largest city, Jewish homes were raided at 3 o'clock the next morning and residents herded into a local high school and several other buildings. Metropolitan Kyril, the head of the local church and a staunch opponent of the anti-Semitic laws, reacted immediately, firing off a telegram of protest to the king in which he threatened that he would lie across the tracks in front of the first train leaving with Jews. He then headed for the school where most of the Jews were being held. Barred from entering by a cordon of police, Kyril informed the police that he felt himself no longer bound by the decrees of the government and that he would act henceforth according to his conscience as a minister of Christ. He pulled up his robes and climbed the fence. "Wherever you go, I'll go," he promised the Jews who gathered around him. The cancellation of the deportation order finally arrived from Gabrovski's office, and the Jews were permitted to return to their homes.
Back in Parliament, Peshev, though victorious in stopping the deportation, was expelled from the vice presidency of the Parliament and censured. In the meantime, the Gestapo and its supporters adopted a more devious strategy, presenting to the king two options: deport the Jews to Poland or expel them from the cities into the countryside.
As they anticipated, the king quickly chose the second alternative. The Nazis and their collaborators, however, hoped the presence of large numbers of Jews in rural areas would trigger anti-Semitism and generate pressure to begin deportations. And once one concession had been granted, the Nazi sympathizers reasoned, others would follow. They did not count on Metropolitan Stefan.
Stefan had been born Stoion Shokov in a mountain village in southern Bulgaria. Early on he had made a reputation for himself as a brilliant student and a rebel, leading a local tax revolt as a teenager. After four years at a seminary in Kiev, he surprised his superiors by enrolling in a military academy. Soon, however, he resigned his lieutenant's commission and finally took his priestly vows. For opposing his country's entry into World War I, he was exiled to Switzerland, where he earned a doctorate from the University of Geneva.
A charming, cultured man, Stefan was accused of worldliness by his enemies, and there was some basis for the charge. But Stefan was also profoundly devout and deeply principled. Calling Hitler insane, Stefan bitterly opposed the alliance with Germany. His scathing criticism was a constant embarrassment to the collaborationist government. Chided at a diplomatic reception for being anti-German, he responded by observing that, on the contrary, he was very fond of German literature, then recited the names of some of his favorite authors, all of whom, he well knew, happened to have been banned by the Nazis.
Now, with the order to move the Jews to the countryside, he convened a meeting of the Holy Synod, which unanimously condemned the order. It was conveyed to the king with a warning from Matthew 7:2: "With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again."
Government officials, however, secretly decided to continue with their plan, choosing a national holiday for the deportation in the hopes that the festivities would divert those who might pro test. But the plan backfired.
Walking with his entourage to Nevski Cathedral where a ceremony was to be held, Stefan learned that the expulsion had begun. He left the procession to phone the palace to protest, but the king was incommunicado. So from the steps of the cathedral where he was scheduled to talk as part of the festivities—and with the collaborationist cabinet seated ceremonially behind him—Stefan addressed the enormous crowd filling Nevski Square. Scrapping his prepared speech, he strongly condemned the persecution of the Jews, appealing to the government to resist "foreign indoctrination, influence, and orders." He continued, "I beg of those of you guiding the ship of state to cancel all policies that discriminate, persecute, and divide."
When Stefan was finished, Prime Minister Bogdan Filov, one of the dignitaries in attendance, heatedly warned the prelate to stop interfering with government policies and to cease badgering the king. The expulsion proceeded as planned.
Stefan ignored Filov's threats. He promptly sent off a letter to the king. Filov this time threatened to arrest him for "anti-state activity," but Stefan stepped up the confrontation. At the end of May 1943, he offered to christen all Jews who so desired, thus sparing them from the deportation most people believed was imminent. The government responded by refusing to recognize all christening certificates issued after January 1, 1943.
Stefan protested vehemently and threatened to send a circular to all parish priests, informing them in detail of the fate that awaited Jews in Poland. The interior minister then took a step unprecedented in Bulgarian history, ordering the closing of Sofia's churches in order to prevent mass christenings. "The Church will not obey the order," Stefan quietly informed the minister and sent off his circular. The government once more prepared to arrest Stefan but, fearing public reaction, backed down again.
The churches remained open until the war's end, and the Jews were allowed to remain in Bulgaria. More than 10,000 Jews from the newly acquired provinces had early on been deported, and the Jews in the cities of Bulgaria proper had been removed from their homes; but tens of thousands emerged from Nazi occupation with their lives and families intact. Half a century later, Stefan and Kyril and Peshev are rightfully emerging as heroes who risked all on behalf of their neighbors—Good Samaritans we who follow Christ are compelled to emulate.
Jeff Lipkes is visiting assistant professor of history at Eckerd College in Saint Petersburg, Florida.
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