by Dimana Trankova

Ironically, most Bulgarians associate the date 9 September with the 1944 Communist coup. But for Bulgaria's Jews it has an entirely different meaning: On that day 100 years ago, in Sofia, King Ferdinand attended the inauguration of Europe's largest Sephardic synagogue

sofia central synagogue 9.jpg

In 1909, 9 September fell on a Thursday. Usually, Thursdays were business as usual for the numerous Jewish shops and other establishments in what at the time was a city with a significant Jewish population. But on that day they were all closed, as if it was a Sabbath. The streets of the Jewish neighbourhoods – the rich lived on either side of what is today Maria Louisa Blvd and the poor in Yuchbunar, present-day Zone B5 – were nearly deserted. The only sound was the buzz of thousands of voices coming from the market near the Banya Bashi Mosque.

A pogrom perhaps? News of the attacks on Jewish homes and synagogues in Chişinău and Odessa in 1903–1905 was still fresh in people's minds.

But the Jews in Bulgaria had never experienced any real anti-Semitism of the Russian, Polish or Romanian type. On 9 September 1909 thousands of Jews, as well as many Christians, gathered to behold the domes of a new building opposite the mosque. The official inauguration committee would come any minute now.

And there they were. King Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and his wife Eleonore, Prime Minister Aleksandar Malinov, other government ministers and the heads of the Orthodox and Catholic churches showed up to unveil Sofia's Central Synagogue.

The Holy Torah. The museum at Sofia's Central Synagogue boasts a rich collection of scriptures coming from synagogues throughout the country after they were closed in the 1950s / © M3 Communications/Asya Filipova

The Holy Torah. The museum at Sofia's Central Synagogue boasts a rich collection of scriptures coming from synagogues throughout the country after they were closed in the 1950s / © M3 Communications/Asya Filipova

Blending the Sephardic style influenced by Arabic architecture and the then fashionable Viennese Sezession, the building looked fresh out of a fairytale. Its beauty disguised the creative pains that its architect Friedrich Gruenanger had had to endure to complete it. The Jewish Consistory had rejected his initial plans and insisted on a building resembling the great Sephardic synagogue in Vienna (later destroyed by the Nazis). The second design was approved but the size of the building – whether to accommodate 500, 700 or 1,100 people – proved contentious. The Consistory decided on the cheaper version with 700 seats. But when construction began in 1905, it suddenly decided that it wanted 1,100 people. The whole undertaking, including the purchase of the plot of land, at 440,000 gold leva, was funded entirely by donations.

Thus Sofia acquired the largest Sephardic synagogue in Europe. With columns of Carrara marble, painted capitals and a 31-metre high central dome, it boasts another "most" title too. The 2,200 kg Viennese copper chandelier that hangs from the cupola is the largest in Bulgaria.

The synagogue in 1976 / © Anthony Georgieff

The synagogue in 1976 / © Anthony Georgieff

"The fact that the government and members of the other religious communities attended the opening shows that the Jewish community was well-respected and had its place in society," says Robert Djerassi, the current chairman of the Central Israelite Spiritual Council. He is among the leading figures of the community here and one of the organisers of the major restoration of the synagogue. The work was finished in time for the celebrations of the 100th Anniversary. "With its great synagogue right in the city centre, the Jewish community shows that it does not intend to hide and has no fear that somebody may desecrate it," Djerassi adds.

Djerassi is right. Throughout its history, Sofia's Central Synagogue was closed only in 1943–1944, when many of the Jews living in the city were resettled out of Sofia, under the anti-Semitic Law for the Defence of the Nation. But not even then was the building exposed to vandalism. "The only damage in the Second World War was during the Allied bombings. An American bomb fell on the eastern part of the building. It did not explode but the walls gave under its weight. Unfortunately, the library and the archives were lost forever," Djerassi says.

Hanukah is one of the few occasions the central hall is open / © BTA

Hanukah is one of the few occasions the central hall is open / © BTA

Today, there are only 2,500-3,000 Jews in Sofia – about half of all the Jews in the whole country. The central hall is empty most of the time, partly owing to the reconstruction works, partly because of the expense of dayto- day maintenance and partly because of the few worshippers. A smaller room is used for the usual services and the large one is opened only on major holidays.

A hundred years ago, the situation was different. In 1880, half of the 20,500 Jews in Bulgaria lived in Sofia or the surrounding area. The capital had eight synagogues and houses of worship but the need for a large and impressive building was obvious. The decision to construct it was not an easy one to take. Zionism had a lot of followers who believed that the community's main priority was to return to Palestine. "Bulgarian is the first foreign language that the works of Theodor Herzl, the ideologist of Zionism, were translated into," Djerassi says. "When in 1896 Herzl passed through Sofia on his way to Constantinople, he was welcomed by an enthusiastic crowd at the railway station and literally carried by them along the present-day Maria Louisa Blvd."

Construction began on the site of an older synagogue.

The Jews are among the oldest nations to have inhabited the Balkans continuously. When they arrived is a matter of debate. But irrespective of whether they came with Phoenician merchants in the 6th Century BCE, after the wars of Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BCE or in the 1st Century CE when Paul went to preach in Salonika, they have certainly been here for centuries. In the 2nd Century CE, two men named Archsynagogus Joseph and Ananias were buried in the Roman Danubian cities of Nicopolis (present-day Nikopol) and Bononia (present-day Vidin). Their tombstones have survived and are now regarded as the first documented Jewish traces on Bulgarian land.

Robert Djerassi, chairman of the Central Israelite Spiritual Council, in the synagogue basement. His aspiration is to convert the abandoned chamber into a synagogue museum © Antoan Bozhinov

Robert Djerassi, chairman of the Central Israelite Spiritual Council, in the synagogue basement. His aspiration is to convert the abandoned chamber into a synagogue museum © Antoan Bozhinov

The following centuries were relatively trouble-free for those Jews, known as Romaniotes. One of them, Sarah of Tarnovo, even became a Bulgarian queen when she married Ivan Alexander in 1345. Her son Ivan Shishman was the last Bulgarian king before the country fell under Ottoman rule in 1393.

A century later, the Jewish community became more diverse. At the end of the 15th Century, the Ottoman Empire accepted the Sephardim, banished from Spain and Portugal. They settled in Salonika, but quickly spread inland too, becoming the dominant branch of Jews in Bulgarian lands. From the 15th to the 19th centuries, they were joined by a constant, albeit slow flow of Ashkenazim from Germany and Eastern Europe, attracted by the religious and economic freedom that the Jews enjoyed in the Ottoman Empire.

In 1878, the Treaty of Berlin established a new Bulgarian state, but attitudes to the Jews did not change. Gabriel Almosino, the chief rabbi of Sofia, attended the Constituent National Assembly in 1879 and co-signed the first Constitution of the Principality of Bulgaria.

The change came on the eve of the Second World War. Sporadic outbreaks of anti- Semitism were replaced by an institutional restriction of basic human rights: as an ally of Nazi Germany, the Bulgarian Parliament passed anti-Semitic legislation in 1941. Two years later, the Committee on Jewish Affairs began secret preparations for deporting the Bulgarian Jews to Auschwitz. The first to leave for the concentration camps were 11,400 Jews from the "New Lands," Aegean Thrace and the Vardar region of Macedonia, which were then under Bulgarian administration.

Dr Aleksandar Oscar

Dr Aleksandar Oscar

Bulgarian Jews, however, remained in Bulgaria. The information about the planned deportations leaked out in time to cause mass protests of civil and professional organisations, headed by senior members of the Orthodox Church. The Jews in Bulgaria suffered a hard time – they were resettled or assigned to forced labour camps – but none of them boarded the notorious cattle trucks. At the end of the war, the country had over 50,000 Jews – more than it had had before the war began.

Then something happened. Between 1948 and 1951, over 90 percent of the Jews in Bulgaria left for the State of Israel.

Zionism is only a part of the explanation. The other part was an event that happened on 9 September too: the Communist coup of 1944. Unlike their Soviet comrades, Bulgarian Communists had never been open anti- Semites. The Jews had a traditionally strong presence in the leftwing parties in the country and took part in the guerrilla warfare in 1941–1944.

But the Communist rulers were officially atheistic. They restricted equally the religious life of both Jews and Christians. After a short and particularly tempestuous restoration of Jewish public life after 1944, in 1947 the restrictions began. Jews were not allowed to become members of international Jewish organisations, especially those funded by the United States and Israel. Gradually, synagogues and schools were shut down and circumcision would be banned in due time too. In 1956, Chief Rabbi Asher Hananel (1895–1964) was accused of malfeasance in office and sent to prison. A year later, the Consistory, a self-governing body established on a French model in the 1880s, was disbanded. It was replaced with a formal organisation, which declared the religious holidays "unprogressive." The next rabbi would enter the synagogue in Sofia as late as 1994.

© M3 Communications / Asya Filipova

© M3 Communications / Asya Filipova

Robert Djerassi was a small boy in the days after the war, but he remembers: "I lived in the synagogue until I was seven. My grandfather was a shammash there, a sort of sexton, who knew how to perform kosher slaughter," he says. Djerassi has typical childhood memories: for him, the synagogue was a huge place brought to life by the celebration of holidays such as Purim, Pessah, Sukkot and Frutas. In the 1960s, this changed considerably. The Jewish House became the only community centre. "They suddenly decided that we would have a Spring Ball instead of Purim," Djerassi remembers. "Then we began to gather for holidays such as 9 September and 7 November, the day of the October Revolution." At the end of the 1970s, he tried to revive the spirit of the Jewish House, together with his wife and several friends. "They drove us out. They said it was a place for old men to meet. It was only after 1989 that we could stage a velvet revolution," he says. In 1991, the Jews finally managed to establish the organisation of the Jews in Bulgaria, "Shalom."

Under Communism the rulers did not intend to keep the synagogue empty. In the 1960s, it was decided to convert it into a concert hall. At the same time, the synagogue in Burgas was turned into an art gallery, which it remains to this day.

Sofia Central Synagogue

The building needed serious repairs and the Ministry of Culture prepared plans for its restoration. The workers put up the scaffolding but work never actually began until 1989. "This scaffolding has been standing in the central hall of the synagogue for ages," says 30-year-old Alexander Oscar. A representative of the new generation of Jews in Bulgaria, he has undergone training in the programmes for education of young leaders organised with the support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. He is now chairman of the Sofia branch and vice chairman of the national Shalom organisation. "I imagine the synagogue not only renovated but also bustling, full of young people. I also want to see people on the balconies, which haven't been used for 60 years," Oscar says.

The repairs have become possible due to the 450,000 leva granted by the Ministry of Culture a year ago. The rest of the funding came from Israel and private donations.

Robert Djerassi has a dream that goes beyond the renovation. He wants to move the museum of the synagogue to its basement. The place is suitable: it is a succession of low corridors and spacious underground chambers that were once used to store coal, and has two sinister-looking furnaces from the old heating installation. The project has not received any funding yet, but the basement will be given special attention at the celebrations of the synagogue's 100th Anniversary. Elena Ivanova, artistic director of the National Theatre, has made an installation of light, gravel and several exhibits there to reveal its potential as an exhibition area.

Congregation at Sofia Central Synagogue

Congregation at Sofia Central Synagogue © Solomon Fransez

For now, the museum has an interesting, albeit modest collection of clothing, religious objects and other artefacts related to the Jews in Bulgaria. "Several months ago, we opened the boxes of artefacts collected by the Institute for Balkan Studies at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. They hadn't been opened since the 1960s. They were full of dresses with exquisite Sephardic embroidery and hundred-year-old wall carpets… They are now on display in the museum," Djerassi says.

If you want to visit the synagogue, we recommend you don't do so on impulse. If you are alone, all you have to do is ring the doorbell and explain to the porter what brings you there. But if you are a group, you will need a prior arrangement. "The synagogue has been enjoying a resurgence of interest but, unfortunately, we often can't satisfy it due to security concerns. This is why group visitors have to get in touch with us earlier and give us a list of the people who are coming," says Alexander Oscar. By an ironic quirk of fate, somebody threw a Molotov cocktail at the synagogue in Burgas a few days after our conversation.

Are Bulgarian Jews worried? In the web forum of the Ataka newspaper, the official publication of the eponymous political party, a user nicknamed Sturmman has printed the war-time ethnic purity law in its entirety – and not for scholarly purposes. And a list of "Jews" accused of anything from corruption to being rich to organising an anti-Bulgarian conspiracy has been circulating the darker depths of the Internet for years. Hitler's book has been translated and published, and there have been instances of vandalism against Jewish graves.

But Robert Djerassi is not worried. "There have been recent attempts to revive anti- Semitism but fortunately there has been nothing serious to worry about," he says. "I think that, on the whole, Bulgarians are very tolerant. I have never suffered for being a Jew," adds Oscar.

Jewish children at Purim / © Solomon Fransez

Jewish children at Purim / © Solomon Fransez

Some of the architectural details in the building are the work of Italian masters / ©M3 Communications / Asya Filipova

Some of the architectural details in the building are the work of Italian masters / ©M3 Communications / Asya Filipova

Congregation at Sofia Central Synagogue

Congregation at Sofia Central Synagogue

Sofia Central Synagogue, detail

Sofia Central Synagogue, detail


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