At a moving ceremony at the Sofia Central Synagogue on June 8, the Shalom Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria and the Central Israelite Spiritual Council conferred formal honours on former president Rossen Plevneliev and posthumously on Vidin Metropolitan Neofit for his role in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s resistance to the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to the Holocaust.
The event marked the start of a campaign by Shalom and the Central Israelite Spiritual Council entitled “The Unforgotten – 75 Faces of Salvation”.
The campaign focuses on the coming 75th anniversary of the prevention of the deportation of the Bulgarian Jews in 1943 and the deportation of 11 343 of their compatriots from the then-Yugoslavia and northern Greece to the Nazi death camps where six million Jews were murdered.
Within the campaign, the Bulgarian Jewish community is paying tribute to various personalities, including from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, public figures, intellectuals and academics and promote reflection on those Bulgarians who stood up to oppose the unfair treatment of their Jewish compatriots at the time that the Defence of the Fatherland Act was law and there were warrants for deportation to the Holocaust death camps.
Those at the well-attended ceremony at the Sofia Central Synagogue included numerous leaders and members of the Jewish community, several diplomats, senior state officials and municipal and civic leaders.
Conferring the award on former president Plevneliev, Shalom president Dr Alek Oscar and CISC president Sofia Coen spoke of his consistent policy as head of state in opposing extreme nationalism, anti-Semitism and hate speech.
Before he was president, Plevneliev, as minister of regional development and public works and the then deputy minister, Ekaterina Zaharieva, ensured that ownership of the Jewish Hospital was granted to Shalom.
The organisations also noted Plevneliev’s personal role at the time of the 70th anniversary commemorations in 2013, when he and Israeli’s then-president, the late Shimon Peres, inaugurated an exhibition in Brussels on the prevention of the deportation of the Bulgarian Jews.
With prime minister Boiko Borissov, Plevneliev negotiated the construction of two monuments, one in Bulgaria and one in Israel, to the events of 1943. The honour also was given to Plevneliev for his efforts to preserve Holocaust memory in Bulgaria, through a permanent exhibition at Sofia History Museum.
Shalom noted that Plevneliev never avoided the issue of the deportation of the Jews from the annexed territories, and his consistent position on the matter did him honour.
Among speakers at the ceremony were the ambassador of the State of Israel, Irit Lilian, who said that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church had provided a shining moral light in its stand against the deportation of Bulgarian Jews, providing an example that remained valid and important today.
One of the most emotional moments in the ceremony came as Ino Yitzhak, chairperson of Ehud Olei Bulgaria, the representative of the Bulgarian community in Israel, became overwhelmed as he recalled being a small boy in Sofia, as crowds gathered to resist the proposed deportation.
As he struggled to maintain his composure as he expressed his gratitude for the courage of the time, Yitzhak drew a standing ovation in the Synagogue.
The award to late Metropolitan of Vidin Neofit was accepted on behalf of that diocese by its vicar, Bishop Polycarp.
Polycarp spoke of the deep honour that the award represented. He recalled an anecdote that while visiting Jerusalem, at the Wailing Wall he and a fellow member of the Bulgarian clergy were approach by a man who asked them if they were Bulgarians and from the country’s Orthodox Church. When they confirmed that they were, the man told them that his parents were from Plovdiv, and movingly expressed his thanks to the church for its heroic role against the Holocaust.
Shalom noted that Metropolitan Neofit had been a determining factor in the overall policy and activities of the church and had an indisputable role in the church’s opposition to the Defence of the Fatherland Act and especially against the deportation of Bulgarian Jews.
Neofit’s actions did not diminish the significance of the role of Metropolitan Stefan of Sofia and Metropolitan Kiril of Plovdiv, but as the cleric organising the work of the Holy Synod, his name was found most often when discussing the issue of the protection of Bulgarian citizens who were Jews.
Shalom said that at a time when there is a campaign to confer on the Bulgarian Orthodox Church a Nobel Peace Prize for its resistance to the deportation of Bulgarian Jews, it was especially important to present to the world the personality of Metropolitan Neofit of Vidin.