FYI: The proper pronunciation of Boris is Bah-REECE, not BOR-iss. The Anglo pronunciation is so ugly and throws this beautiful Slavic name away.
Boris Klemens Robert Maria Pius Ludvig Stanislaus Ksaver of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria, 30 January 1894–28 August 1943
Because of his complicated role during World War Two, Tsar Boris III hasn’t been honored by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, but it was thanks to him that Bulgaria’s Jewish community was saved from the Nazis.
Boris ascended the throne on 3 October 1918, following the abdication of his father, Tsar Ferdinand. Under his rule, Bulgaria acquired a partially parliamentary government, and the kingdom began a wonderful era of growth and prosperity. The years 1935–40 have been called the Golden Age of the Third Bulgarian Kingdom.
Bulgaria originally was neutral after the outbreak of war, but their national pride was humiliated after losing Thrace and Dobruzha/Dobrogea in the wake of World War One. Hence, Hitler used this as incentive to get Bulgaria as an ally. The plan worked, and Dobruzha/Dobrogea was restored following Bulgarian’s official alliance with the Axis. Not only that, but Bulgaria also regained most of Macedonia and Thrace. Unfortunately, part of this deal included the forced adoption of anti-Jewish legislation.
However, Boris wasn’t going to be Hitler’s puppet, and many of his subjects refused to go along with the anti-Jewish laws. Many Bulgarians wrote letters of protest to the government.
Theodor Dannecker, one of Hitler’s emissaries, met with Aleksandar Belev, the Commissar for Jewish Affairs in Bulgaria, in February 1943 to try to arrange for the deportation of Bulgarian Jewry. They planned to deport 20,000 people from the quasi-annexed Thrace and Macedonia, but there were only 11,343 people in both territories. Hence, the rest had to come from Bulgaria proper.
The cattlecars were all prepared in the western border town of Kyustendil, but word had already gotten out about this most nefarious plan, and people throughout Bulgaria began protesting. Due to the overwhelming opposition, the deportations were cancelled. At very real risk to his life and throne, Boris himself had given orders to stop the deportation of his Jewish subjects. Sadly, since Thrace and Macedonia hadn’t been formally annexed and thus were under Nazi administration, those 11,343 people on the original list were unable to be saved.
Boris, his inner circle, and his subjects continued to refuse Nazi pressure to deport or discriminate against their Jewish friends and neighbors. As an attempt to get Hitler off his case, Boris ordered healthy Jewish men to build roads in hard-labor units within Bulgaria proper. He insisted his Jewish subjects were necessary to help with building roads and railway lines. All Nazi-suggested plans to deport them were met with refusals, excuses, and protests. Boris also refused to send his subjects to fight the USSR, as well as refusing to declare war on the USSR.
In August 1943, at his final stormy meeting with Hitler, Boris once again refused to deport his Jewish subjects and continued to insist they were necessary to help with road and railway construction. He also once again refused to declare war on the USSR. Hitler was absolutely livid at these continued refusals, but the final outcome of this meeting was that all 50,000 Bulgarian Jews were to be left alone.
Two weeks later, Boris suddenly died of what many believe to have been poisoning instead of the officially-attributed heart failure. A slow-working poison may have been the culprit. Given the circumstances raging just before his death, it doesn’t seem like a wild conspiracy theory to suggest he may have been poisoned as revenge.
Boris was the first Gentile to receive the Jewish National Fund’s Medal of the Legion of Honor Award, and he’s also been honored by the Anti-Defamation League. In 1998, Israel established the Bulgarian Forest on the initiative of Bulgarian–American Jews and the Jewish National Fund, though in 2003, the memorial was removed from the forest due to how Macedonia and Thrace hadn’t been saved.