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Wartime King Honored for Saving 50,000 Bulgarian Jews : Holocaust: Orange County rabbi says he was one of those King Boris III of Bulgaria refused to hand over to his ally, Adolf Hitler. The king’s son, Simeon II, accepts thanks from survivors.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A rabbi who was among 50,000 Bulgarian Jews saved from the Nazis by the late king of Bulgaria read thankful passages of Scripture here Sunday in the presence of his rescuer’s son and heir.

Nearly 2,500 worshipers at the Crystal Cathedral heard Rabbi Haim Asa declare, “God has blessed us with salvation.”

And to the deeply moved King Simeon II, son of the late King Boris III, Asa said, “We thank you for the gift of life that your father gave my people.”

Asa, the spiritual leader of Fullerton’s Temple Beth Tikvah, fled from wartime Europe with his family, one among the estimated 50,000--virtually the country’s entire Jewish population--saved from almost certain death at the hands of the Nazis by the courageous actions of King Boris.

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This weekend, the rabbi and other grateful former subjects are honoring the late king. The festivities included Friday dinner at Sephardic Tifereth Israel Temple in Los Angeles, Sunday’s “Hour of Power” internationally televised show, and a tour set for today at the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance in the company of Branko Lustig, the Academy Award-winning producer of “Schindler’s List,” and a Holocaust survivor.

In a ceremony tonight in Beverly Hills, King Boris will be posthumously awarded the Jewish National Fund’s Medal of the Legion of Honor, the first non-Jew to receive one of the Jewish community’s highest honors.

King Simeon, who seemed near tears during Sunday’s service, said he is deeply moved by the recognition of his father’s efforts. “For a son to see such genuine and good-hearted recognition is gratifying,” he said in an interview, “but what my father did was only what any decent person would have done.”

In 1943, King Boris--whose country was officially aligned with Germany--refused Hitler’s direct orders to deport Bulgaria’s Jews to Germany for extermination. Instead the king urged the Jews to move to the countryside and blend in with the general population. And he told the Fuehrer that he needed them to help build roads.

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On Aug. 14, 1943, Boris was summoned by Hitler to Germany, where the two had a meeting described by eyewitnesses as a tense and angry showdown over the Jewish matter and his refusal to send Bulgarian troops for the Russian front.

Two weeks later, the 49-year-old king died under mysterious circumstances; some believe he was poisoned on Hitler’s orders. Six years old at the time, the new King Simeon II was deposed by the Communists after the war. He has lived in exile in Spain ever since.

Asa’s efforts to gain recognition for King Boris began 32 years ago when he wrote his master’s thesis on the subject. In his crusade, the rabbi says he kept running into two obstacles: Bulgaria’s Communist regime’s reluctance to glorify the monarch it had deposed, and certain elements of the American Jewish community, which were unwilling to admit or unaware that an ally of Germany could have saved so many.

That resistance eroded, the rabbi said, after two recent events: the end of Bulgaria’s Communist regime in 1990, and the success of “Schindler’s List,” a film about a German who rescued Jews under the Nazis’ noses.

“When you find a man who saved 50,000 Jews, how can you not honor him?” said David Horne, Los Angeles chairman for the Jewish National Fund. “It’s critical for people to know that someone who was the head of a state did something so important.”

Jack Mandel, president of the American Congress of Jewish Concentration Camp Survivors, based in Los Angeles, agrees.

“He should have been recognized a long time ago,” Mandel said of King Boris. Unfortunately, he added, human nature “is never to find somebody who saved, but only to persecute the ones who did wrong.”

For Asa, “this is important because history has to be made an instrument of good, not only evil. History must teach that there was as much good in certain places as there was evil in others.”

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