Who Stopped the trains in Bulgaria?

Kiril and Stefan were prelates of the Orthodox church in Bulgaria during the Shoah.

Kiril was the archbishop of Plovdiv.  After the passing of the “Law for the Defense of the Nation,” which paralleled the Nuremberg laws, the police ordered the 1500 Jews of Plovdiv to prepare for deportation.  In the afternoon a curfew was imposed on the city, and on the 19th of March, after midnight, the police carried out an Aktion, herding all the Jews of the city into the courtyard of the Jewish school.  The next morning Kiril sent a telegram to the king of Bulgaria, declaring that he no longer accepted the sovereignty of the Bulgarian kingdom and would act according to his conscience. He warned the Plovdiv police chief that he was going to give the Jews sanctuary in the church and that the police would have to arrest him in order to get at them.  Kiril broke down the barriers between the church and the school and made a speech to the Jews.  At noon the order arrived from the king to release the Jews of Plovdiv to their homes, and the deportation was put off.

At the same time in Sofia, an order was signed for the evacuation of 2000 Jews from the villages as a first stage in their deportation to Germany.  The rabbis of the city, Asher Hananel and Daniel Tzion, turned for help to the Metropolitan Stefan.  Stefan appealed to the king, asking him to cancel the decree and warning him that he would give the Jews of the city sanctuary in the churches.  When he learned that the two rabbis had been arrested, he sent a letter to the king, threatening that if the Jews were deported, he would lie down on the train tracks.  The evacuation of the Jews from the villages and their deportation by train was put off again and again. In September 1944 Sofia was conquered by the Red Army.  In the reshuffling that ensued, the persecution of the Jews stopped.

At the time of writing, the Jewish community is celebrating the 75th anniversary of this rescue, and I have heard from one person that a committee has been formed to nominate Bulgaria for the Nobel Peace Prize.  In this way the dark side of the regime and its collaboration with the Nazis will be covered up.

In Israel a debate is going on, based partly on the legend of the king and the Jews and partly on ignorance, about how and whether Bulgarian Jewry was saved: what happened to prevent 48,000 Jews from getting on the trains, and how it happened that the 11,000 Jews of Thrace and Macedonia, who belonged to the same families and lived under the same Bulgarian regime, were sent to their deaths, leaving no survivors.

On a black stone on the way to the University of Sofia, beside a monument covered with fading wreaths, I found, in English and Bulgarian, the following words:  “In the spring of 1943, thanks to the efforts of members of parliament, leaders of the Orthodox church, leading public figures, intellectuals and others, the deportation to the Nazi death camps of more than 48,000 was prevented.  We remember this exceptional rescue and remember more than 11,000 Jews from northern Greece and parts of Yugoslavia under the Bulgarian government, who were deported to the Treblinka death camp and murdered.”

I stood still in amazement.  This was the first time I had seen in Bulgaria, Macedonia or Serbia, any kind of memorial that in any way acknowledged the responsibility of the local government for the deportation of Jews to the death camps.  All of the many memorials erected during the seventy years of the Communist regime avoided any precise statement.  For the most part the style was very general, and the Jews were listed along with the rest of the victims of “Fascism”: Serbs, gypsies and others.  The main culprit in the murders was “Fascism” or Nazism.   There was not the slightest mention or hint of the part played by the locals.  Sometimes this silence served the Yugoslavian “brotherhood of peoples” – the Serbs were unwilling to accuse the Croats, their brothers in the new Communist state, of setting up concentration camps and murdering the Jews, and vice versa.  In a world where good and evil were clearly polarized, there was not much room for precise details, numbers, or dates.

The memorial I saw commemorates not the Jews who perished, but the rescue of the Jews of Bulgaria who remained alive.  However, it is the first memorial that does not just speak in general terms but lists the rescuers, and among them the heads of the Orthodox church.  In my meeting with Irit Lilian, the Israeli ambassador to Bulgaria, I learned that it took great effort on the part of Israel and prolonged discussion to arrive at a formulation that satisfied everyone and included the righteous Gentiles.

The inscription on the memorial mentions the place of church officials in the saving of the Jews and gives content to the words “the rescue of the Jews of Bulgaria.”  A rescue in which there is light and also much shadow.


Published in the “Opinion” section of Israel Today, March 22, 2018

Translated by Esther Cameron

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