Vol. 17, No. 4
Bulgarian Church Protection of Jews in World War II
Parush R. Parushev
In the rescue of Bulgarian Jews from German death camps, the active role of Christian communities is often overlooked. To have a complete picture of events it is necessary to examine the redemptive role of Bulgarian Orthodox and other Christian communities in moving the nation toward acts of civil disobedience in order to rescue the country’s Jews.
In Frederick B. Chary’s words: “No other institution with comparable influence so consistently opposed the government’s anti-Semitic policy as did the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.”1 The church’s leading prelates, Metropolitan Stefan of Sofia (future Exarch, 1945-48), Metropolitan Kyril of Plovdiv (future Patriarch, 1953-71), and Metropolitan Neofit of Vidin (acting president of the Holy Synod), unanimously and vocally condemned repressive measures against Bulgaria’s Jews. In turn, all other church officials followed their lead.2
Metropolitan Kyril, a member of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, challenged anti-Semitism in print as early as 1938. Then after the Bulgarian government enacted anti-Semitic legislation on 21 January 1941, church reaction was swift and indignant. Metropolitan Stefan, taking the Jewish cause as his personal mission, repeatedly intervened with the police and local government authorities on behalf of this persecuted minority. He also boldly preached against anti-Semitism in spite of numerous government attacks against him. Upon learning of the deportation of Jews from Thrace and Macedonia, he urged King Boris of Bulgaria to block this action, but unfortunately, unsuccessfully. In March 1943, during the days of impending Jewish deportations, Metropolitans Stefan and Kyril both offered refuge to Jewish leaders in their private homes.
On 2 April 1943 the Holy Synod reminded the government of its firm support for Bulgarian Jews, with Metropolitan Kyril stating, “Until now [I] have always been loyal toward the government. Now I reserve the right to act with a free hand in this matter [of the defense of the Jews] and heed only the dictates of my free conscience.”3 On behalf of the Synod, Metropolitan Neofit also warned King Boris: “Because of the extraordinary measures . . . [and] unscrupulous harshness against the Jews . . . God’s wrath against our people may be provoked.”4 No doubt the Church’s bold warnings were “a very influential factor in Boris’ rejection of deportation as a solution to the Jewish question in 1943.”5
According to the 1941 Law for Protection of the Nation, some Jews were to be exempted from its discriminatory provisions. While exemptions theoretically were to benefit very few, in practice they became widely available, thus sabotaging the harshest provisions of the legislation. For example, so-called “mercy baptisms,” liberally conducted, saved considerable numbers of Jews. As Peter Meyer notes, “Because the law spoke of conversion and not baptism having to take place before 1 September 1940, Jews baptized later could also be saved if ministers declared that they had expressed their will to adopt Christianity before that date. Many courts accepted this reasoning.”6
In the life-and-death struggle to rescue Bulgaria’s Jews, Christian confessional boundaries did not impede common cause. Metropolitan Stefan knew of the influence of the small but active Bulgarian Roman Catholic community on Italian-born Queen Giovanna. In the face of pending deportation, he advised Jewish leaders to meet with Catholic priest Fr. Jean Romanov, the queen’s spiritual father.7 Also by 1943 Monsignor Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII and a personal friend of Metropolitan Stefan’s, had secured, with the help of King Boris, transit visas for thousands of Jews from Slovakia and Hungary who were escaping concentration camps by immigrating to Palestine.8 In addition, Metropolitan Stefan was in touch with Bulgaria’s evangelical churches in his attempts to rescue Jews.9
The small evangelical community in Bulgaria also took action in defense of the country’s Jews.10 In the early 1940s Nazi German publications frequently complained of Bulgarian complacency in the enforcement of anti-Semitic legislation and of church measures to protect Jews. One German newspaper reported that one Protestant minister “with a community of about 200 souls, managed to baptize 200 additional persons [all Jews] between January and September 1940.”11 After years of searching for direct evidence of this evangelical involvement in rescuing Bulgarian Jews, I discovered that unnamed ministers referred to in the German newspaper were Congregationalist Pastor Asen Mikhailov Simeonov and Baptist Pastor Minkov Radev.12
The First Congregational Church in Sofia under Senior Pastor Simeonov and Assistant Pastor Radev was especially active in assisting Jews. Born in an Orthodox family strongly connected to the Bulgarian Revival,13 Simeonov apparently was converted in a Methodist church while studying in Pleven. After seminary studies in Switzerland, he served Methodist churches in Sevlievo, Plovdiv, and Sofia. Simeonov married a Congregationalist, and in 1935 he was appointed pastor of the First Congregational Church in Sofia.14 From 1935 to 1941 Simeonov and his associate pastor, Baptist Minkov Radev, issued baptismal certificates to Jews. For this aid both pastors lost their church posts and their minister’s licenses in 1941 on orders of the Fascist government.15
The dismissal of Simeonov and Radev did not stop the church’s support of Bulgaria’s Jews. Simeonov’s successor, Pastor Vasil Georgiev Zjapkov, followed in his footsteps.16 As representative of the Alliance of Bulgarian Evangelical Churches,17 he was actively involved with Metropolitan Stefan in assisting Bulgaria’s Jews and in putting pressure on King Boris to prevent their deportation.18
For evangelical pastors Simeonov, Radev, and Zjapkov, as well as for the leadership of the Orthodox Church, it was clear that mercy baptisms were just that – acts of mercy. Christian ministers were well aware that conversions of the heart were not taking place in these acts of baptism. As Simeonov testified, “The majority of the Jews were experiencing deep pain that they had to compromise their faith. And most of them did not do it out of changing their convictions, but because they were forced by the circumstances. Therefore, I did not consider myself a missionary; my duty was simply to help them.”19
The role of Bulgarian Christian communities standing in defense of their Jewish compatriots is a remarkable story. These communities gave concrete moral witness in action to faithfulness to a noble vision. In spite of their prominent participation in rescue activities, Christian communities in Bulgaria have been given little credit in secular historiography. Even though there was widespread public support from all levels for acts of rescue, the unanimous support of the efforts by all Christian communities, without exception, is the most telling part of this story. Faced with the dilemma of taking sides in the confrontation of a defiant people against a powerful and corrupt government, religious leaders firmly sided with their flocks and with the Jewish people. As a result, while many Bulgarians of the anti-Fascist resistance movement were incarcerated in concentration camps, not one Bulgarian Jew was sent to death camps.
I believe the Jewish Exodus after 400 years of slavery in Egypt informed Bulgaria’s understanding of its own liberation after 500 years of Ottoman oppression. Thus, the rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews is best understood as an act of civil disobedience motivated by attitudes unique to the Bulgarian context. Bulgaria’s support for its Jews in defiance of the Germans bears the marks of Christian social ethics internalized by the Bulgarian community through the prolonged period of national revival in the 18th and 19th centuries and recorded in the country’s Founding Constitution. F
Frederick B. Chary, The Bulgarian Jews and the Final Solution 1940-1944 (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972), 188.
2Michael Bar-Zohar, Beyond Hitler’s Grasp: The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews (Holbrook, MA: Adams Media Corporation, 1998), Chapter 13.
3David Cohen, Otseljavaneto: Sbornik of Documenty 1940-1944 [The Survival: A Compilation of Documents 1940-1944] (Sofia, Bulgaria: “Shalom” Publishing Center, 1995), 230; Tzvetan Todorov, The Fragility of Goodness: Why Bulgaria’s Jews Survived the Holocaust. A Collection of Texts with Commentary (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 98.
4 Bar-Zohar, Beyond Hitler’s Grasp, 173.
5 Chary, Bulgarian Jews, 189; Stephane Groueff, Crown of Thorns: The Reign of King Boris III of Bulgaria, 1918-1943 (Lanham/New York/Oxford: Madison Books, 1998), 328.
6 Peter Meyer, “Bulgaria,” in Peter Meyer, Bernard D. Weinryb, Eugene Duschinsky, and Nicolas Sylvain, The Jews in the Soviet Satellites (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1971), 571.
7 Bar-Zohar, Beyond Hitler’s Grasp, 194. The Apostolic Delegate in Sofia Monsignor Giuseppe Mazzoli helped negotiate the rescue of the Jews (Ibid., 188 and 202-03). On cooperation and good relations between Bulgarian Orthodox and Catholics in Bulgaria, see Peter Hebblethwaite, John XXIII: Pope of the Council (London: Cassell Ltd., 1984), 141, 175-77.
8 Groueff, Crown of Thorns, 230.
9 Veselin Ignatov, “Pastir Zjapkov i Evreite [Pastor Zjapkov and the Jews],” Zornitsa [Morning Star] 121 (April, 1997); Hristo Kulichev, ed., Vestitely na Istnaia: Istorja na Evangelskite Tsarkvi v Balgaria [Heralds of the Truth: A History of the Evangelical Churches in Bulgaria], 2nd ed. (Sofia: Bulgarian Bible Society, 1994), 264-65; 275-76.
10 Cohen, Otseljavaneto, 42-43.
11 Meyer, “Bulgaria,” 571 and 623; D. Andreev’s article in the newspaper Dnes [Today], 24 June 1941, as quoted by Ljubomir Vladikin, “Die Judengesetzgebung in Bulgarien,” Weltkampf, Munich, No. 2 (October-December 1942), 291, cited by Meyer in “Bulgaria,” 623.
12 I want to express my special gratitude to Dr. Hristo Kulichev for his support and help in finding contacts and materials of the Bulgarian Evangelical relationship with the Jews during World War II. He was instrumental in organizing a meeting with Lidja Asenova Simeonova, the daughter of Asen Simeonov. She provided personal documents from her father’s file from the archives of the Bulgarian Communist security prison system and gave me indispensable insights into her father’s life and ministry for the Jews (personal interview, 14 March 2002).
13 His grandfather, Simeon Benchov, was an Orthodox priest active in the 19th century Bulgarian Revival who passed on the vision of the revival to his grandson (interview with Lidja Asenova Simeonova, 14 March 2002; Kulichev, Vestitely na Istinata, 275-76). For Simeon Benchov’s biography, see the entry in Bulgarska Vazrozhdenska Intelegentsia [Encyclopedia of the Bulgarian Revivalist Intelligentsia] (Sofia: Dr. Petar Beron Publisher, 1988).
14 The service of induction was held on 15 November 1931; see “Programa za ustanovjavavaneto nap astir Asen M. Simeonov v I-va Evangelska Tsarkva, ul. Solun 16, Sofia” [Program for the Induction of Pastor Asen M. Simeonov in the First Evangelical Church on 16 Solun Street, Sofia] in the author’s possession.
15 “Reference: Concerning Asen Michailov Simeonov” (Simeonov file in the Archive of the Directory of Police, 10 March 1958, 129. Absolutely Secret) and “Agent’s Report to the Chief Officer of Division ‘B’. 1-Department in regard to the investigation of Asen Mikhailov Simeonov,” Report of agent of 23rd group of the Division ‘B’ of the First Department (Simeonov file in the Archive of the Directory of Police, January 1950, p. 45, Sofia, Strictly Confidential).
16 Kulichev, Heralds of the Truth, 273-75.
17 Ibid., 275.
18 Eyewitness report of Ignatov, “Pastir Zjapkov i Eveite,” 3.
19 Nikola Kjosev, “Pastir Asen Simeonov,” Zornitsa [Morning Star], 123 (May 1999), 2. Simeonov’s testimony is confirmed by prominent poet Valeri Petrov who writes: “I know that because I am one of the baptized….Our family [with a Jewish father and a Bulgarian mother] was a family of atheists and faith cannot be imparted with a document, and Pastor Simeonov knew that very well.” Hristo Kulichev, Contributions of the Protestants to the Bulgarian People (Sofia, Bulgaria: St. Kliment of Ohrid Publisher, Sofia University, 2008, in Bulgarian, 281).
Edited excerpts published with permission from Parush R. Parushev,“Walking in the Dawn of the Light: On the Salvation Ethics of the Ecclesial Communities in the Orthodox Tradition from a Radical Reformation Perspective,” Ph.D. dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 2006.
Parush R. Parushev is academic dean of the International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague, Czech Republic.