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."
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.
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.
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.