King Boris of Bulgaria

Respectable Virtues, Timeless Truth Off 52

Have you ever heard of King Boris of Bulgaria? If you answered no, you’re in good company; most people do not know that this man helped save his Jewish subjects. But a true hero he is not, because he did cooperate with the Nazi deportation of Jews from neighboring countries.
Just recently, I was looking at a map of Europe that listed all the countries and the number of Holocaust victims in each one. From Poland (3,000,000) to Finland (15), nearly every country had its share of Jews who were killed by the Nazis. Bulgaria was the only country with no victims listed! This is particularly noteworthy because Bulgaria is situated between Greece and Romania, both of which suffered great losses to their Jewish populations.
In many ways, the role of Bulgaria during World War II was a tale of two countries. In early 1941, Bulgaria joined the Axis forces led by Germany and participated in the invasion and occupation of Greece. In return, Germany allowed Bulgaria to expand into neighboring Thrace and Macedonia, both of which had sizable Jewish populations. In February of 1943, Bulgarian officials signed a secret pact with Germany’s Theodor Dannecker, an architect of the Final Solution, paving the way for the deportation of the 11,000 Jews of Thrace and Macedonia. On the night of March 3, 1943, they were rounded up and sent by train to the Danube, then by boat to Vienna, and again by train to Treblinka. Not one survived.
But later in 1943, the Germans demanded that King Boris, Bulgaria’s leader, authorize the deportation of Jews from Bulgaria proper. The king was inclined to follow the Nazi plan, but he was challenged by members of his Parliament. Dimitur Pešev, the deputy speaker of the Parliament and a prominent member of the king’s own Government Ruling Party, personally intervened and persuaded the king to delay the deportation. However, the majority in the Government Ruling Party, undoubtedly with Boris’s tacit approval, thwarted Pešev’s efforts and forced his resignation.
Preparations for the deportations moved along swiftly, and boxcars were lined up in Kyustendil, a town near the western border. But as news of the impending disaster leaked out, the citizens of Bulgaria rose in protest in support of their country’s Jewish population. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church also voiced its opposition to the Nazi plan. The head of the church, Archbishop Stefan, went to the palace and refused to leave until he was given an audience with the king. When he was finally received, he warned King Boris that if the order was not rescinded, he would instruct all the churches and monasteries to hide the Jews. Ordinary civilians and religious leaders gathered in protests across the country, threatening to block the trains by lying down on the tracks. And so, just four hours before the deportations were to begin, King Boris halted the order against the Jews.
Under intense pressure from the Germans, Bulgarian officials searched for other ways to help the Jews. Through Swiss diplomatic channels, they appealed to Britain to allow the Jews entry into occupied Palestine. This request was blocked by British foreign secretary Anthony Eden, who replied that such a move would encourage other European Jews to apply for immigration to Palestine, and “there simply are not enough ships.”
Hitler, ym”s, was not happy with King Boris, who refused his requests to declare war on the Soviet Union. So when Hitler learned that the Jews of Bulgaria had been spared deportation, he was furious. He summoned King Boris to a meeting, which took place in Rastenburg, East Prussia, in August of 1943. Facing Hitler’s wrath, King Boris reasserted his refusal to send the Jews to concentration camps in Poland because they were needed for “various labor tasks including road maintenance.”
King Boris did agree, though, to declare “symbolic” war on the US and the UK. This did not work out very well for the Bulgarians as the USAF and RAF unleashed several very real bombing raids on the capital.
Another unfortunate event for the Bulgarians was the sudden passing of King Boris days later, in August of 1943. His son Simeon was only six years old, so a military government took charge. In 1944, the Soviet Union declared war on Bulgaria, but that country had no interest in fighting a losing war for the Germans. Bulgaria sued for peace with the Russians and switched its allegiance, declaring war on Germany.
Amazingly, Bulgaria’s postwar Jewish population was 50,000, virtually the same as the prewar number. In 1948, there was a mass exodus when 35,000 of these Jews made aliyah to the British Mandate in Palestine.
In 1969, Israel dedicated a forest in honor of King Boris. However, in 2000, the forest was rededicated to honor the people of Bulgaria—the true heroes who courageously protected their Jewish citizens.

About the author / 

Rabbi Sholom Friedmann

Rabbi Sholom Friedmann is a Talmid of Rabbi Leib Bakst זצ"ל, of Yeshivas Ateres Mordechai, Detroit, Michigan. After learning in the yeshivah and kollel, Rabbi Friedmann moved to the British colony of Gibraltar and studied in the Gateshead Kollel for three more years, at which time he received rabbinical ordination. From there, Rabbi Friedmann moved to London, England. In London, Rabbi Friedmann taught in the Menorah Grammar School, and was appointed the communal Rov of Kehilas Kol Yaakov, Edgware, London. Rabbi Friedmann was awarded Qualified Teaching Status by the British Board of Education in 2002, and a diploma in educational psychology by the Tavistock clinic (London) in 2006. In 2005, Rabbi Friedmann was accepted as a Fellow in Holocaust Education by the prestigious Imperial War Museum, London. Rabbi Friedmann relocated to New York in 2008 to become the Director of Zechor Yemos Olam, the Holocaust education division of Torah Umesorah. While occupying that position, Rabbi Friedmann created teaching materials, videos, and teacher training programs, including the ZYO Holocaust education fellowship program. In April 2012, Rabbi Friedmann was appointed as the director of the Amud Aish Memorial Museum. The museum founded by Elly Kleinman will carry on the legacy of holocaust history. For more info about when it is expected to open read this article.

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