Standing Firm for Justice

It has been said that all that is needed for evil to succeed is for good people to stay quiet. And the converse is also true, when good people speak up, evil can be defeated. This was graphically illustrated inside Bulgaria during the dark days of World War 2.

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Bulgaria was allied to Germany, with a formal agreement made in 1941. This agreement allowed for German military bases inside Bulgaria, while handing back to Bulgaria lands that had been in dispute between the two countries. Members of the Bulgarian government who wished to implement Hitler’s “final solution” against the Jews planned to begin the first phase by sending all the Jews from the returned lands to Germany’s concentration camps.

When a member of Parliament, Peshev, heard of the plan he gathered other representatives and marched into the office of the Minister for the Interior, demanding an explanation. Peshev and the others pressured him to rescind the order, which he did.

However, not all regions received the telegram in time. In Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city, Jewish people were rounded up during the early morning, with most held in the local school hall, awaiting deportation by train to Germany. Here Metropolitan Kyrill, the head of the local church acted immediately. He sent a telegram of protest to the king, threatening to lie across the tracks in front of the first train to leave with Jews. He then went to the school where he was barred entry by the police. Announcing that he no longer felt himself bound by the laws of the government and would act according to his conscience as a minister of Christ, Kyrill climbed the fence promising the Jews gathered there “Wherever you go, I’ll go.”

Some time after the order not to deport the Jews arrived at Plovdin and they got to return to their homes. Meanwhile, local MP Peshev was expelled from the vice presidency of the Parliament and censured.

Foiled at their first effort, the Gestapo pressured the king into an order that Jews be expelled from cities into the Bulgarian countryside. They hoped this would stir up anti-Semitism in the country and allow the deportations to go ahead. It was at this point that Metropolitan Stefan, head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church came into his own. He convened a meeting of his church’s Synod which unanimously condemned the order to move Jews into the countryside.

The government made plans to go ahead with the deportation anyway, scheduling it for a day of national celebration, in the hope that the deportation would go unnoticed among the day’s festivities.  Stefan would have none of this. As head of the national church it was his job to officiate during the celebrations. Standing on the steps of the cathedral, a large crowd lay before him and the members of the government, including the Prime Minister, sat behind him. He threw away his prepared speech, strongly condemned the persecution of the Jews and called on the government to resist the influence of the Nazis. The Prime Minister rose after Stefan to denounce him and called on him to stop interfering in political matters.

The deportation to country areas proceeded, but Stefan was unbowed. In the face of threats to arrest him he offered to christen all Jews who wished to, a measure that would mean they could not be deported to Germany. The Minister for the Interior responded by refusing to recognise all christening certificates issued after January 1, 1943, and ordering the closure of the churches of Sofia. Stefan informed the government that his Churches would ignore the order and sent a circular to all his parish priests explaining the fate awaiting Jews in Germany. Fearing a public backlash the government backed down. The churches remained open until the end of the war and the Jews were allowed to remain in Bulgaria. Tens of thousands of lives were saved, all because people of good conscience refused to be silent in the face of evil.

Source: reported in Christianity Today magazine, Oc

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