The future John XXIII testified to the Bulgarian monarch’s determination to save the lives of thousands of Jews, says John Hall Spencer It is some years since I visited Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria where a friend of mine was held as a Russian POW. He had been captured in the first of the big tank battles outside Smolensk and was rapidly transported to the savage conditions of Mauthausen where he was identified by a number only – he had no name from the Germans.
He saved himself some months later, nearing death from overwork and starvation, by joining the German Army to fight against his own side, the Russians. He became, along with hundreds of others, “Ivan” now to the Germans, who in 1942 still had enough Russian-speaking officers from the old East Prussia to command a division of Russian prisoners who had changed sides. More curiously still, he was Jewish, his grandfather a rabbi in Hungary who had emigrated following persecution there in the Thirties. He disguised his identity and was sent to the Russian front – he was probably the only Jew to win an Iron Cross third-class in hand-to-hand fighting on the German side.
He survived the war and, because of my interest in his remarkable story, I went to visit the scene of his incarceration at Mauthausen. It was soon obvious that many groups besides the Jews had perished there at the hands of the SS. There were firstly large numbers of Russians. Then the homosexual community of Vienna had been decimated. Gipsies and severely physically and mentally handicapped Austrians died among other groups. There were indeed thousands of Jews there but they did not die alone.
To the East, where Bulgaria had little choice but to adhere to the Axis Pact in 1941, Hitler expected compliance with Die Endlösung, the Final Solution, from his ally, Bulgaria, where King Boris was head of state – he wasn’t getting it.
But King Boris was powerless to stop the first shipment of Jews from the German occupied lands to the south in Thrace and Macedonia. They were destined to end their days in Hitler’s death camp at Treblinka.
This journey had started before dawn on March 4 1943 in the town of Giurmurdjina. In driving rain the Jewish quarter had been sealed off. Rifle butts crashed on doors in a raid on Jewish homes that started at 4am. The Jewish families, suddenly awake and frightened, were given half an hour to pack and a procession of Jewish men, women and children wended their way to the local tobacco factory compound. Here they were stripped of their valuables and all possessions. Pillows and mattresses were ripped apart by bayonet as guards searched for hidden money and jewellery. A cloud of feathers floated in the air as prisoners themselves were stripped naked to be subjected to body probes. Even jars of marmalade were smashed in the exacting search for hidden valuables.
At 2.30am the following day the hungry, moaning, thirsty herd of humanity were crammed into open freight cars at the railway station. The 863 Jews of Giurmurdjina had been rounded up. Their pathetic progress by train across Bulgaria was a public act. The turn of the Bulgarian Jews was next. But King Boris was ahead of Hitler. “My Jews are not your Jews,” he told him. “They are Sephardic.” But all of them had already been listed with German thoroughness and their tidy disposal by train to Auschwitz planned in matching detail and precise numbers.
News of all of this had reached London and the Colonial Secretary Oliver Stanley explained to Winston Churchill that the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem had asked that 4,500 Bulgarian Jewish children be allowed to leave for Palestine. “Bravo!” was Churchill’s reaction. Stanley secured the necessary permission for transportation through Turkey, and the British government themselves offered to take a further 29,000 Jews, children with adult escorts, in line with a 1939 White Paper which had taken account of Arab opinion sensitive to the numbers of Jews to be admitted to Palestine.
German intervention was now stimulated by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini, who had escaped from the British during the Arab revolt and was now in Berlin. His intervention was effective: the Turks changed their minds and closed the frontier to these refugees.
King Boris now adopted new tactics to foil Hitler’s murderous purpose, albeit by subterfuge and subtlety, dispersing the Bulgarian Jewish population across the country. German death lists with precise identities and addresses were suddenly useless. King Boris told him that the Jewish population of Bulgaria was necessary for “road-building and the economy”. Special labour camps were built for them around the country.
Corroboration and evidence of concern from Catholic quarters is evident here from the then Mgr Angelo Roncalli who at the time – 1943 – was Papal Nuncio in Turkey. He was later to become Pope John XXIII. He wrote to the king pleading the cause of several Jewish families, and then wrote on his own diplomatic note in Italian that the King had acted. Conceding the difficulty of the King’s position he later affirmed, again in a handwritten note, that the King had indeed acted.
It is perhaps legitimate to recall at this point that Catholic bishops in Germany such as Cardinal Clemens August Graf von Galen had been complaining forcibly about Gestapo tactics and in a sermon of August 1941 had said: “The right to live, to be unmolested, the right to liberty is an indispensable part of every ordered community.” And taking the place of a married man, Maximilian Kolbe, another priest, was killed by lethal carbolic acid injection at Auschwitz in August 1941.
Was King Boris similarly murdered? He was certainly dead within four days of his last meeting with Hitler in the summer of 1943 and in mysterious circumstances, having been flown back by Hitler’s personal pilot. Then one of the physicians flown in to attend the king on his deathbed was a Viennese consultant later to be involved in medical experiments on gypsy prisoners in Dachau and who later committed suicide to avoid a post-war criminal trial for murder.
What is curious is that the autopsy report was written in Latin. Had telltale spots appeared on the body before death to indicate poisoning?
However he died, King Boris is an unacknowledged hero who deserves the recognition of history: 50,000 Jews were alive in Bulgaria at the end of the war, more than there were at its start – the figures cross-check with the Holocaust Museum records in Jerusalem. Oskar Schindler has received publicity, thanks to Hollywood. But as the King’s son, Simeon Saxe-Coburg, writes in a foreword to Hitler and the King: “More than Schindler’s position, King Boris’s was a commanding one and hence decisive.” John Hall Spencer’s Hitler and the King: How Bulgaria Derailed the Final Solution is published by European Atlantic Publications at £10 per copy including postage. He is now working on a study of Pius XII called Hitler and the Pope