TORONTO — Hermann Leiningen is soft-spoken, humble and unfailingly polite – traits he says he inherited from the grandfather he never met.
Hermann Leiningen, grandson of King Boris III of Bulgaria [Ron Csillag photo]
Inset: King Boris III of Bulgaria
Something you wouldn’t know right away about the unassuming Toronto banker, despite just a hint of a regal bearing, is that his full title is His Serene Highness, Prince Hermann Friedrich Fernando Roland zu Leiningen.
That’s right: “Prince.” A real one.
He’s the great-grandson of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, and through his father, a direct descendant of Queen Victoria. He is 126th in line to the British throne.
A more direct royal bloodline is via his late grandfather, King Boris III of Bulgaria, a much-loved monarch among whose lesser-known exploits was his refusal to surrender his country’s Jews to the Nazis during World War II, resulting in the rescue of Bulgaria’s 50,000-strong Jewish population.
Which is why on April 14 at 8 p.m., Leiningen, a 46-year-old Orthodox Christian, will accept an award from Chabad of Markham paying posthumous tribute to his heroic grandfather. The honour is to be presented to him by a group of Bulgarian Holocaust survivors who owe their lives to King Boris.
The story may not be as well-known as King Christian’s rescue of his Jewish subjects in Denmark, but it’s certainly no less dramatic: despite several meetings with Adolf Hitler, Boris, referred to in history books variously as king or czar, steadfastly refused to ship his country’s Jews to Nazi-occupied Poland and its death mills.
In fact, Leiningen, an international investment expert with RBC, told The CJN in a recent interview that despite intense demands from Berlin, the king stuck to his “three nos:” no war with Russia, no German occupation of Bulgaria and no deportations of Jews.
“He was neutral in many ways,” Leiningen said, gazing out onto Toronto’s skyline from his 23rd floor office. “And I think [by] being neutral, in many instances, he postponed making big decisions by saying ‘not now.’”
Boris ascended to the throne in 1918 following Bulgaria’s defeat in World War I. When World War II broke out, the country declared neutrality, but joined the Axis in March 1941. In return, Bulgaria annexed lands it had longed claimed, namely, western Thrace from Greece and Macedonia from Yugoslavia.
As a Nazi ally, Bulgaria enacted anti-Jewish legislation. The Law for the Protection of the Nation prohibited Jews from voting, running for office, working for the government, intermarrying or owning land.
Even so, Boris had forged several personal relationships with members of the Jewish community. And his father, King Ferdinand, had personally financed the building of the synagogue in 1909 in the capital, Sofia.
Historians agree there was also a general absence of anti-Semitism among the populace. Most Bulgarian Jews were highly assimilated.
Some historians, however, have been less than kind to Boris, claiming he was weak-willed and sided with the Nazis only to regain lost territories. They’ve alleged that the dangerous game of protecting Jews fell mainly to one of his government ministers, Dimiter Peshev, and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
But as “an absolute monarch, the final decisions had to be made by [the king], regardless of what the parliament or church said,” Leiningen counters. He lauds the people of Bulgaria and the church, but “it was a combined effort.”
Besides, “had my grandfather not had this loose alliance with Germany, the Germans would have come into Bulgaria, would have gone into Russia, and the chances are, like in all the other occupied territories, there would have been deportations of Jews.”
What Boris was unable to accomplish, however, was to save the Jews of the newly administered regions of Thrace and Macedonia. A total of 11,385 of these Jews were rounded up by Bulgarian forces and shipped to Treblinka.
Leiningen recognizes that as a sore point.
“Well, they were part of a territory that had been occupied by Germany, and as a result, it was a lot more difficult.”
Leiningen, who was born in Toronto and has three real-life princesses for daughters, doesn’t advertise his royal status, but he doesn’t shy away from it either.
“My mother always said, ‘Don’t publicize, but be proud of your background. If someone asks, be available and tell the story.’
“I love talking about it. I’m learning more every day about my background.”
And the story has no shortage of intrigue.
For one, King Boris died under mysterious circumstances just two weeks after his final meeting with Hitler in the summer of 1943. He was not yet 50. For decades, conspiracy theories swirled that he was administered a slow poison by Hitler’s henchmen or murdered by Communist agents who knew that Bulgaria was about to fall into their hands and thought it would be easier to rule without a king.
(Boris’s body was never found, but his heart was discovered after the Communists’ fall in the early 1990s. An autopsy revealed that he likely died of a heart attack brought on by extreme stress).
By that time, Germany needed Bulgaria as an ally, because Italy had surrendered just six days after Boris’ death. One year after that, the Red Army entered Bulgaria.
Boris was replaced on the throne by his six-year-old son, Simeon, who ruled by regency until 1946, when the Communists abolished the monarchy. They also executed Leiningen’s great-uncle and all members of Bulgaria’s parliament.
But Simeon wasn’t through. He triumphantly returned to post-Communist Bulgaria and was the country’s prime minister from 2001 to 2005.
Meanwhile, Leiningen’s parents, Prince Karl and Princess Maria Luisa, came to Canada in the late 1950s. The German-born Karl had a soft spot for the country, says his son, because he’d been captured by Canadian troops while serving with the German army during World War II.
He stayed in Canada until 1969 and spent the last 20 years of his life in Vered HaGalil, a horse ranch and farm on the Sea of Galilee. What drew him to Israel? “No one could really figure it out,” Leiningen says.
As for what motivated his grandfather to defy Hitler and save “his” Jews, Leiningen doesn’t pause: “He was a very believing and spiritual man. His belief in God and God’s will, were likely the biggest factors in helping make the decisions he made.”
Chabad of Markham plans to unveil a “Tolerance Garden” at its Green Lane location to recognize King Boris and other notables who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
Leiningen says he’s “overwhelmed” by Chabad’s award, but “it’s really for my grandfather. It’s for what he did and the people he helped.”