World War II Bulgaria didn't have a Schindler, and it didn't have a list. It had a white-bearded mystic named Peter Deunov and an entire nation standing behind him. Together, they saved Bulgaria's 48,000 Jews from the Holocaust.
Bulgaria wasn't in the best position during the Second World War. Fenced in by the Soviet Union on one side and Europe on the other, it was forced into the middle of the action. That's why it's all the more impressive that Bulgaria is one of only three mainland European nations where the entire Jewish population survived the Holocaust. (Denmark and Finland were the other two, but their relatively small Jewish populations were geographically isolated.) For staying strong in the face of Hitler and his Nazi directives, the Bulgarians credit one man—Christian mystic Peter Deunov. As Albert Einstein would later say, "The whole world bows down before me. I bow down before the master Peter Deunov."
Peter Deunov's philosophy wouldn't appear to be anything revolutionary at first. He based his beliefs on those of Christ and preached universal love and religious tolerance—only with a more mystical, cosmic slant. Known as Master Beinsa Douno, he garnered a following in Bulgaria in the early 20th century for his teachings, now known as Esoteric Christianity. In fact, during Deunov's time serving as the Vatican's ambassador to Bulgaria, the future Pope John XXIII called him "the greatest philosopher living on the Earth."
But Deunov had his controversial qualities, too. A strong believer in astrology and phrenology (determining personality traits based on the shape of people's skulls), Deunov also considered physical fitness to be crucial to spiritual development. He designed health camps for his disciples that included climbing to the 9,600-foot summit of Musala, Bulgaria's highest peak. In addition, he promoted strict vegetarianism and liberal doses of water. But perhaps most controversial was his belief in Paneurhythmy ("sublime cosmic rhythm"), sacred dances Deunov invented to utilize "positive energies." Unnerved by some of his more unusual ideas, the powerful Bulgarian Orthodox Church went so far as to denounce his teachings.
But far beyond scaling mountains and preaching the joys of good health, Deunov advocated world peace. Unfortunately, that too was seen as contentious by some. During one of his lectures in 1917, he spoke out against Bulgaria's entry into World War I on the side of the Central Powers. Although Deunov would later prove to be right about that decision, that didn't stop the government from exiling him for a year.
At the start of World War II, Bulgaria picked the losing side again. Hoping to reclaim the ancestral lands it'd lost during WWI (Thrace and Macedonia), Bulgaria joined the Axis powers in 1941. And although the Nazis did gain control of those territories, Bulgaria reclaimed them in name only. What's worse, Hitler forced the Bulgarian government to pass oppressive laws against its Jews as part of the deal.
Thanks to a tolerant national population, Bulgaria's Tsar Boris III was able to avoid enforcing anti-Semitic policies—at least for a while. Eventually, though, the political and military pressure from Hitler became too great.
In March 1943, Boris was bullied into signing off on the deportation of 11,343 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia to Auschwitz. Of them, only 12 survived.
When the deportation became public knowledge, most Bulgarians were so outraged that Boris went into hiding. Anything he faced would be a lose-lose situation—whether it was the wrath of the Nazis or the wrath of his own people. When Hitler demanded the deportation of all Bulgarian Jews, Boris caved.
Hide and Go Seek
What happened next was one of the most fateful strokes of luck in history. The signed directive from Boris passed through the ranks and into the hands of one of Deunov's followers, who quickly informed his guru. Eager to stop the deportation, Deunov sent one of his most trusted devotees, a senior official named Lyubomir Loulchev, to try and change Boris' mind. Deunov knew that Boris respected him (in large part because Deunov had "predicted" the devastating results of WWI), but he also knew the tsar respected Loulchev. Deunov told Loulchev: "Find the tsar and tell him that if he lets Bulgarian Jews be sent to Poland, that will be the end of his dynasty."
Unfortunately, locating the tsar wasn't an easy task. Boris was still in hiding, and not even his most trusted advisors knew his whereabouts. Loulchev desperately searched the country, but he was running out of time, so he returned to Deunov for help. According to one biographer, Deunov meditated on Boris' location in his room for a few minutes, then opened the door and said one word: "Krichim," the name of an obscure town in southern Bulgaria. Loulchev left for the town immediately and arrived to discover a very surprised tsar.
Not long after, Boris called for the release of all Bulgarian Jews awaiting deportation. It's uncertain whether the about-face was the result of Loulchev's appeal to Boris' conscience, the power of Deunov's advice, or the pressure he discovered he was receiving from other top Bulgarian officials. Members of the parliament had banded together to try and protect their Jewish population, but with the tsar in hiding, their hands were tied. Deunov's involvement changed all of that.
The Fury of a FÃ¼hrer
Hitler was more than a little irritated by this turn of events, as well as by Boris' refusal to engage in war with the Soviet Union. In August 1943, the FÃ¼hrer summoned the tsar to a private meeting in East Prussia—a trip from which Boris never recovered. He returned exhausted and depressed, and died mysteriously just days later, at age 49. It's widely suspected (but still unproven) that foul play was involved.
Unfortunately, there wasn't a happy ending for Deunov, either. In 1944, Soviet forces invaded Bulgaria, and the Christian guru died two days before Communist authorities could arrest him for his spiritual teachings. The government continued to harass and persecute his followers until the fall of Communism in 1989.
Since then, however, there's been a rise of interest in Deunov's philosophies, and his teachings have slowly spread throughout Europe. But even those Bulgarians who aren't particularly inspired by his religion still respect Deunov for his vital role in saving 48,000 Bulgarians from the Holocaust. But perhaps the main reason he's remembered so fondly is because he inspired his nation to do the right thing. In 1998, the Anti-Defamation League honored the entire country of Bulgaria with its Courage to Care Award. And while due credit has been given to Boris III, Bulgarians also remember that the tsar could just as easily have allowed his Jewish subjects to perish (as he'd done to Jews in the ancestral lands) were he not convinced otherwise. Of all the Bulgarians who played a role in their nation's proudest moment, none are more esteemed than Peter Deunov.
This article originally appeared in the September-October 2007 issue of mental_floss. Learn more about the magazine, or just go ahead and subscribe.