FEATURE by Willard Manus

Bulgaria, the pauper of East Europe, is still singing the post-Stalinist blues. Unemployment, high inflation, the lack of oil and hard currency have just about wrecked the country, which was the only Eastern bloc nation to overthrow its communist dictators in 1989 and then elect them to replace themselves in 1990. Just recently, Bulgaria finally voted out the communists, but it will still be a while before life improves for most of its citizens.

Ironically, the only Bulgarians (outside of a handful of nouveau-riche and mafia) to have enjoyed a better life in recent years are the Jews. "That's partially because we had it so bad under the communists," explained Maxim Koen, the first Bulgarian rabbi to head a local congregation in several decades. "No official Jewish life was permitted. Almost all our synagogues and cemeteries were destroyed. We were regarded as an ethnic, not a religious group. Consequently, all but a few thousand of the fifty thousand Bulgarian Jews who survived the war immigrated to Israel."

Today one can find international Jewish groups operating openly in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Jewish educational, religious and social service programs are also in place, coordinated by the Shalom Organization, founded in 1990, whose branch offices administer the Jewish revival.

The Jewish presence in Bulgaria dates back to the first and second centuries B.C.E. Most of these Jews followed the Byzantine or Romaniot rite, but their ranks were swelled in the 14th and 15th centuries by an influx of Ashkenazic and Sephardic refugees. Among the latter was the great thinker and mystic Joseph Caro, who lived in Nikopol from 1523-1536, where he founded a school and wrote his Talmudic masterpiece, The House of Joseph.

Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire until 1877, when the Turks were defeated by the Russians. Because the Jews were pro-Turkish, they suffered greatly under their new masters. Life wasn't much better for them when Bulgaria became a monarchy and banned Jews from many lines of work, including the civil service. Large numbers of Jews emigrated to Palestine.

During WW II Bulgaria sided with Germany and enacted stringent anti-Semitic legislation. The mass deportation of Bulgarian Jews to the camps began in 1943 but was halted by protests from some Bulgarian political and church leaders. Thus "only" 11,000 Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis.

A city of one million, Sofia sits in the center of the Balkan peninsula on a high plateau ringed by mountains. Not as charming and picturesque as, say, Plovdiv (where there are ruins from a synagogue dating back to 290), Sofia offers a few choice plums to the Jewish traveler. Its most noteworthy attraction is the stunning synagogue built in 1905-1910 by the famed Viennese Christian architect Friedrich Grunanger, who was close to the royal family and had designed many churches and buildings for it.

Grunanger designed one of the largest Sephardic temples in all of Europe. Arabic-Moorish-Mediterranean in style, the Great Synagogue (Ezarkh Josef St) has cusped and stilted arches and little turrets based on Islamic models, striped and rusticated surfaces, long thin windows and a squashed dome that pays homage to the Paris Opera House. Its decorations are equally striking: elaborate details that can only be found in Russian and Bulgarian buildings of the time. As one writer has noted, "the Sofia synagogue was meant to seem authentically indigenous, rather than exclusively Jewish or exotic."

The main sanctuary is being restored; services are held in an adjoining prayer room, across the hall from the offices of the Shalom Organization.

The Jewish cemetery (last stop on the #2 trolley line) has been repaired and cleaned up in recent years. It dates back a hundred years and is still in use.