Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, is (and has been) the heart of the Sephardic Jewish culture in the country.
Bulgaria was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire for nearly 500 years. Prior to the arrival of the Ottoman Empire occupation and administration of Bulgaria, much of the Jewish population was Greek-speaking Romaniot Jews. Still today many of the Jews in Bulgaria bear old Romaniot surnames such as: Politi, Roditi, Canetti, and Kalo. With the arrival of the Turkish administration over Bulgaria, came a mass influx of Sephardic Jews who brought culture, language, and traditions that superceded the existing Romaniot one.
In 19th century Ottoman Bulgaria, the Jewish community kept seperate from mainstream Bulgarian culture. Though some children attend Bulgarian schools, most attended the Alliance schools. Though the children, as well as their parents, spoke some Bulgarian, most spoke Ladino as their primary language at home, as well as at work. Ladino had a richly developed culture in Bulgaria, this is demonstrated in the fact that their were over 100 different Ladino-language newspapers and journals printed there.
After Bulgaria defeated the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-78, the Sultan lost hold of Bulgaria. With this the new Bulgarian government praised the Jewish community for helping to defend Sofia from the Turks. The community continued to grow over the next 50 years, receiving many Jewish refugees from the former Ottoman Empire.In 1943 Bulgaria joined with Germany and the Axis powers; this resulted in the rise of wide spread anti-Semitism through out the country by the government. Even though this pro-German position was taken by the government, many of the (non-Jewish) general public defended their Jewish brothers.
In 1943, the Germans began pressing their Bulgarian allies to deport their Jews to concentration camps in Poland. Over 20,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz from Macedonia and Thrace, areas that had recently been annexed to Bulgaria. The Jews of Old Bulgaria were to be next. The King of Bulgaria ordered all plans for deportations of Bulgaria's Jews stopped. He was, however, unable to prevent the expulsion to the countryside of Sofia's 20,000 Jews. From there, they were to be transported by ship to "the East."
The Bulgarian people began large-scale protests against the treatment of the Jews. Instead of arousing antisemitism, the expelled Jews won the sympathy of the peasants. By January 1944, massive allied bombing of Bulgaria began, and plans to deport the Jews were completely shelved. The Jews of Old Bulgaria were saved due to the courageous defiance of the King of Bulgaria and his people.
After World War II, in consequence of the agreements between Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt, Bulgaria fell under the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union. Over the years 1948 to 1951, more than 24,000 Jews migrated to Israel. For the Jews who remained, their normal lifestyle was interrupted in 1956 when the Bulgarian government was angered by the Israeli victory over Egypt during the Sinai War. Taking a pro-Arab stance, the government took over all Jewish institutions, and closed down most Jewish organizations. At this point most Jews in Bulgaria became communist, and thus were not very interested in organized religion.
Chief Rabbi Asher Hananel Z"L attempted to keep the Sephardic Portuguese Synagogue open, but this angered the Bulgarian authorities. He was arrested more than once, and in 1962 he died in prison after serving a year for refusing to close the Synagogue.Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria's long-time Communist Party leader, was forced to resign in 1989, setting Bulgaria on the road to democracy. Sofia's Jewish community lay dormant until this time, and soon after governmental restrictions were lifted, and today Sofia once again has a living Jewish community.
Fig. 1. Boulevard Maria Luisa with Mosque and the Vitosha mountain in the background
In better times the Sephardic community was mainly concentrated in a maze of streets on both sides of Boulevard Maria Luisa (Fig. 1.).This is the very important center of urban life for the Bulgarian capital, defined by the synagogue, the church Sveta Nedelya, and the only surviving active mosque in town - all facing each other.
Fig. 2. "The Great Synagogue" (Sephardic rite)
The Great Synagogue (Fig 2) was designed by Austrian architect Grunander in a Spanish-Morrish style, and was finished in 1910. It was open after a long renovation in 1996 after being closed for nearly 14 years. Financing for this project has been provided by the Bulgarian government, Israel, private entrepreneurs, and individual donators. The Synagogue seats over 1,500 and is the largest Sephardic Synagogues in the world today. However only a very small group of people turn out for Shabbat services.At the turn of the century Sephardic Jews made up about a fifth of Sofia's population. At the end of WWII the community still numbered about 50,000. According to some figures, about 3,000 Sephardic Jews live there today. These being mostly secular Jews making up a small part [0.8 percent] of the Bulgarian population.
Fig. 3. Map of Modern Bulgaria demonstrating the proximity of the Turkish Republic and Greece
Bulgarian Chief Rabbis
Photos courtesy of Mr. V. Radev of London