Metropolitan Kirill was a bishop of the Bulgarian Orthodox church who defied his own government and risked his life to stop the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to Nazi death camps.
During World War II, the Bulgarian government was an ally of Nazi Germany. Early in 1943, Bulgaria signed a secret agreement with the Nazis to deport 20,000 Jews. In one terrible week, March 4-March 11, soldiers arrested thousands of Jews and kept them in makeshift holding pens while they prepared the cattlecars to take them to Treblinka, an extermination camp where 850,000 Jews were murdered.
Word got out, and there were protests across Bulgaria. Leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church were quick to speak out. One bishop, Metropolitan Kirill, from the city of Plovdiv, did more than speak out.
As soon as the deportations began, Kirill sent a personal telegram to Bulgarian King Boris begging for his mercy towards the Jews. He also warned local law enforcement that if they participated in the murderous round-ups, Bulgarians would stop recognizing their authority. Kirill had the full support of Metropolitan Stephan of Sofia, the highest ranking Bulgarian church official.
On March 10, 1943, 8500 Jews, including 1500 from Plovdiv, were loaded into boxcars. Before the train could leave, Kirill showed up at the station with 300 church members. The bishop pushed through the officers guarding the area and approached the boxcars. As he reached them, he yelled out lines from the Book of Ruth: “Wherever you go, I will go! Wherever you lodge, I will lodge! Your people will be my people, and your God, my God!”
Kirill opened one of the boxcars and tried to enter but SS officers stopped him. At this point, Kirill declared his intention to lie on the tracks to stop the train from leaving. Members of his church got the word out about Kirill’s brave stance, and soon all of Bulgaria knew of the bishop willing to lay down his life to prevent the murder of innocents.
The impact of Kirill’s action was immediate. That same day, 42 members of Parliament rebelled against the government. Political leaders from all parties proclaimed their solidarity with Metropolitan Kirill and the Jews of Bulgaria, and sent angry letters to government ministers demanding the persecution end.
The next day, the Jews were freed and allowed to return home. The danger to Bulgarian Jews was not over, however. King Boris wanted to continue to ally with the Nazis, and he arranged a meeting with religious leaders to support Nazi policies against the Jews. He told them that patriotism demanded they support their king, but the bishops stood firm. Boris’ sudden death in September 1943 stopped the deportations permanently.
The people of Bulgaria’s refusal to tolerate anti-Jewish persecution was unique in Europe. At the beginning of the war, there were 48,000 Jews in Bulgaria; when the war ended, there were 50,000. Bulgaria was the only country under Nazi rule that had more Jews after World War II than before.
For putting his own life at risk to save thousands of Bulgarian Jews, we honor Metropolitan Kirill as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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