JOHN EGGERS COLUMN: Let's get into the trenches

Metropolitan Kirill and Father Boyle exemplify what we all should do. We need to get back into the trenches and become the people we wish to help.

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John Eggers

If you enjoy the history of World War II, you not only will enjoy this true story, you should know it so you can tell it to others. It happened 80 years ago this month.

Bishop Metropolitan (a title given to Slavic and Greek-speaking heads of churches) Kirill served the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and stopped the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to Nazi death camps during World War II.

Bulgaria was the only country under Nazi rule that had more Jews after World War II than before. This is how it happened.

The Bulgarian government was an ally of Nazi Germany. In 1943 it signed an agreement with the Nazis to deport 20,000 Jews.

In March of that year, the Nazi soldiers arrested thousands of Jews and prepared cattle cars to take them to Treblinka, an extermination camp where 850,000 Jews would eventually be murdered.


There were protests all across Bulgaria. Leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church spoke out against this inhumane act.

One bishop was Metropolitan Kirill, from the city of Plovdiv. As soon as the deportations began, Kirill sent a personal telegram to Bulgarian King Boris asking for mercy for the Jews.

He also warned local law enforcement that if they participated in these round-ups, Bulgarians would stop recognizing their authority. Kirill had the full support of Metropolitan Stephan of Sofia, the highest-ranking Bulgarian church official.

On March 10, 1943, 8,500 Jews were loaded into boxcars. Before the train could leave, Kirill showed up at the station with 300 church members.

The bishop pushed through the officers guarding the area and approached the boxcars. As he reached them, he yelled out passages from the Book of Ruth: “Wherever you go, I will go! Wherever you lodge, I will lodge! Your people will be my people, and your God, my God!”

Kirill declared his intention to lie on the tracks to stop the train from leaving. Members of his church got the word out about Kirill’s bravery and soon all of Bulgaria knew of the bishop willing to lay down his life to prevent the murder of innocent people.

The impact of Kirill’s action was immediate. That same day, 42 members of Parliament rebelled against the government. Political leaders from all parties proclaimed their solidarity with Metropolitan Kirill and the Jews of Bulgaria and sent angry letters to government ministers demanding the persecution end.

The next day, the Jews were freed and allowed to return home. The Bulgarians' refusal to tolerate anti-Jewish persecution was unique in Europe.


At the beginning of the war, there were 48,000 Jews in Bulgaria; when the war ended, there were 50,000.

For Kirill to help others, he had to become one of them. “Your people will become my people.”

Gregory Joseph Boyle is an American Roman Catholic priest of the Jesuit order. He is the founder and director of Homeboy Industries, the world's largest gang intervention and rehabilitation program, and former pastor of Dolores Mission Church in Los Angeles.

Homeboy Industries supports around 10,000 men and women each year as they work to overcome their pasts, re-imagine their futures, and break the inter-generational cycles of gang violence.

It has been 30-plus years since Homeboy Industries was founded. More space is needed to list all of the reasons for its success (to become a member of Homeboy Industries, you had to have been a gang member), but right from the onset, Father Boyle realized that if the change was to occur, he needed to listen to what gang members had to say.

Father Boyle went into the trenches not only to listen but more importantly to learn.

What does it mean to go into the trenches? This metaphor means getting personally involved. It comes from the First World War, where soldiers were fighting to gain control of territory and fought from one trench to another.

To understand this type of warfare, you had to get into the trenches with them.


One of the reasons, for example, why the Peace Corps survived and has proven to be a successful program is because men and women got into the trenches with the people and listened and worked harmoniously with them.

The same can be said for AmeriCorps and Vista. Their purpose is to understand and work side by side with other cultures. Their goals have remained unchanged for 60 years.

Many of us watched the high school basketball tournaments. What a glorious event this was to see our young people having so much fun. The bands, the cheerleaders, the parents, the fans, everyone got into the act.

Unfortunately, not all young people had the opportunity to experience this event and that’s a shame.

What do I mean? Lots of kids are homeless, on drugs, abused, in jail, lack a loving home, drop out of school, have low self-esteem, belong to a gang, or are being cheated out of their childhood because we can’t seem to find an answer that works.

Perhaps, it is because we fail to get into the trenches to listen and learn. The solutions rest not so much on how we can help them, but on how much they can help us.

Metropolitan Kirill and Father Boyle exemplify what we all should do. We need to get back into the trenches and become the people we wish to help. “Your people will be my people.”

Riddle: What has teeth but doesn’t bite? (Answer, a comb.) This classic riddle reminds us that some of our best solutions to life’s most serious problems may be as simple as just listening.



I want to thank the Bemidji Community Food Shelf for permitting the distribution of 100% literature to their clients.

John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.

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