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  • Writer's pictureStefan Ivanov

Exarch Stephen I Bulgarian

A story about the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews

March 10, 2023 marks the 80th anniversary of the events known as the Salvation of the Bulgarian Jews.

Your Majesty, if you do not stop the persecution of the Jews, I will open the doors of all Bulgarian churches, and then let's see who can get them out of there!

Exarch Stefan I of Bulgaria to Tsar Boris III

Monument to Exarch Stefan I Bulgarian in Shiroka laka
Monument to Exarch Stefan I of Bulgaria in his native village

My dear friends, our story today begins on September 7, 1878, a few months after the Liberation of Bulgaria, in the charming Rhodope village of Shiroka Laka, Smolya district, where in this modest home in the family of Pope Georgi and Shina Shokovi, their third child was born - a boy, bearing the name Stoyan Popgeorgiev Shokov.

Birthplace of Exarch Stefan I of Bulgaria in Shiroka Laka
Birthplace of Exarch Stefan I of Bulgaria in Shiroka Laka

Pope Georgi was the first priest and teacher in Shiroka Laka.

At first, the young Stoyancho studied in his native village, and soon became an orphan – he lost his mother at the age of 9, and his father at the age of 14.

Birthplace of Exarch Stefan I of Bulgaria in Shiroka Laka

A young Levant - at the age of 15 he was sent to Samokov, where in 1896 he graduated with honors and top of the graduating class of the Samokov Theological Seminary.

He works as a teacher in the village of Solishta, close to Shiroka Laka.

The new century came and in the fall of 1900, Stoyan borrowed 200 BGN from the church treasury in the village and went to study at the Theological Academy in Kiev, graduating with the degree of Candidate of Theology.

Back in Bulgaria, Stoyan worked as a teacher of philosophy, Bulgarian history and religion at the Plovdiv Boys' High School.

Just when everyone expected him to become a monk, he enrolled in the School for Reserve Officers in Kniazhevo and in 1906 graduated in absentia with the rank of non-commissioned officer.

At the insistence of the Bulgarian Exarch Joseph I, the Ministry of Public Education sent the young officer-teacher to work at the Bulgarian Theological Seminary "Saint Ivan Rilski" in Constantinople, where he taught at the Constantinople Theological Seminary.

On October 15, 1910, Stoyan was ordained a monk with the name Stefan, and on November 1 of this year is already an exarch proto-single of the Bulgarian Exarchate in Constantinople.

I was the right hand of His Beatitude Exarch Joseph I.

He especially loved me very much for my Slavic idea and affection, and greatly valued my association with the Russian Embassy in Constantinople.

Exarch Stephen I Bulgarian

On September 8, 1911, hieromonk Stefan was elevated to the rank of Archimandrite.

In the late autumn of 1913, Archimandrite Stefan, together with Exarch Joseph I, returned to Bulgaria and settled in Sofia, where the seat of the Exarchate in Bulgaria is already located.

After the death of his patron in 1915, Archimandrite Stefan went to specialize in Switzerland.

At the University of Geneva, he listened to lectures on homiletics and pastoral theology, and at the University of Friborg - on literature and philosophy. Learn languages.

In Fribourg, he defended his doctorate on the topic "On the Bogomils and Presbyter Cosmas".

In Switzerland, his openness and communicativeness are manifested.

He befriends a number of prominent public figures, gets involved in various initiatives, makes impressive speeches and selflessly defends the Bulgarian cause.

At the time, the Western press described him as a selfless patriot, a zealous spiritual head, a profound sage and a political seer.

Recognizing these qualities, the Holy Synod appointed him as its representative to the Geneva and Saint-Battenberg conferences for the union of churches and for international friendship. He was unanimously elected to the leadership of these two organizations.

Metropolitan of Sofia

In 1921 he was ordained Bishop of Marcianopol, and in 1922 he was elected Metropolitan of Sofia.

His opinion is extremely angry on the occasion of the bombing in the "Holy Sunday" church on April 16, 1925, one of the bloodiest attempts in world history, where, in his capacity as Metropolitan of Sofia, he performed the funeral prayer and miraculously remained alive.

Shaken by the groaning of the motherland, horrified by the new weight which the destructive activity of Bolshevism invariably bears, we consider it our unalterable duty to watch and guard our beloved flock from indulging in such anti-patriotic activity.

We almighty shout: "Far from the infernal forces that are pushing to collapse the Bulgarian state!"

The main reason why they indulged in such satanic activity was their godlessness.

Enemies of God and His Son, they trample on all the laws of God and man.

In order to impose their will, they do not spare people, nations and countries.

They are ready to sacrifice anything living that stands in the way of their hellish plans. A new kind of human sacrifice to Moloch, by which unfortunate Russia has been torn apart for the eighth year. Humanity and morality, as they say, were follies and savages.

Fascism, National Socialism, Bolshevism - these are today's forms of the new paganism, more aggressive and more dangerous than the old, because it ostensibly defends just and political causes, and deifies the collective and the human personality.

Both in Germany and in Russia there is this same sacramental cult of the leader personifying the collective deity.

Exarch Stephen I Bulgarian

During the Second World War, although close to the royal court, the bishop did not share the pro-German orientation and stood out as a convinced peacemaker.

He diligently worked to remove the schism* imposed in 1872 on the Bulgarian Exarchate.

*The schism of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was the excommunication of the Bulgarian Exarchate by the Orthodox Council, convened by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, on September 16, 1872. The schism continued until February 22, 1945, when the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was recognized as autocephalous by a reverse act.

Thanks to his active activity and personal authority, he succeeded in bringing about Nansen's cooperation.

He became the godfather of the "Prosveta" community center in Shiroka laka, opened in 1934, which currently bears his name.

After the key date in the history of Bulgaria, September 9, 1944, a major role in the development of the Bulgarian Church was assigned to Metropolitan Stefan of Sofia.

To my great regret, there are very conflicting data about his personality in this period, which even vary in absolutely opposite extremes, which is why I will ignore them for the moment.

Bulgarian Exarch

On January 21, 1945, he was elected Bulgarian Exarch, and on February 22 of the same year, the schism of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was lifted.

As exarch, he opposed the participation of priests in the political life of the country.

Due to his open disagreement with the policy of the communist government in the People's Republic of Bulgaria towards the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and its attitude towards religion, on September 6, 1948 he was forced to resign as Bulgarian Exarch.

On November 24, 1948, he was interned in the village of Banya, Karlovo.

He is forbidden to leave the settlement, as well as to engage in church activities.

In the following years he was constantly ill.

I was cast down with that bitterness and contempt in which there is no trace of humanity, to say nothing of brotherly love.

More than once I was faced with a gaping grave, experienced five bronchopneumonias, painful swelling of the legs, long periods of insomnia and heart attacks.

Alas, I was not honored with a visit.

Only the Metropolitan of Plovdiv, Kirill, who was later appointed patriarch, accompanied me several times, and I got the impression that he was more human...

Exarch Stephen I Bulgarian

The Holy Synod gave him some help, but refused to allow him to return to Sofia, stating in June 1952 that he continued to illegally consider himself Metropolitan of Sofia and Bulgarian Exarch, which would cause a number of disturbances in the diocese.

Exarch Stefan died in Banya on May 14, 1957, abandoned, forgotten and uncomfortable.

He was eulogized and buried by Patriarch Kirill in the main Assumption Church of the Bachkovo Monastery.

We Bulgarians are short-sighted to the point of blindness and short-sighted to the point of criminality.

Many times we don't want to see things as they are, but we see them as we want them to be. And as for the lessons of history, we don't like to remember them, we easily forget them and often times we adapt them to our demands and commit falsification...

Exarch Stephen I Bulgarian

Dear friends of "Photo moments", I hope that so far I have been able to point out the main moments of the life of Exarch Stefan I Bulgarian, without accentuating probably the most important of them, to which I will dedicate the following lines.

One of the most important moments of the entire activity of Exarch Stefan I of Bulgaria, especially during the war, is related to the issue of the salvation of the Bulgarian Jews.

He is the main active figure and his firm position, which completely coincides with the position of the other bishops from the Holy Synod, was evident already in the autumn of 1940, when the Synod stood against the bill for the protection of the nation. The clergy are unanimous that the support of this law is contrary to the views of the Bulgarian Church as an institution.

In the minutes of the Holy Synod from the spring of 1943, the unequivocal position of all Bulgarian bishops on this important issue is reflected. As the leader of the diocese in which the largest percentage of the Jewish minority lives, Metropolitan Stefan in no way hesitates to act from the point of view of his humane convictions in defense of the Jews. Even at the end of his life he wrote:

What a sad story!

What a moral disaster was the whole insane anti-Jewish action!

What insanity of the fascist mafia, of the appointed parliament and of the indifference of the public, who, to please Hitler, denied our people the high feeling in defense of the oppressed, of the persecuted minorities, of the quiet, peaceful and innocent Bulgarian citizens of foreign origin... The persecution of the Jews and until now I experience pain.

Exarch Stephen I Bulgarian

His role in these events is key to the salvation of Bulgarian Jews. He once again shows himself as a prominent defender of human rights and freedoms and as a worthy spiritual leader.

For the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews

The date March 10 was announced as the Day of Salvation of the Bulgarian Jews and commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust, as well as the victims of crimes against humanity by decision 105 of the government of February 19, 2003.

The date itself was not chosen by chance. A number of events took place then, reported today under the name "Kyustendil Action" of 1943. Then, with the help of politicians and public figures from Kyustendil and Bulgarian metropolitans, the government was asked to oppose the planned deportation of the Bulgarian Jews to the Nazi concentration camps.

I will try to recount in more detail these memories of what happened in those not-so-distant years.

Dear friends of "Photo moments", I am really sorry to take you back to one of the darkest and most cruel periods in the history of the last century, namely the inhumane persecutions against Jews and representatives of non-Aryan races during the Second World War .

Persecuted and humiliated by the fascist regimes of the allied countries of the Third Reich, millions of Jews found their deaths in mass graves and concentration camps.

In October 1940, Petar Gabrovski, Minister of Internal Affairs in the government of Bogdan Filov, announced the planned Law for the Protection of the Nation.

The announcement of the law provoked the protest of a number of organizations, clergy (Orthodox and Jewish), members of the public and politicians.

After a number of discussions in November and December, the law was finally adopted and promulgated in the State Gazette on January 23, 1941, and more than 1/3 of its provisions were specifically directed against the Jews.

Bulgaria joined the Tripartite Pact (Rome-Berlin-Tokyo) in March 1941, and the following month assumed control (initially military, and later administrative) over parts of Macedonia (Vardar Macedonia) and southwestern Thrace (White Sea Thrace), which before the war fell within the boundaries of Kingdom of Yugoslavia and Greece.

Although administered by Bulgaria, these territories were not annexed and the decision on their final fate was postponed until after the end of the war.

By a decree of June 5, 1942, all Greek and Yugoslav subjects in these territories received Bulgarian citizenship, with the exception of Jews, who were deprived of it by virtue of the Bulgarian anti-Semitic laws. This renunciation of citizenship would later prove fatal for the Thracian and Macedonian Jews.

Cruel and inhumane anti-Semitic views are gaining ground not only among the countries of the Tripartite Pact, but also in countries such as Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, Romania, Finland and Bulgaria, which have started processes to bring their legislation fully in line with the Nazi laws of Hitler's Germany. Most of these countries unconditionally obey orders to deport the Jewish population residing in their territories to the death camps.

On February 22, 1943, Theodor Dannecker, special envoy of Adolf Eichmann, Nazi Gestapo officer and chief ideologist of the Holocaust, and Alexander Belev, head of the newly formed Commissariat for Jewish Affairs, concluded an agreement for the deportation of 20,000 Jews from Bulgaria - 14,000 of the territories administered by Bulgaria in Macedonia and Thrace and 6,000 from the old borders (Plovdiv, Pazardzhik, Kyustendil, Dupnitsa and other cities to supplement the initial number of 20,000 people).

In Vardar Macedonia and White Sea Thrace, deportations began on March 4, 1943.

The Jews were brought to temporary staging camps in Gorna Jumaya (Blagoevgrad) and Dupnitsa.

The Thracian Jews were transported by train to Lom on March 18 and 19, where they were transferred to barges for Vienna. From Vienna they were taken by train to the death camps in Katowice and Auschwitz.

Macedonian Jews were transported to Auschwitz (on March 22 and 25) and Treblinka (on March 29).

500 of the victims were babies under one year old.

Out of a total of 11,343 people deported, only twelve people survived!

However, Bulgaria managed to save more than 48 thousand Jews, thanks to a few Bulgarians who managed to attract the general public to the humanitarian cause in defense of the Jews.

The action took place precisely on March 10, 1943, when our Orthodox Church, in the person of Metropolitan Stefan of Sofia and Metropolitan Kirill of Plovdiv, prevented the deportation of hundreds of Jews from Plovdiv.

If they load you, I'll go up with you!

Cyril Metropolitan of Plovdiv

Plovdiv Metropolitan Kirill, future patriarch, sends a protest telegram to Tsar Boris III, advocates for the Plovdiv Jews before the local authorities and offers his home as a refuge for Jews.

Metropolitan Stefan sends a special circular to all the churches in the diocese, with which he invites the Bulgarians to ease the lives of the persecuted, regardless of their faith, and calls on the church institution to support Jewish families in everything. For months he carried on his active activity against the deportations and the shameful government plans by all means - he repeatedly secured the reaction of the Holy Synod, gave speeches, wrote letters, dragged many people after him, encouraged the conversion of Jews for the purpose of their salvation, even sheltered at home Chief Rabbi Dr. Ashep Hananel.

In Sofia, many public figures stand up to friends and relatives in government circles. I cannot but mention the names of the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly Dimitar Peshev and Ekaterina Karavelova, the wife of the former Prime Minister Petko Karavelov, the industrialist Atanas Burov, who use their personal connections and authority to prevent the mass deportation of the Jews.

At the same time, Dimitar Peshev and 43 people's representatives revealed the secret agreement between Bulgaria and the Third Reich to deport tens of thousands of Jews and completely foiled the plans of Nazi Germany.

Four Bulgarians from Kyustendil, known as the Kyustendil Four - MP Petar Mihalev, merchant Asen Swichmezov, teacher Vladimir Kurtev and lawyer Ivan Momchilov also have great credit for this act.

We were ushered into something like an office and a reception area, and here you are, Dimitar Peshev welcomes us and introduces several members of parliament who are sitting on chairs and drinking coffee. He said: Gentlemen, this is a delegation from Kyustendil, come to cancel the deportation of the Jews. That when these boys grabbed us, that they made us apostates and all kinds of other things, that when a big argument started, well, I was neither a clerk nor a civil servant and I wasn't afraid of them, I punished them with more things.

"How - I say - can a small country like ours hand over its subjects to another to be massacred? That what will history say about us tomorrow? We came, saving our Jews, to save the honor of the Bulgarian Slavic people. That who will erase this stain from the forehead of our Fatherland tomorrow: when history will have its hard word?"

Asen Switchmezov

Tsar Boris III advocated for the Bulgarian Jews and to the German leadership, stating that he needed the Jews to work on public works and this was the reason why he could not deport them.

Third Reich Foreign Minister and Adolf Hitler's personal adviser on foreign policy, Joachim von Ribbentrop, put intense pressure on the Bulgarian Tsar, but Boris III remained steadfast in his defense of the Jews, which ultimately cost him his life.

In a personal meeting with Hitler and Ribbentrop, held in March 1943, Tsar Boris III managed to convince them that the conditions in Bulgaria were different and that the same measures should not be taken against the Jews as in Germany and other countries.

Ribbentrop informed the German plenipotentiary minister in Sofia, Adolf Beckerle, about Boris III's opinion with directive No. 422 of April 4, 1943. It is clear from Ribbentrop's telegram that Tsar Boris III advocated for the Jews from the old borders of the state with pragmatic arguments.

The tsar orders the Jews to be included in road construction work parties to avoid their deportation to Poland, thereby saving their lives.

Tsar Boris III issues an order to the Minister of the Interior Petar Gabrovski, with which the planned deportation of the Jews is stopped.

On May 24, 1943, a large public demonstration was held in the capital in defense and support of the Bulgarian Jews.

With these actions in 1943, Bulgaria refused to submit to Hitler's Germany and saved its Jews from certain death.

At its session held on November 19, 2001, the Israeli memorial institute "Yad Vashem" honored Exarch Stefan I of Bulgaria with an honorary diploma, a medal and the title "Righteous One of the World" for his contribution to the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews in 1943.

His name will be inscribed forever on the Wall of Honor in the Alley of the Righteous in Jerusalem

says the certificate issued posthumously on March 12, 2002.

There are a total of 20 Bulgarians who have been declared righteous by the memorial institute "Yad Vashem" in Jerusalem.

Among them, besides Stefan I, there are also: Dimitar Peshev (the first of those proclaimed righteous - in 1973), Asen Swichmezov (proclaimed also in 1973), Petar Mihalev (proclaimed also in 1973) and Ivan Momchilov (proclaimed righteous in 1991 year) and Metropolitan Cyril (proclaimed righteous in 2000).

Yad Vashem Israel Memorial Institute Certificate of Appreciation
Yad Vashem Israel Memorial Institute Certificate of Appreciation

In 2003, a bust-monument of him was opened in his birthplace Shiroka Laka.

Monument to Exarch Stefan I Bulgarian in Shiroka Laka

The celebrations on this occasion were attended by the former Israeli ambassador to Bulgaria, Emmanuel Zisman, as well as the then ambassador, Avram Sharon, together with 43 of their compatriots from Israel.

Yad Vashem Israel Memorial Institute Certificate of Appreciation

Avram Sharon evaluates the merits of Exarch Stephen with the words:

For the Bulgarian Jews and for the people of Israel, Exarch Stefan is a symbol of salvation, an emanation of Bulgarian tolerance.

The people of Israel and Jews around the world will never forget this and will always be deeply grateful to their saviors.

The life and merits of Exarch Stefan I of Bulgaria gave Emanuel Zisman a reason to declare in his heartfelt speech:

If humanism was a criterion, Bulgaria should have accepted Europe, not the other way around.

To be known!

To be remembered!

Bulgaria remains the only country in Europe, an ally of the Third Reich, that refused to deport its Jews, thereby saving them from certain death.

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