Judge Yaacov Maltz (left) presenting the Righteous Among the Nations medal to Mrs. Maria Nikolova Popova, niece of Metropolitan Stefan and Prof. Kiril Markov, nephew of Metropolitan Kiril
12 March 2002
(March 12, 2002 - Jerusalem) The ceremony honoring the late Metropolitan of Sofia, Stefan; and the late Metropolitan of Plovdiv, Kiril - heads of the Independent Orthodox Church (Bulgaria’s largest Church) - for saving Jews during the Holocaust, took place at Yad Vashem on March 12, 2002. The ceremony took place in the presence of Ivan Petkov, Bulgaria’s Deputy Foreign Minister; H.E. Prof. Tsanko Yablanski, Bulgaria’s Ambassador in Israel; H.E. Emanuel Zisman, Israel’s Ambassador in Bulgaria; Judge Yaacov Maltz, Chairman of the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous; Avner Shalev, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate; the niece of Metropolitan Stefan; the nephew of Metropolitan Kiril; representatives of the Bulgarian Government; representatives of the Bulgarian Church including the Chief Secretary of the Holy Synod; representatives of the Bulgarian Jewish community; and Bulgarian Holocaust survivors.
The rescue story:
Two Heads of the Independent Orthodox Church (Bulgaria’s largest Church), who saved Jews during the Holocaust, have been named as Righteous Among the Nations by the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem.
Metropolitan (=Bishop) Stephan, the Head of the Sofian Church, and in practice, the highest ranking Bulgarian Church official during the Holocaust, and Metropolitan Kiril, the Head of the Church in the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, vigorously opposed the anti-Jewish policies of the Bulgarian regime, and took active steps against its policy of deporting the Jews of Bulgaria and handing them over to the Germans.
Towards the end of 1940 Bulgaria, a member of the axis powers, made known its intention to pass the “Law for the Protection of the Nation”. The aim of the Law was to limit the rights of minorities suspected of practical subversion, however its true intention was to deny the rights of the Jews. In November of that same year the Holy Synod (the highest body in the Bulgarian Church made up of 11 bishops), headed by Metropolitan Stephan, sent a letter to the Bulgarian Prime Minister with a copy to the Speaker of the Bulgarian Parliament asking to amend the proposed law. One of the amendments was a separate clause relating to the Jews :
“Let no account be taken of laws against the Jews as a national minority, but let purposeful steps be taken against all the real dangers to the spiritual, cultural, economical, public and political life of the Bulgarian people, from whatever direction these dangers come. “
After the passing of the Law by the Bulgarian Parliament, and its signing by King Boris III in January 1941, Metropolitan Stephan continued to speak out against the persecution of the Jews.
In November 1942 Beckerle, the German Ambassador in Bulgaria, reported to his superiors in Germany on Metropolitan Stephan’s actions against the Bulgarian authorities’ anti-Jewish policy. In a later report to his superiors, Beckerle sent the German translation of an announcement by the Bulgarian Fascist Party, dated July 1943, calling for the liquidation of Stephan “the sooner the better!”
In early March 1943 the Bulgarian Government decided to hand over the first group of 800 Jews from Sofia to the Germans. All the preparations had been made and the cattle cars were waiting in the capital’s train station. The Head of the Sofia Jewish Community, Abraham Alphasy, requested Metropolitan Stephan’s intervention. Stephan immediately traveled to the King’s Palace and asked to meet him. The King, aware of his request feigned illness to avoid him, but Stephan refused to leave the Palace until he met with the King. The King was forced to receive him and was asked by Stephan to postpone the decision to hand the Jews over to the Germans, or Stephan would instruct all churches and monasteries to open their doors to Jews, and give them a place to hide, thus violating the order of the authorities. The King gave into Stephan’s demands, and after additional parties asked the Bulgarian Government to halt the deportation, the decision to deport the 800 Jews was postponed.
In the same month as the deportation of the 1,500 Jews of the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv began, local Bishop Metropolitan Kiril succeeded in halting it. Kiril sent a personal telegram to the King begging for his mercy towards the Jews, and contacted the head of the local police, threatening to end his loyalty towards to Bulgaria and to act as he wished. Further testimony claims that he threatened to lie across the railway tracks in order to stop the deportation. When told that his actions had proved successful, and that this deportation order had been cancelled he rushed to the Jewish school – which the authorities had turned into a roundup point for the Jews – and told them the good news.
In April 1943 Metropolitan Stephan convened a special Holy Synod plenary session to discuss the persecution of the country’s converted Jews, as well as all other Jews. At the end of the session a general consensus was reached and it was decided among other things that the Bulgarian Church could not accept this racist law. The Church could not agree to the restriction and deprivation of the rights of certain members of the community, which would be in total contravention to the principles of the Christian doctrine. It was also decided that the Church could not deny help and protection to the persecuted and oppressed - both Jews and Christian Bulgarians had asked the Church to help and protect the Jews. Thus the Church called for the cancellation of the restrictions against the Jews and for the protection of converted Jews - allowing them full rights as citizens. The text of the decision was sent to the Bulgarian Prime Minister with a copy to the King, which resulted in the King’s arranging a meeting of the Holy Synod at his palace. At the meeting the King tried to persuade the members of the Holy Synod to support the anti Jewish policy by using the Church’s love of the Bulgarian Nation. However they continued to insist on the cancellation of the restricting decrees against the Jews, and to take converted Jews into special consideration.
As the German pressure to deport the Bulgarian Jews increased Alexander Belev – the Head of the Commission for Jewish Affairs, responsible for the Jews of Bulgaria – presented two alternate plans for the deportation of the Jews: to hand over the Sofian Jews directly to the Germans or to evacuate them to the countryside. The King chose the second option, which held up the handing over of the Jews to the Germans. When the Sofian Jews received their deportation order the Jewish community’s two Chief Rabbis, Daniel Zion and Asher Hananel contacted Metropolitan Stephan and pleaded for the cancellation of the deportation order. Stephan immediately took active steps and sent a number of messages to the King including a plea to have mercy on the Jews and a caution “Do not persecute so that you yourself will not be persecuted. Your measures shall be returned to you. I know Boris that from heaven God will keep watch over your actions”. At the same time the Bulgarian authorities – the Ministry of the Interior and the Prime Minister’s Office – informed Metropolitan Stephan that the country would not recognize the Church’s conversion ceremonies (on the Jews) and therefore those citizens were to be considered Jews and eligible for deportation - however this was not accepted by Stephan. Bulgaria’s Attorney General opened an investigation into Stephan’s suspected handing out of certificates of baptism to all who requested them, and the police raided his office confiscating all Jewish requests for conversions.
Despite Stephan and other public leaders’ ignored protests, and the Sofian Jews’ deportation to the countryside, Alexander Belev’s plan did not reach the second stage, and the Jews were not handed over to the Germans. The deportation of the Jews of Bulgaria was postponed again and again until it was finally cancelled with the sudden and mysterious death of King Boris, the allied invasion of Italy, and the fear of an invasion of the Balkans. In September 1944, with the Red Army closing in on Bulgaria’s borders, the new Bulgarian government declared war on Germany.
Metropolis Stephan passed away in 1957 and Metropolis Kiril in 1971.