Rabbi Daniel Zion was one of the chief rabbis of Sofia, Bulgaria during World War II and a Jewish believer. He was warned about the holocaust in a vision of the Master, and he helped save 800 Jews of Sofia from the Nazis but was himself interned in a concentration camp in 1943. In 1949 he emigrated to Israel.
Rabbi Daniel Zion: Chief Rabbi of Bulgaria During WWII
With the beginning of World War II, problems began for Jews everywhere. In Bulgaria between 1941 and 1942, a series of laws and edicts came down upon the Jews. It became obvious that these developments were preparing for the extermination of Bulgarian Jews. In 1943, the Jewish community of Bulgaria stood at the edge of hell. Under German pressure, the government of Bulgaria decided to force the Jews out of Bulgaria. On May 23, 1943, Rabbi Daniel gathered all the Jews in the central synagogue of Sofia, the second-largest synagogue in all Europe. Every Jew in the city came to the synagogue to pray for the evil decision to be reversed. 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 about 250 men. The people continued to march toward the holy synod and demanded to see the Metropolite Stephen, head of the Orthodox church, who was respected by the Jewish community because of his friendly attitude toward them.
Stephen promised the Jewish community that he would meet with the king and the ministers and attempt to change their minds, asking them to 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 10,153 Jews from Sofia into the provincial cities and 3,500 men into labor camps. Only 2,300 Jews remained in Sofia. The Orthodox Church in Bulgaria was one of the main reasons the Bulgarian government did not send the Jews to Auschwitz. The church continued to intercede with the king and the rest of the cabinet for the Jews.
The Orthodox Church of Bulgaria was so amicable to the Jews because of the special relationship that the Metropolite Stephen and Rabbi Daniel Zion shared with each other.
Jesus the Messiah
In the early 1930s Rabbi Daniel was invited to visit a teacher named Dunnov, who mixed mysticism and Christianity. Rabbi Daniel was so impressed with Dunnov’s lifestyle that he started to implement some of his teachings. This included vegetarianism, morning prayer with the sunrise and daily physical exercise. Dunnov spoke of Jesus as the Messiah while stressing the simple lifestyle of Jesus’ early disciples. These subjects were eye openers for Rabbi Daniel and got him to think about (Jesus Christ) Yeshua.
Daniel went to the patriarchate of the Greek Orthodox Church in Sofia, where he befriended the Metropolite Archimandrite Stephen. He developed a close relationship with Stephen, and they had a frank exchange of ideas on a variety of spiritual subjects, including Jesus and the early church. The patriarch, who was well versed in the delicate relationship between Jews and Christians, encouraged the rabbi to forget about so-called Christianity and concentrate on Yeshua Himself.
Rabbi Daniel started meeting with a group of Jewish people to study the Apostolic Writings each Shabbat afternoon in his home. Among them 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 Bulgaria’s Jewish community. 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. Because he remained within the framework of Orthodox Judaism, there was little that his opponents could point to as heresy. However, the leadership of the Jewish community began to isolate him.
When Nazi Germany occupied Bulgaria without firing one shot, Rabbi Daniel, as the spiritual leader of the Jewish community, became the object of Nazi persecution and ridicule. On several occasions, he was publicly flogged in front of the Great Synagogue of Sofia. During these times of persecution, Rabbi Daniel walked upright before the fascists, and his only reaction was to call upon God.
My own mother and sister were present on at least two of these occasions, and they retold the story of his public flogging and defiance many times. Even years later, recalling these experiences made them proud to be Jews.
When there was talk of shipping the Jews to Germany, Rabbi Daniel—with the help of 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.
After 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 went to Germany for a meeting with the Nazi government and Hitler himself. At that meeting, 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 Rabbi Daniel’s sermon on the Shabbat after he delivered the letter:
Fear not, my dear brothers and sisters! Put your faith in the Holy Rock of our Salvation. … I have been informed that the Metropolite Stephen has agreed to see me immediately and discuss 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.”
Immigration to Israel
On the ninth of September 1944, the fascist government of Bulgaria fell to 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, emigrated to Israel.
In Israel, Rabbi Daniel was accepted as the rabbi of the Bulgarian Jews. In 1954, Rabbi Samuel Toledano became the Chief Rabbi of Israel and invited Rabbi Daniel to be a judge in the rabbinical court of Jerusalem. When rumors started to fly that Rabbi Daniel believed in Yeshua, Rabbi Toledano invited Daniel to his office and asked him about these rumors. Rabbi Daniel explained to Toledano that while he accepted Yeshua as the Messiah, he did not accept so-called apostate Christianity as the true expression of the teaching and person of Yeshua the Messiah. Rabbi Toledano told him that he could accept this perspective as long as Rabbi Daniel kept it to himself. When Rabbi Daniel refused, Toledano took him to the rabbinic court for the other rabbis to decide what should be done.
In the court, evidence against Rabbi Zion was presented from four books that he had written about Yeshua. The right to speak was then given to Rabbi Daniel. In his own defense he stated:
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 cherished 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 decided to strip him of his rabbinical title, but the Bulgarian Jews continued to honor Daniel as their rabbi. Daniel officiated in his synagogue on Yeffet Street in the heart of Jaffa until October 6, 1973. Although he did not often speak of Yeshua openly during his synagogue teachings, many times he cited stories and parables from the Apostolic Writings.
Each Sabbath, after the synagogue service, he brought a group of his fellow worshippers into his home for a study from the Apostolic Writings. These studies lasted all afternoon, until the time came for evening prayers.
A True Disciple
Many missions, missionaries and Christian societies visited Rabbi Daniel Zion in his Jaffa home. They wrote numerous articles about him, and they occasionally offered 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. When he did receive offerings with no strings attached, he accepted them and passed the money to charitable organizations for the blind, or to orphans and widows. He lived in abject poverty; there was nothing of value in his house, and he never locked his home.
In 1979, Rabbi Daniel Zion departed to be with the Lord at the age of ninety-six. Israel’s Bulgarian Jewish community gave him full military and state honors. His bier stood in the center of Jaffa with a military guard, and at noon it 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.
Rabbi Daniel Zion’s story is a testimony to us all. He did not compromise faith for money, nor did he succumb to the pressures of the chief rabbinate to deny Yeshua. He chose the difficult path, not acquiescing his beliefs in order to fit into the norm. May we learn from his tremendous example.
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