Almost fifty thousand Bulgarian Jews were saved because of King Boris’ actions during World War II. Without him, there is no question that the Jews of Bulgaria would have died in Hitler’s death camps. However, there is a dark side to the King’s actions that remains a stain on the Bulgarian nation’s history. In order to fully understand the role he played in the rescue, you must first understand some of the history of Bulgaria before Boris became king.
Boris became King following the abdication of his Father, Ferdinand I in 1918. King Ferdinand was a German but had reigned in Bulgaria from 1887 to 1918. He was a foreign prince appointed by the Bulgarian parliament to replace the German Prince Alexander Battenberg who abdicated after seven tumultuous years.
Ferdinand was a relative of almost every royal family in Europe. His cousin, England’s Queen Victoria, did not want him to be the ruling prince in Bulgaria. However, despite strong opposition from Europe’s Royal Families, Ferdinand was unanimously approved by the Grand National Assembly in Bulgaria in September, 1887.
Ferdinand immediately put his heart and soul into becoming Bulgarian. He greatly improved the country’s economy and infrastructure with his innovative ideas. Yet with all his successes, the shadow of almost five hundred years of occupation by the Ottoman Turks in Bulgaria hung over him. On September 5, 1908, he declared Bulgaria an independent kingdom and became the Tsar (King).
King Ferdinand was very interesting, an expert on butterflies, insects, plants and stamps.
He was not liked by most of the European royalty. His personality was too abrasive for most people because he thought he knew everything about everything. No one could argue with him or give him advice. There was not a room in his many estates or a piece of furniture that he didn’t know about. His taste in music was strictly Wagnerian and he knew more about the French Cuisine than his French Chef. He had an unbelievable ability to remember almost every detail of everything. He spoke perfect Bulgarian as well as eight other languages including French, German and English. He raised his children as the king and not like a father. Emotion or sentiment to him wasn’t a part of a king’s life and he never showed any soft side to his children. There were no hugs or tender words ever for these four that he sometimes called “lazy jackasses.” All that mattered was the children’s education, health and behavior. Everything was about responsibility and dynasty.
Boris or “Bo” was a quiet boy who loved botany and butterflies. He also loved speedboats, cars and was a professional locomotive engineer. His early life was one of strictness and duty but also filled with pleasure in the summertime at the royal estates and the Bulgarian Black Sea.
It wasn’t an unhappy childhood for Boris and his brother and sisters but it was one without the emotional feelings that often prevail among those born to people without money and position. Boris’ mother died when he was five and he was raised by a stern and exacting father.
King Ferdinand was a very capable man but he lacked good judgment in the affairs of the State. He dreamed of uniting Old Bulgaria with the territories that had once been theirs in Macedonia and Thrace. He made terrible decisions that resulted in the lost of thousands of Bulgarian lives, devastation of the Bulgarian economy and humiliation on the world stage.
In 1912, Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro started the first Balkan War against the Ottoman Empire. This conflict brought immediate territorial gains to Bulgaria as the Ottoman Empire lost virtually all its territory in Europe.
However, King Ferdinand was not satisfied with the amount of territory Bulgaria received at the end of the war so he decided to start another war (Balkan II) against Serbia and Greece, on June 16, 1913. This war ended in a month and Bulgaria was badly beaten and humiliated. The country was forced to give up the new territories it had gained in the first war and pay economically crippling reparations to its neighbors.
Bulgaria was badly beaten but the worst was yet to come. On June 28, 1914, a Bosnian-Serb student assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Bosnia.
Austria then presented Serbia with a list of ten impossible demands but Serbia would only agree to eight of them. Thus Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914 and within weeks most of Europe was swept up in World War I.
Bulgaria remained neutral in the war until October 11, 1915 when King Ferdinand signed a treaty with Austria-Hungary and Germany and attacked Serbia. As an incentive to participate, he was promised the return of the land Bulgaria had lost to Serbia when the war was over.
World War I, like the second Balkan War, ended in disaster for Bulgaria. The country found itself under siege from its own demoralized army and was forced to surrender to the Allies. Bulgaria lost almost all it had gained in territory and many Bulgarians were killed.
The conditions of the surrender demanded the abdication of King Ferdinand. Years of war because of his leadership was enough for the Allies and on October 3, 1918 at the age of 25, Boris the eldest son of the disgraced Ferdinand became King Boris III. Ferdinand quietly left the country never to return.
Bulgaria again faced paying crippling reparations to its neighbors and great economic instability. The years following World War I were a time of extreme uncertainty, upheaval and hardship both politically and economically for the Bulgarians and their young king. He was all alone. His father, brother and sisters had left the country. The death of his mother at age 29 giving birth to his youngest sister was more painful than ever . He was also unmarried without anyone to turn to but his adjutants and government officials. These were the loneliest days of the young king’s life but those that would make him into the man he was always meant to be.
He remained the bachelor king of Bulgaria until he married Giovanna of Italy, daughter of the Italian King, Victor Emanuel III on October 25, 1930. The marriage produced a daughter, Maria Louisa and a son and heir to the throne, Simeon.
These were troubled years for King Boris. On two occasions there were attempts to assassinate him. A coup on May 19, 1934 took away most of his powers as a monarch but the coup was short lived and he regained control of the country in 1935.
A parliamentarian fascist government without political parties was established with King Boris as its official head. The country shook off the years of war and attempted assassinations and experienced unprecedented prosperity and growth that lasted for the next five years.
But again, the dogs of war would not be silenced for long and the next upheaval would be the mother of all wars resulting in the death of millions of soldiers and civilians including six million Jews.
On September 1, 1939 Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. Within less than a year all of Europe except Great Britain and a few other neutral nations lay in the firm grasp of the Nazis. Bulgaria, caught in the middle between East and West, remained neutral until March 1, 1941 when it entered the war on the side of the Axis. As a reward Bulgaria was immediately given administrative control of Macedonia, Thrace and South Dobrudja. This arrangement was temporary until the final status of these territories could be decided at the end of the war.
This was a great victory in the beginning for the Bulgarian people. King Boris was hailed as the “Unifier” who had regained Bulgaria’s lost territories. However, this euphoria came with a terrible price that would soon be washed away by the reality of what it meant to be a part of the Axis powers.
King Boris, who was neither pro-Nazi in ideology nor an anti-Semite, believed becoming a part of the Axis would protect Bulgaria. He was caught between the Soviet Union on one side and Germany on the other. He apparently never believed that Germany could win the war but chose to become an ally rather than an adversary. The alternative would have meant the invasion and destruction of Bulgaria at the hands of the German army.
In private with family and friends the king was said to show deep indignation and disgust about the inhuman Nazi attitude toward the Jews. This report came from Stephan Gruev, chief of the King’s cabinet. Even without knowing the existence of the secret Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish people, the king believed Hitler’s anti-Semitic frenzy was the product of damaged minds.
Bulgaria’s economy was tied to Germany’s in those days. It was unthinkable that the country could sever this relationship and not collapse economically. Becoming an ally with Germany rather than an enemy meant that Bulgaria could still maintain a sovereign government within limits and avoid occupation by German troops. King Boris saw this choice as the lesser of two evils. In the end it was probably one of the main reasons that Bulgaria was able to save its Jews.
Countries invaded and occupied by the Germans gave up their Jews. Only a few countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, Portugal and Bulgaria were not invaded and occupied.
It was easier for Bulgaria to save their Jews because they had a functioning government and maintained control of the day to day life of the country.
Denmark was invaded and occupied by the Nazis but still managed to save their Jews. However, it is known the Danish people charged the Jews money to be taken across the channel to neutral Sweden. Therefore the motive for many was profit.
There were many problems for the Jewish people of Bulgaria during these times due to the loss of their property, jobs and professions. Their problems began on January 23, 1941 when Bulgaria passed the “Law for the Protection of the Nation.” It stripped the Jews of their rights. It was modeled after the Nuremberg Laws that Germany had passed in order to carry out their persecution and ultimate extermination of the Jews.
King Boris signed this law and it was enacted but in Bulgaria it had far less severity than in other countries that had similar laws. Anti-Semitism did not exist in Bulgaria on a grand scale during this time. What anti-Semitism there was had been largely imported from other countries and not home grown in Bulgaria.
Jews were required by law to wear the Jewish star but many Jews in Bulgaria ignored the order without any repercussions. The Bulgarian Jewish star was small and not very noticeable. Bulgarians considered the Jews as “one of us” so pointing them out as Jews made no sense to them.
The Bulgarian Jews dressed and acted like everyone else in Bulgaria. There were no skull caps, long side locks or anything to distinguish them from anyone else. They were fully integrated into the society, spoke perfect Bulgarian and many had married Bulgarian wives which made them a kind of de facto Christian.
The Jews of Bulgaria considered themselves one hundred percent Bulgarian in every way. Like many Bulgarians at that time, they were not very religious.
The Jewish and Christian communities were on good terms and there was even a special relationship between Daniel Zion, one of Bulgaria’s chief rabbis and Bishop Stefan the head of the Bulgarian Church. They were good friends and spent many hours together discussing spiritual matters and the situation in Bulgaria.
King Boris was a highly decorated soldier in Bulgaria’s previous wars and reached the rank of Major General. He knew a lot about war having experienced it first hand on the battlefield since he was a young boy.
Bulgaria lost 187,500 men in World War I and 962 of them were Jews so there was no question in his mind about the Jew’s loyalty to Bulgaria.
In the Second World War, one that he never wanted to be a part of, he committed no troops to the battle and refused to declare war against the Soviet Union. He often said, “Always with Germany, Never against Russia.” He never changed his mind regarding the Russians who the Bulgarians saw as their liberators from the Ottomans.
Bulgaria allowed the country to be used as a staging area and gateway into Yugoslavia and Greece when Germany attacked and quickly defeated both countries. The Bulgarians had little choice in the matter and saw it as the least they could do and still stay as uncommitted as possible. They also allowed Bulgarian soldiers and police to round up and deport the 11,383 Jews of Macedonia and Thrace. All of them died at Treblinka in Eastern Poland.
According the family’s website, King Boris became aware of what was happening with the Jews from Thrace when he was told that Jews were passing through Bulgaria on trains. By the time he got involved in trying to stop the deportation, the trains had already left Bulgarian territory.
This was a terrible blow to the king personally and he explained the event to his wife and friends privately.
“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 – 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!”
King Boris said his hands were tied and he had no jurisdiction but it is our belief that this is not true. The order to deport the Jews from Macedonia, Thrace and Old Bulgaria was given by the King as were the orders to stop the deportations in Old Bulgaria. Everything concerning these matters had the approval of the Royal Palace.
The deportation orders that affected the Jews of Bulgaria and the territories were signed February 22, 1943. Alexander Belev, the Bulgarian Commissariat of Jewish Affairs and Theodor Dannecker, the SS Hauptsturmführer, and associate of Adolf Eichmann, reached an agreement to deport 8,000 Jews from Bulgaria plus 12,000 from Macedonia and Thrace to the Nazi death camps in Poland. March 10th was the date when the Jews were to be deported.
The trains would take the Jews to the Danube River at the Bulgarian border. There they would board boats to Vienna, be turned over to the Nazis and put on trains to the death camp at Treblinka.
The Bulgarian documents to deport the Jews were the first and only ones ever signed between Germany and another country.
The deportations in Europe were carried out in a secretive way without anything written down. The Nazis wanted nothing to connect them to the actual extermination process after the war. They were masters of deception and skillfully applied various tactics to cover their tracks. They hide the murder of millions of Jews, political prisoners, homosexuals and gypsies, anyone they deemed undesirables.
The plan to deport the Jews of Macedonia, Thrace and Bulgaria had come to the attention of the Jewish leaders a few days before it was to happen on March 10, 1943 by way of a warning from Lilliana Panitza, Alexander Belev’s private secretary.
A delegation of four men selected by the local Jewish leaders from the town of Kyustendil went to Sofia and met with Dimitar Peshev, Deputy Speaker of the Parliament. He was shocked at the deportation orders and immediately went to the office of the Interior Minister, Petar Grabroski to confront him. He denied the plan but Peshev threatened him with a national scandal on the floor of the Bulgarian Parliament if he didn’t stop it. Later in the day on March 9, 1943 word came that the deportation was canceled and this could have only been approved by King Boris since he had the final say on everything in the country. Again, the order to cancel the deportation arose from the same place that the deportation orders came from-the Royal Palace.
King Boris embarked on a “cat and mouse game” with the Germans postponing the deportations by claiming he needed the Jews to work on the roads and other projects.
On April 15, 1943, he met with the bishops of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church at his palace. He asked them to support the anti-Jewish policy and deportations. “After all,” he said, “other countries have dealt the same way with the ‘Jewish Problem’.” He asked them to be good patriots and support the laws passed by the parliament. They flatly refused.
Perhaps he knew that this would be the outcome of the meeting and used it as an excuse to further delay the deportations. The Bulgarian Church had never wavered in its determination to save the Jews. Why would he think their final decision would be any different than the times before? After this meeting with the church fathers he could tell the Germans that he dared not deport the Jews in light of this continued opposition from the church.
The Nazi forces in Bulgaria refused to give up and tried again to deport the Jews in late May 1943 but King Boris would have none of it. He scattered the Jews across Bulgaria in labor camps in small towns and villages making it as difficult as possible for them to be deported.
According to Queen Giovanni, his wife, close friends and family, King Boris was determined to delay the deportations. He repeatedly told Hitler that he needed the Jews for the railways, road work and big construction projects and he could not deport them.
King Boris understood by this time that the war was lost. Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943 meant there was no way the Germans could prevail. He also knew that the Allies had promised to treat anyone connected with persecuting and killing the Jews as a war criminal. This loomed large in his mind as he sought to do all he could to protect the Jews and prevent their deportation at all cost.
King Boris met one last time with Hitler at the Wolf’s Lair in Eastern Poland on August 14, 1943 where he refused again to join the war effort against the Soviet Union or deport the Bulgarian Jews to the death camps. He returned to Bulgaria visibly shaken but resolute in the fact that he had saved the Bulgarian Jews and avoided sacrificing thousands of Bulgarian lives on the eastern front.
He told his aides on his return to Bulgaria,
“Hitler went into a rage when I refused his demands about Russia. Screaming like a madman, he attacked me and Bulgaria in a torrent of accusations and threats. It was horrible! But I didn’t give in one inch. He tried to frighten me, but, instead, I calmly explained the situation … I saved you … even if I have to pay for it!”
King Boris at this point was torn by thoughts of suicide or abdication. Abandoned by the western powers and worn out with years of stress, he began the last two weeks of his life.
He took one last trip to the Bulgarian mountains while he was alive. There he insisted on being left alone by his aides as he hiked up to the highest point that day. Later he was found at the top of the mountain looking down into the precipice below. His end would not come that day but it was not far away.
A few days later, after climbing the mountain, he complained of chest pains and grew very ill. He would never recover from this sudden illness and even told one of his aides what hour and minute he would die the next day.
King Boris died on August 28, 1943 from what was reported to be a heart attack and complications. Many at the time thought he was poisoned by the Nazis while returning from his last meeting with Hitler. The three German doctors who treated him thought he had been poisoned. Even his wife who would not allow an autopsy believed his death was from violent means.
Thousands of people lined the streets to mourn their dead king following a large, state funeral at the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. He was taken by train to the Bulgarian mountains and buried at Rila Monastery.
His body was later exhumed and reburied at the Vrana Palace near Sofia. But even there, this man who loved trains, flowers and butterflies found no rest. His zinc coffin was again exhumed and buried in a secret place.
The king’s heart was later found during an excavation at the Vrana Palace in a glass cylinder. It was again taken to Rila Monastery where it rests today in Bulgaria’s highest place of honor.
A wood carving on the left side of his grave was given by the people of Macedonia.
It reads: “To its Tsar, Liberator Boris III, from grateful Macedonia.”
In the end, the miracle of the rescue was even greater when it was realized that the Bulgarian Jewish community was the only one in Europe during World War II that actually grew instead of decreased. By the end of the war, there were more Jews in Bulgaria than there were before the war started.
There were many individuals as well as organizations in Bulgaria during those dark days that did what they could to save the Jews. The King’s role is both one of glory and disgust. On one hand he agreed to the deportation of the Jews from Macedonia and Thrace. On the other, it is doubtful that the Jews could have been saved in Old Bulgaria had it not been for him.