Rabbi Daniel Zion: Chief Rabbi of Bulgarian Jews During World War II
The first record of Jews in Sofia, Bulgaria, is from 811 A.D. Before that time the center of Jewish life, which has a continued existence in Bulgaria since the early days of the Roman Empire, was in the city of Viddin. Jews came to Sofia with the return of Krum, the victorious king, who brought to Sofia some 30,000 prisoners, among whom there were also many Jews from Asia Minor. To these Jews were added also Jews who ran away from the persecution in Hungary, and Austria.
When King Muad I conquered Sofia in 1389, he found four active synagogues in the city. There was a synagogue named “Kehal de los Griegos,” which was used by the Jews that came to Sofia from Greece and the Greek Islands. There was also an Ashkenazi synagogue, a “Frankish” synagogue, and a fourth synagogue for the local Jews who worshiped in Bulgarian and Hebrew.
When Pope Nicholas V persecuted the Jews in Bavaria, many of these Jews came to Sofia and mixed with the local and the Greek Jews who spoke Ladino. This Bulgarian Jewish community developed strong connections with the large Sephardic community in Thessalonica, Greece. In Thessalonica there was a large Jewish community that had a Yeshiva (Rabbinical School). Thessalonica was a center and it had all the Jewish institutions that were missing in Sofia at that time. When Bulgaria was liberated from Turkish domination in the year 1880, Prince Alexander of Bulgaria nominated Rabbi Gavriel Almoslino to be the chief rabbi of Sofia and Bulgaria.
After the Balkan War of 1912, many thousands of Jews immigrated to Bulgaria. The community grew, and there was need for more rabbis. In 1918 a message went from Sofia to Thessalonica to send rabbis. The head of the Yeshiva in Thessalonica sent his young son, Daniel, to serve the community in Sofia. Rabbi Daniel Zion served the community and was elected to be the chief rabbi of Bulgaria. Rabbi Daniel Zion’s major accomplishment was his activity during the war years.
With the beginning of the World War II began problems for the Jews. On January 23, 1941, the Law for the Protection of the Nation was published in the official paper. This law was nothing more than a Bulgarian adaptation of the Nuremberg laws. The purpose of this law was to separate the Jewish community from the rest of the Bulgarian people and to limit the freedom of the Jews. On March 1, 1941, the Bulgarian government announced that they were joining the Axis Powers. On the same day, German Nazi forces entered Bulgaria without a single shot. It was stated officially that the Germans came into Bulgaria to protect it from a possible attack of the Allied Forces from the East. On the same day an edict was published that every male Jew between 20 and 40 years old must report to Work Brigades, which, in reality, were labor camps.
On July 12, 1941, King Boris III signed a law ordering every Jew to pay a “Contribution Tax.” On the 29th of July, a second law was passed limiting the financial resources of the Jews in Bulgaria. This law prohibited Jews from functioning in the marketplace as professionals. Jews could no longer be pharmacists, engineers, architects, lawyers, and so on.
Finally, in September 1942, a special commission for Jewish affairs was put into place, headed by a well-known anti-Semite, Alexander Balevin, in preparation for the extermination of Bulgarian Jews, and they all knew it.
The Jews of Bulgaria, and especially Sofia, stood at the edge of Hell twice in the year 1943. Under German pressure, the government of Bulgaria made a decision to expel its Jews. On May 23, Rabbi Daniel Zion gathered all the Jews in the Central Synagogue of Sofia—the second largest synagogue in all of Europe—to pray for the evil decision to be reversed. Every Jew in the city came to the synagogue. Rabbi Daniel said publicly to all the community, “It is better for us to die here than in Poland.”
When the Jews came out of the synagogue, the police attacked the multitude with truncheons and arrested approximately 250 men. The people continued to march toward the Holy Synod and demanded to see the Metropolite Stephen, who was respected by the Jewish community because of a friendly attitude toward them. The Metropolite Stephen promised the Jewish community that he would meet with the king and the ministers, and attempt to influence them to change their attitude and stop the persecution of the Jews.
However, on May 25, 1943, the expulsion of the Jews from Sofia began. The Commission for Jewish Affairs took from Sofia into the provincial cities 10,153 Jews and 3,500 men into the labor camps. Only 2,300 Jews remained in Sophia. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church was one of the major stumbling blocks in the way of the Bulgarian government sending the Jews to Auschwitz. The Church continued to intercede with the king and the rest of the cabinet for the Jews.
Why was the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria so amicable to the Jews? The real reason lies in the special relationship that the Metropolite Stephen and Rabbi Daniel Zion shared with one another.
Rabbi Daniel Zion was invited in the early 1930s to visit Dunnov, who was a teacher of a mystical type of Christianity, mixing mysticism, Christianity, vegetarianism, and a form of Yoga exercise. Rabbi Daniel was impressed with Dunnov’s lifestyle and started to implement some of the teachings of this mystic. Rabbi Daniel Zion became a vegetarian, adopted daily exercise, and began getting up early in the morning and starting the day with prayer watching the sunrise.
Dunnov spoke of Jesus as the Messiah and Savior—and of the simple lifestyle of the early disciples of Jesus. These subjects were eye-openers for Rabbi Daniel, and he began to think about most unorthodox subjects for an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. However, according to Rabbi Daniel Zion, the major change came into his life when, as he was praying watching at the sunrise, a vision of Yeshua appeared to him. He did not know what this vision meant, so he asked some of the other rabbis what he should do about it. After the third time that the same vision reappeared, Rabbi Daniel turned toward the figure and spoke to him. The figure was scintillating right out from the sun, and Rabbi Daniel received the impression that he spoke to him, identifying himself as Yeshua.
It is no small thing for a rabbi to receive a vision of Yeshua the Messiah. But Rabbi Daniel Zion was well versed with the teaching, “Receive the truth by whomever it might come.” He understood that there was something very special in this person who appeared to him and the message that was delivered to him. Rabbi Daniel Zion knew that he had to find a source of information that would help him understand this vision and discern its meaning.
At this point Rabbi Daniel went to the patriarchate of the Greek Orthodox Church in Sofia to see the Archimandrite Stephen, with whom he had a close friendship, and had a frank exchange of ideas on spiritual subjects including Jesus and the early church. The patriarch, who understood the delicate relationship between Jews and Christians, only encouraged the rabbi to forget about Christianity and concentrate on Yeshua himself.
Rabbi Daniel never officially “converted to Christianity;” however, he began to believe in Yeshua while remaining faithful to the Torah-keeping lifestyle. A song that Rabbi Daniel wrote about his faith best expresses his attitude toward Yeshua the Messiah:
No not I, No not I, only you are Yeshua in me!
Only you bring me before the God of my fathers,
Only you can heal me from every evil illness,
No not I, No not I, only you are Yeshua in me!
Only you teach me to love all creation,
Only you teach me to love even the enemy,
No not I, No not I, only you are Yeshua in me!
For this reason I will stay in your love,
Forever will I be within your will,
No not I, No not I, only you are Yeshua in me!
Rabbi Daniel started to collect a very select small group of Jewish people to study the New Testament each Saturday afternoon in his house. Among these Jews were some of the leading members of the Jewish community in Sofia.
Rabbi Daniel’s faith in Yeshua the Messiah became a well-known secret in the Jewish community of Bulgaria. However, his position was so honored, and his services so highly esteemed, that none of the Jewish functionaries in Sofia could openly criticize the rabbi. And because he remained well within the framework of the Jewish community in Bulgaria and did not stop living as an Orthodox Jew in all the rigor of the strictest observance of the Torah, there was little that his opponents could point as heresy. Yet, in the background, the leadership of the Jewish community started to slowly isolate him.
When Nazi Germany occupied Bulgaria without firing one shot, Rabbi Daniel Zion as the spiritual leader of the Jewish community became the object of persecution and ridicule. He was taken and publicly flogged in front of the Great Synagogue of Sofia. During these times, Rabbi Daniel walked upright before the fascists and his only reaction was to call upon God. My own mother and sister were present in at least two of these occasions, and they retold this story many times. The sentiments, which they felt years later from this experience, made them feel proud to be Jews.
When there was talk of shipping the Jews to Germany, Rabbi Daniel and his secretary, A. A. Anski, wrote a letter to the king of Bulgaria. In this letter Rabbi Daniel begged the king, in the name of Yeshua, not to allow the Jews to be taken out of Bulgaria. Rabbi Daniel wrote in this letter that in a vision that he had seen, Yeshua told him to warn the king to deliver the Jews to the Nazis. After a long ordeal of waiting many hours at the door of the king’s palace in Sofia, the rabbi and his secretary were able to deliver this letter to the king’s secretary. The next day the king was going to Germany for a meeting with the Nazi government and Hitler himself. King Boris of Bulgaria stood his ground and did not submit to the Nazi pressure to deliver the Jews from Bulgaria to the death camps of Poland and Germany.
Here are words from the sermon of Rabbi Daniel Zion on the Sabbath after he visited the king’s palace and delivered the letter:
“Fear not my dear brothers and sisters! Put your faith in the Holy Rock of our Salvation. . . Yesterday, I have been informed that the Metropolite Stephen has agreed to see me immediately and discuss about his conversation with the King of Bulgaria. When I went to see the Metropolite Stephen, he told me, ‘Tell your people that the King has promised that the Bulgarian Jews will not leave outside the boarders of Bulgaria’. . . I explained to the Metropolite that thousands of Jews are waiting for me in the Synagogue to hear this good news. When I returned to the Synagogue there was full silence in the large crowed that was gathered waiting to hear the results of my meeting with Stephen. As I walked in my announcement was, “Yes my brothers God has heard our prayers.”
On the 9th of September 1944, the fascist government of Bulgaria fell and the Communists under the patronage of Russia. Rabbi Daniel Zion remained the leader and the chief rabbi of Bulgaria until 1949, when he with most of the Bulgarian Jewish community immigrated to Israel.
In Israel Rabbi Daniel was immediately accepted as the rabbi of the Bulgarian Jews. When Rabbi Samuel Toledano became the chief rabbi of Israel in 1954, he invited Rabbi Daniel Zion to be a judge in the Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem. Inevitably, rumors reached Rabbi Toledano regarding Rabbi Daniel’s belief in Yeshua. When summoned to Rabbi Toledano’s office and asked directly about these rumors, Rabbi Daniel explained that he accepted Yeshua as the Messiah and he did not accept Christianity as the true expression of the teaching and person of Yeshua the Messiah. Rabbi Toledano asked Rabbi Daniel to keep his beliefs to himself. When Rabbi Daniel said that he did not think that such a message could be kept a secret, Toledano was forced to take Rabbi Daniel to the Rabbinic court and allow the other rabbis to decide what should be done.
Evidence of Rabbi Daniel’s faith in Yeshua the Messiah was presented in court in the form of four books that Rabbi Daniel had written in Bulgarian about Yeshua. Then Rabbi Daniel Zion spoke in his own defense:
"I am poor and feeble, persecuted and vulnerable, Yeshua conquered me, and with the New Man he honored me, He delivered me from the poverty-stricken self with his great love, he cherishes me.
"Every day the canny devil aspires to grab my faith, I hold on to my encourager, and chase the devil away. I stand here alone in my faith, the whole world is against me. I give up all the earthly honor for the sake of the Messiah my mate."
The Rabbinical Court stripped Rabbi Daniel from his Rabbinical title, but the Bulgarian Jews continued to honor Rabbi Daniel as their rabbi. A Russian Jew who was one of the early Zionist settlers in Rishon LeZio, and had become a “believer” in Yeshua had given Rabbi Daniel Zion a building on Yeffet St. in the heart of Jaffa for a synagogue. In that synagogue Rabbi Daniel officiated until October 6,1973. In the synagogue Rabbi Daniel Zion did not often speak of Yeshua openly, but many times he told stories and parables from the New Testament. However, each Sabbath after the synagogue service, Rabbi Daniel would bring home a group of his fellow worshipers and they would study about Yeshua and from the New Testament throughout the Sabbath afternoon until they would return to the synagogue for the evening prayers.
Many missions, missionaries, and Christian societies visited Rabbi Daniel Zion in his Jaffa home. They wrote many articles about him, and at rare occasions would even offer him large amounts of money for the use of his name in their ministries. In every case Rabbi Daniel rejected their offers. He did not want to destroy his witness with the people of Israel for a handful of dollars. If given a free-will offering without any strings attached, the rabbi would accept it and pass it on to charitable organizations of the blind, or to orphans and widows. He himself lived in abject poverty. There was nothing in his own house that was of value and he would never lock his home.
Rabbi Daniel Zion wrote hundreds of songs about Yeshua the Messiah, the Sabbath, and how good life was joined with Messiah. He also wrote books on the subject of vegetarianism, health food, and natural living.
Rabbi Daniel’s major contribution to Messianic Judaism was his personal example. He lived a 100% Torah lifestyle, and was also a 100% follower of the Messiah Yeshua. He did not compromise faith for money from the Christian missions, nor did he succumb to the pressures of the chief rabbinate. Yeshua was his Savior and friend until the last days of his life. Rabbi Daniel Zion lived up to the poem that he wrote with the acrostic of his name, Daniel Zion the Servant of God.
The Word (D’var) of God is my path,
The Lamp (Ner) of God is my guide,
The Fear (Yira’at) of God is the beginning of Wisdom,
The Love (Ahavat) of God is my Life,
The Doing (La’asot) the will of God is my aspiration,
Righteousness (Zedek) and Justice are my goals,
His Suffering (Isurim) is my atonement,
He will protect (OYagen) you in all your ways,
The Eternal One (Nezah) of Israel is my comfort.
In 1979 Rabbi Daniel Zion departed to be with the Lord at the ripe old age of 96 years. The Bulgarian Jewish community of Israel gave him full military and state honors. His bier stood in the center of Jaffa with a military guard and at noon was carried by men all the way to the Holon cemetery on foot. He was buried as the Chief Rabbi of Bulgarian Jews who saved them from the Nazi holocaust. He was 100% Jewish and 100% follower and disciple of Yeshua the Messiah.
SOURCE: Joseph Shulam | www.netivyah.org