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Jews Remember Bulgarian Heroism

Ceremony: Members of an Encino synagogue honor a nation that helped protect 50,000 from Nazi persecution during World War II.

April 13, 2002|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To survivors such as Rabbi Haim Asa of Fullerton, it is one of the great untold stories of World War II and the Holocaust.

Fifty-five years ago, when being a European Jew was tantamount to a death sentence, Asa had the good fortune of being Bulgarian. While Jews from surrounding nations were being killed, the king, clergy and people of Bulgaria chose to save their 50,000 Jews, despite the country's alliance with Nazi Germany.

Asa recalled that his businessman father was the first in his town to learn that the Jews were at risk of being deported under pressure from Berlin.

"Some were already on the trains," Asa said. But his father and others in the Jewish community began to call in favors, appealing to everyone in power to save Bulgaria's Jews. The appeal went all the way to King Boris III, who ultimately signed an order of protection.

Asa recalled that the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Bulgaria announced: "I myself will lie on the tracks and not allow you to be taken away from us." The prelate also offered every Jew a baptismal certificate to prevent deportation.

"It has been my dream for many years that the best-kept secret of the Holocaust would become public knowledge," Asa said Friday. He spoke at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino as the synagogue prepared to honor the Bulgarian people, who risked their lives to save Jewish neighbors.

"Bulgaria is unique in that there were as many Jews after the war as there were at the beginning of the Holocaust," said Beth Shalom's Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis. The Jewish population of Bulgaria actually grew during the Holocaust from 48,000 to 50,000, he said.

Schulweis is a founder of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, whose objective, he said, "is to recognize goodness." As part of the synagogue's observance of Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust remembrance, it held a Royal Shabbat Dinner Friday night to honor the Bulgarians. Among the guests were the daughter of King Boris III--Princess Maria Louisa--as well as the current leader of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

"The main reason is because we had tolerant people," the princess said when asked why Bulgaria had saved Jews, while other nearby nations had not.

Now living in exile in the United States, Princess Maria Louisa explained that the Bulgaria of her childhood was a mix of cultures, including Turkish, Armenian and Gypsy, as well as Jewish.

"These people all lived in harmony," she said. "They were Bulgarians. No one pointed them out. If some went on Sunday to church and others on Saturday to synagogue, that was their business."

"There was no scapegoating," said Asa, who contrasted Bulgarian tolerance with the tendency elsewhere in Europe to blame Jews for their ills.

"At Easter time, when Jews were hiding in their basements to avoid pogroms, I was visiting my neighbors," he said, remembering how his Christian friends shared a delicious braided Easter bread that reminded him of Jewish challah loaves.

A coalition of intellectuals, prelates, ordinary people and the king formed to save the Jews, the princess said.

As to why the wartime heroism of the Bulgarians is so little known, she blamed the communists who came to power after Soviet occupation in 1944.

"For the communists, people like the intellectuals, the church and the king were anathema, so they put a lid on it," she said.

She and other family members who survived the occupation went into exile in 1946, when the monarchy was abolished. In 1943, at the age of 6, her brother had become King Simeon II Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Last year, he was elected prime minister of Bulgaria.

She said she knew nothing of the plight of the Jews when she was a child: "At the time, I was 10, and Father did not bring his worries home to us."

Children from the temple school presented Princess Maria Louisa with a bouquet of roses, Bulgaria's national flower. Five-year-old Shira Michelle Levin had practiced her curtsy and executed it flawlessly for the royal visitor. Kosher Bulgarian delicacies were on the evening menu.

The princess said she always makes herself available for Bulgarian causes. And she wanted to set the record straight.

"Father has always been accused of running the country in the later years with an iron hand," she said.

"But the reason the Jews were saved was because of his name on a piece of paper--no other reason."

Boris III died unexpectedly in 1943 after a trip to Germany. Hitler was reported to have had a heated meeting with the king, and Asa and others believe the monarch was killed by the Nazis.

"He left healthy--you can't say healthy as a horse because he was a king--and he comes back 36 hours later, on oxygen already," Asa said.

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