Rabbi Daniel Zion

There were many heroes among the Jewish people that did all they could to save their people during the Holocaust. However, it was the Nazis that controlled virtually everything pertaining to the Jews and they determined the fate of millions. The tragic result of this was the death of 6 million Jews in the death camps.

One clear and shining example of Jews helping each other was Rabbi Daniel Zion, one of the Chief Rabbis of Bulgaria during World War II. Rabbi Zion was outspoken in the defense of his people and was often the target of persecution.

Three times he was viciously beaten by the authorities in front of the Sofia Synagogue. His mother and sister were present at two of the beatings and would later tell people how proud it made them feel to be a Jew.

The Law for the Protection of the Nation limited the rights of the Jews in Bulgaria in every conceivable way. They were not even allowed to speak to each other or anyone else concerning politics. Their telephones and radios were taken away which stopped them from hearing any news about what was happening to the Jews in Europe.

In the early 1930s, Rabbi Zion an Orthodox Jew had met with the Bulgarian mystic Peter Dunnov who told him about Jesus and his simple lifestyle. This greatly impressed the rabbi and he began to follow the mystic’s teachings concerning daily prayer at sunrise, vegetarianism and exercise.

A great change in his life came one day when he was praying at sunrise and he saw a vision of a man. He was so taken back by this that he immediately sought the council of other officials in the synagogue but they had no answers. When this same vision occurred the third time, Rabbi Zion spoke to the man in the vision and the man told him that he was Jesus.

Nothing like this had ever occurred before but Rabbi Zion was willing to receive the truth from whomever it might come. From this time on, he turned to Metropolitan Stefan of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church for answers. Bishop Stefan understood the special relationship between Christians and Jews and was able to give him good advice and direction.

Bishop Stefan told him not to focus on Christianity and church doctrine but only on the person of Jesus and to remain an Orthodox Rabbi. Bishop Stefan felt that the church would confuse the rabbi. He and Rabbi Zion held many discussions about Jesus the Messiah during this time of great distress for the Jews in Bulgaria.

The dark clouds over Bulgaria’s Jews continued to gather. The Bulgarian King had often shown his willingness to go along with everything the Germans asked him to do. All the laws and decrees concerning the persecution of the Jews in Bulgaria, Thrace and Macedonia were signed by the king.

A near disaster was averted in early March 1943 when a secret order to deport 20,000 Jews from Bulgaria, Thrace and Macedonia came to the attention of Dimitar Peshev. Peshev, the Deputy Speaker of the Parliament was informed about the  planned deportations and he forced the government to postpone it. However, this did not save the 11,383 Jews that were sent to Treblinka from the territories of Thrace and Macedonia.

The news concerning the fate of these Jews from Thrace came in the middle of March to Queen Giovanna, the king’s wife. A family friend had seen a train filled with Jews  passing through the Bulgarian town of Kyustendil. They had attempted to help the people inside but were unsuccessful. Before the king could act, the train had already left Bulgarian territory carrying the Jews to the death camp in Poland.

The king later told some friends, “I will tell you who those miserable people were for whom I could do nothing. Those were former Greek nationals from the Thessaloniki region over which I have no jurisdiction and my hands were literally tied. But remember what I am telling you now, that none of ours shall be taken away. I was afraid this might happen and this is why I took some measures: our Jews were scattered all over Bulgaria, in the most far-away parts of the country where they will be safe. They might have to live in deprivation for some time but there was no other way out!”

Even with this assurance that the Jews of Bulgaria would not be taken away, Rabbi Zion decided to personally deliver a letter to the king  in late March. King Boris was leaving the next day to meet with Hitler and the rabbi feared he would be forced into deporting the Bulgarian Jews.

The rabbi and his secretary waited for hours in the palace before the king’s secretary was finally willing to accept the letter. In the letter, the rabbi told the king that Jesus the Messiah had appeared to him in a vision and told him to go to the king and warn him not to deport the Jews to the death camps.

King Boris stood before Hitler the next day after reading Rabbi Zion’s warning and refused to deport his Jews across the Bulgarian borders. He told Hitler that he needed them to build roads for the Reich.

On April 15,  King Boris met with all the bishops of the Holy Synod in an effort to persuade them to change their minds regarding the Jews. He denounced the Jews in a strong anti-Semitic tone. He pleaded with the bishops “for the love of the country,” to support him concerning the Jewish deportation.

Again, the bishops told him that they would not become a part of this travesty against the Bulgarian Jews. This unwavering support played a major role in convincing the king that the Bulgarian people would never go along with deporting their Jews.

An outcry from every section of the country to stop the persecution of the Jews swept across the country in the weeks to follow.

The climax in this crisis came on May 24th at the national holiday honoring the creators of the Bulgarian alphabet. All the players, in this drama except the Jewish students were there that day to celebrate at the magnificent Alexander Nevski Cathedral.

Bishop Stefan delivered a scathing denunciation of the government and their plan to deport the Jews. He told the crowd that the only thing missing were the Jews. He threatened to excommunicate from the church anyone that persecuted them.

Not only were the Jews missing but so was King Boris. He was nowhere to be found. He had simply disappeared and no one knew where he was or how to reach him.

After the bishop’s firey speech, a peaceful demonstration lead by Rabbi Zion marched to the royal palace to swear their loyalty to the king. They were brutally attacked and beaten in the streets. 500 Jews including Rabbi Zion were arrested.

The protest meant nothing to the government and they proceeded with their plans to deport the Jews to the Bulgarian countryside.

In late May and June the deportations were completed. All able bodied men between 18 and 55 were sent to the camps leaving only several thousand Jews mostly women and children in Sofia.

Hitler summoned King Boris to a meeting in Poland in August. He wanted to force the king to deport the Jews and send Bulgarian soldiers to fight the Soviets on the Russian front.

King Boris arrived on August 14th at the Wolf’s Lair in Poland. The meeting was a nightmare for the shy and reserved Bulgarian King. Hitler raved and cursed like a mad man because the king again refused to deport the Jews or join the fight against the Russians. The king told Hitler he still needed the Jews for road work

Hitler had always respected the king so he agreed to the plan because he understood that the Bulgarians would not give up their Jews. Nor would they tell their soldiers to fire on the Russians whom they considered their liberators.

The king had survived this confrontation with Hitler but his days were numbered. In two weeks at the age of 49, he mysteriously died from unknown causes. Since the royal family would not permit an autopsy, the official cause of death was listed as a heart attack. However, the doctors attending the king at the time of his death all said they believed he was poisoned.

With the king’s death the issue of deporting the Jews to the death camps was officially closed.

Rabbi Daniel Zion remained the Chief Rabbi in Bulgaria until 1949 when he and most of the Jews emigrated to Israel. It was a great gift for the people of God who were able to leave Bulgaria without any Holocaust memories to torture them.

In Israel, Rabbi Zion continued his ministry to the Bulgarian people. In 1954, Rabbi Samuel Toledano the Chief Rabbi of Israel appointed him to be a judge in the rabbinical court of Jerusalem. Rumors soon spread that the rabbi had accepted Yeshua as the Messiah.

When questioned about it, he said that he accepted Jesus as the Jewish Messiah but he did not believe that Christianity was the true expression of Christ’s teachings on earth.

Rabbi Toledano accepted Rabbi Zion’s perspective on Jesus as the Messiah but he told him he had to keep this revelation to himself. Rabbi Zion told him he couldn’t do that so he was taken before  the rabbinical council on the matter.

The council heard evidence against the rabbi including the fact that he had written four books about Yeshua. Rabbi Zion was given the opportunity to speak to the council and he said, “I am poor and feeble, persecuted and vulnerable, Yeshua conquered me, and with the New Man he honored me, He delivered me from the poverty-stricken self with his great love, he cherished me. Every day the canny devil aspires to grab my faith, I hold on to my encourager, and chase the devil away. I stand here alone in my faith, the whole world is against me. I give up all the earthly honor for the sake of the Messiah my mate.”

The council stripped him of his rabbinical title but the Jews that had emigrated with him from Bulgaria continued to recognize him as their rabbi. He led a 100 percent Torah lifestyle and a 100 percent life dedicated to following Jesus.

Many organizations, churches and missionary groups over the years sought to use his name in their ministries but he refused any such associations. He wouldn’t accept money from anyone for his own personal use and lived a life of abject poverty. When he was given money with no strings attached, he gave it to the poor and the abandoned.

Rabbi Zion never locked his doors and after his death those who went to check on his belongings found nothing of value in his home.

He died at the age of 96 in Jaffa, Israel where he was given full military and state honors by the Bulgarian Jews. His body was carried by the men of the Jewish community to the Holon Cemetery where he was laid to rest.

He had lived a wonderful life worthy of the One who said , “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” Matthew 16:24-26.

He was the Chief Rabbi of the Bulgarian Jews who had saved them from the Holocaust.

*Posted March 10, 2018 on the 75th anniversary of the date originally set for the first deportation of Jews from Bulgaria