The long, long history of Bulgaria and the Jews

Written by on April 28, 2013 in Bulgaria, News - No comments

While Bulgaria’s premier place in Jewish history is in the prevention of the deportation of about 48 000 Bulgarian Jews to Holocaust death camps in World War 2, a landmark being commemorated in 2013 on its 70th anniversary, the roots of the Jewish community lie deep in this country, further than many may imagine.

In this year, as leaders of Bulgaria and Israel speak of the ties that the countries share, in the forefront stand those preventions of deportations in 1943, and much more recently, the shared experience of terrorism in the outrage in July 2012 that took the lives of five Israelis and a Bulgarian at Bourgas Airport.

But the place of Jews in Bulgaria stretches back across the millennia and more than once the territory that is part of today’s modern Bulgarian state has provided a new home for Jews seeking refuge from persecution elsewhere in Europe. Not every case of Jews settling in what is today Bulgaria was the result of the seeking of refuge, however; sometimes it was part of the movements and migrations influenced by the tides of the empires that this continent has seen.

Visitors to Plovdiv marvel at the legacies of Roman and Byzantine rule still to be seen in the streets of Bulgaria’s second city. To this may be added that archaeologists have found remnants of a synagogue with mosaics dating back to late antiquity.

The Jews known as Romaniotes came to the Balkan Peninsula at the time of the late Roman and Byzantine empires. The time of the First Crusade in the 11th century brought more Jews, fleeing persecution in Bohemia, Bavaria and Hungary, the first major arrival of Jews of Ashkenazi identity and traditions.

The persecution in Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella in the 15th century resulted in Jews fleeing to the relative tolerance of the Ottoman empire, including in the cities and towns of today’s Bulgaria, new homes for Sephardic Jews, whose Ladino lingua franca survives in mere tiny fragments today but once was the language of one of Bulgaria’s first newspapers, in the 19th century.

In the 1880 census, just more than 20 500 Bulgarian Jews were recorded, and at the time, the number was on the rise. A community that made its contributions to literature, to the struggle for liberation from Ottoman rule, to fighting for Bulgaria in the Balkan wars, to founding its own community civic, cultural and sports organisations, also had by the mid-1880s founded the first Consistory of the Jews in Bulgaria. Some idea of the real faces in the history of the Bulgarian Jewish community can be had by visiting the Archive State Agency’s photo gallery, posted in 2013 as part of commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the prevention of the deportations.

Ancient roots

Evidence suggests that Jewish people had settled within the Balkans at least by the 2nd century CE, and perhaps before.

Among this evidence is an inscription on a tombstone near the town of Nikopol on the Danube. These Jews were, according to most historians, known as Romagnotes, (alternatively spelled Romaniots) perhaps displaced during Roman campaigns in the Middle East.

Other historians have written that there was a Jewish settlement in Macedonia in the time of the Roman emperor Caligula, who is believed to have reigned from 37 to 41 CE.

Persecution followed the communities. A fourth century CE decree by emperor Theodosius refers to such persecution, including the destruction of synagogues.

Persecution by Byzantine emperor Leo III (718 to 741) is believed to have prompted an exodus to the territory that is today’s Bulgaria.

Some historical accounts indicate that in the ninth century, during the reign of Bulgar tsar Boris I, Jews attempted to convert the Bulgars to Judaism, but the attempt failed as Christianity became more widespread. However, it seems that the religious faith of the early Bulgar Christians was a syncretistic mixture of Christian, pagan, and Judaic beliefs.

The monks and teachers Cyril and Methodius, sent to the region to spread Christianity, also had contact with Jewish influence, included having studied with Jewish teachers. The script they devised, first called Glagolitic and now evolved into today’s Cyrillic, drew mainly on the Greek alphabet then in use, but also drew on the Hebrew alphabet for sounds that did not exist in the Greek alphabet, including for the letters to express “Sh” and “Ts”.

The first archbishop of the diocese of Ohrid and Primate of Bulgaria, the 12th century Leo Mung, had been born a Jew.

Among the most prominent Jews in the early centuries of Bulgarian statehood was Sarah, who married tsar Ivan Alexander (1331 to 1371) and took the name Theodora on converting to Christianity.

Jewish people were represented across the spectrum of rich and poor, influential and outcast. In the then capital of Bulgaria, Turnovo, the executioners were Romagnote Jews.

In the mid-14th century, there were two councils in Turnovo against the Jews, who were accused on charges of blasphemy against the Christian scriptures. Penalties meted out ranged from beatings to banishment to, in rare cases, execution. Ironically, some historians believe that it was Theodora, the former Sarah, who initiated these prosecutions.

Before the 15th century, most of the Jewish people in Bulgaria belonged to the Byzantine (Romagnote) rite. However, they gradually lost ground as more Ashkenazi Jews arrived. Among practices that passed with the dimunition of Romagnote predominance was Romagnote acceptance of bigamy. Among the major sources of Ashkenazi Jews arriving in Bulgaria was the 1376 expulsion of Jews from Hungary. The great historical figures of this period included Rabbi Shalom Ashkenazi of Neustadt, who founded a yeshivah at Vidin. One of his pupils, Rabbi Dosa the Greek, is remembered for adding to Judaic scholarship on the Pentateuch.

At the time of the Turkish conquest of Bulgaria in 1396, there were Jewish communities in Vidin, Nikopol, Silistra, Pleven, Yambol, Philippopolis (today’s Plovdiv), Sofia, and Stara Zagora.

A banishment from Bavaria in 1470 brought more Ashkenazi Jews to Bulgaria, who in spite of their later adoption of Sephardic customs, the Ladino language, and names, for a long time maintained separate synagogues.

The largest influx of Jews to Bulgaria came after 1492, when they were driven out of Spain at the instance of the Hapsburgs. The anti-Semitic campaign in Spain was of a scale hardly understood today, and included massacres, torture, expropriations, and other abuses. However, the Ottoman sultan decided to allow refugee Jews into his empire.

Within the empire, some Jewish families rose to prominence and positions of high office, and even became creditors of the sultans, but overall Jews in the Balkans never reached the positions of strong economic influence achieved by some of their contemporaries elsewhere in later medieval Europe.

In trade and crafts, the Jews found themselves in competition with many other communities in the Balkans, including Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians, Serbs, Wallachians and Turks. Jews continued to be represented across the spectrum, from major traders, to money-changers, to small family craft businesses.

The Spanish Jews reached Bulgaria from Thessaloniki, through Macedonia, from Italy, through Ragusa and Bosnia. Ahead in the next three centuries of their history lay a form of unity, and also turbulent times, within the Jewish community, but also within the Ottoman Empire.

Trade and turbulence

In the time between the 17th century and the 1930s, members of the Jewish community in Bulgaria continued to play an integral role in society, and yet witnessed some heralds of the great disaster that was to come.

The 17th century marked a turning point in the life of the community. Until 1640, Sofia had three separate Jewish communities. These were the Romagnotes – the most ancient of all, dating from the time of the Roman empire, the Ashkenazi, who arrived as a result of expulsions from Hungary and Bavaria, and the Sephardim, most of whom came to Bulgaria after being driven out of Spain under the Hapsburgs in the 15th century.

In 1640, a single rabbi was appointed for all three communities.

By the 17th century, patterns of trade by Jewish people had become relatively well established.

After the 16th century wars with Venice, some Jewish merchants from Thessaloniki moved to Pazardzhik, and in turn established commercial relations with Sofia merchants. Merchants from Skopje bought clothing in Thessaloniki and sold it in Sofia and neighbouring towns. An annual fair founded in the Haskovo district toward the end of the 16th century was attended by Jews from European Turkey and Western Europe.

By the next century, some Jews owned quarries and tanneries in Samokov.

Bulgaria at this time was still under its 500-year period of Turkish rule, and some Jewish people were appointed to positions in government.

In the early 19th century, Bakish of Pazardzhik held an important position in the court of the sultan, and proposed the introduction of a uniform system of Turkish coinage.

Writing in the late 19th century, Czech historian Konstantin Irecek described Bulgarian Jews as “mostly fair-haired, a temperate, modest, industrious and kindly people”.

He said the bigger businessmen were to be found in Sofia, Plovdiv and, most of all, in Bourgas.

In 1878, as Turkish domination collapsed, there was general rioting, robbery and arson and the Turks retreated from Sofia. The Jews formed their own militia and fire brigade to prevent the Turks from setting fire to the town.

Sofia Central Synagogue. Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer

But the war of liberation had unfortunate side-effects for the Jewish community. Seen by some as supporters of the Turks, the Jews were the victims of looting of property in Vidin, Kazanluk and Svishtov. There were expulsions, and some Jews fled to Adrianople and Constantinople.

While Jewish organisations from Western Europe had succeeded in getting a clause into the Treaty of Berlin obliging the Balkan countries to give equal rights to Jews, and while to an extent Jewish community leaders were acknowledged to some degree as advisers on national and local matters in Bulgaria, most Bulgarian political parties of the time were infected with anti-Semitic views. Bulgarian peasants did all they could to prevent Jews acquiring land.

After 1878 a chief rabbinate was created, headed by a chief rabbi. In 1900, a conference of Jewish communities assembled and approved a new constitution, to deal with elections to synagogue, community, and school committees, but it was not recognised by the Bulgarian government.

As the Zionist movement grew in strength, three Bulgarian delegates attended the First Zionist Congress in 1897 in Basle. In 1895, some Bulgarian Jews founded a settlement at Har-Tuv in what was to become Israel.

In 1899, a Bulgarian-language newspaper, Chelovecheski Prava (Human Rights) was founded to counter the libels in anti-Semitic newspapers. In 1884, the first newspaper in Ladino – the language of Sephardic Jews – was founded, although in time all Jewish newspapers in the country published in Bulgarian.

For the anti-Semitism, which was commonplace in Europe at the time, relations within Bulgaria were at a relatively better level, although to what degree is a matter of debate.

In 1909, the consecration of the synagogue in Sofia was attended by tsar Ferdinand and other members of the government elite.

After 1885, when Jews were conscripted into the Bulgarian forces for the first time for the war between Serbia and Bulgaria, many Jews also fought in the three wars, 1912 to 1918, for the unification of Bulgarian lands.

But while the 1919 Treaty of Neuilly called for equality in the treatment of minority groups, various Bulgarian governments discriminated against Jews through internal clauses and secret memoranda. Jews were not accepted at the military academy, the state bank, or in government or municipal service.

In the difficult economic times of the 1920s, Jewish people, perceived as responsible for the economic hardships of Bulgarians, became the focus of their wrath.

When in 1925, communists blew up the Saint Nedelya church, Bulgaria’s authorities moved harshly against a long list of enemies, real and perceived. One of the innocent victims of this crackdown was Joseph Herbst, a renowned journalist, the first director of the Bulgarian news agency BTA, and a Jew.

National anti-Semitic organisations arose, including Ratnik (Warrior) founded in 1936, which was modelled on the Nazis of Germany.

On the eve of World War 2, more than half of all Bulgaria’s Jews lived in Sofia. The community was widely influenced by the Zionist movement, but Ladino as a language had largely passed out of use and the younger generation all spoke Bulgarian.

By 1939, Jews numbered about 49 000 in Bulgaria, less than one per cent of the population. For the community, the next great turning point of the Jews in Bulgaria lay just ahead, as Hitler prepared to unleash his war.

Storm winds of the Holocaust

The rescue of Jews in Bulgaria from the Nazi death machine in the Holocaust remains the subject of historical debate.

The generally received perception is that Bulgaria “saved its Jews” during World War 2, resisting pressure from Berlin to deport them to labour camps and inevitably, to join the millions of others victims of genocide. The counterpoint to this, remembered by some but not generally acknowledged, is that not all Jews in territories nominally under Bulgarian control were saved – Jews in northern Greece and parts of Yugoslavia were deported to death camps, in some cases with the active collaboration of Bulgarian minor officials and soldiers. In these deportations, at least 11 000 lives were lost.

In writing on a subject as sensitive as this, there must be a particularly scrupulous quest for context, and for a recounting that is as factual as possible. A challenge in regard to this is that for many years the story of the rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews was distorted by communist historians. Since the fall of communism, latter-day historians have sought to clarify the story, free of distortions, and free of simplifications.

It is generally accepted that the number of Jewish people in Bulgaria immediately after the end of World War 2 was roughly the same as when it began, between 48 000 and 50 000, according to most accounts. Population growth had been low before the war, and during the war some Jews did manage to escape the country altogether.

When Bulgaria joined the war on the side of Nazi Germany and anti-Semitic laws were introduced, it was not the Bulgarian Jews’ first experience of anti-Semitism.

In his book on the saving of the Bulgarian Jews in World War 2, Christo Boyadjieff wrote that there was “sporadic and artificial, introduced in most cases from abroad” anti-Semitism in Bulgaria. Russian troops that fought on Bulgarian soil in 1877 to 1878 brought with them legends of Jewish ritual murders of Christian children, lies that provoked the persecutions in Bulgarian towns such as Pazardjik in 1884, Vratza in 1890, Lom in 1903, and Kustendil in 1904.

In December 1940, Bulgaria’s National Assembly adopted the Defence of the Nation Act.

Inter-marriage between Jews and non-Jews was outlawed. Jews were banned from certain professions. Special taxes were levied. Jews had to submit a record of their family wealth. They were limited to residence in certain zones, and a 5pm curfew was imposed. There were confiscations of property and real estate. Adult men were barred from military service and were drafted to forced labour.

In January 1943, a commission was set up which confiscated almost all Jewish personal jewellery, bank notes, household silver, and any other valuables, depositing them under official seal in Bulgarian National Bank.

Jews were ordered to wear the Star of David. Given their faith that Bulgaria’s royal family, then headed by king Boris III, would back them up, some who wore the yellow star pinned next to it pictures of the king and of the royal family.

They were correct to believe that they had the support of Bulgaria’s king. While some modern historians accord him the role of hero in the saving of the Jews within Bulgaria, and others strongly dispute this, the main credit due to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, civil society, politicians such as Dimitar Peshev, and many ordinary Bulgarians.

Boris III had sent a message to the ninth Bulgarian Zionists’ Conference praising the country’s Jews as always having been good citizens. In June 1942, he accepted the congratulations sent to him by the Jewish Consistory on the occasion of the fifth birthday of his son, Simeon (later Prime Minister of Bulgaria) – an incident, among several others, that resulted in Nazi German officials in Bulgaria sending complaints to Berlin.

In April 1943, he officially told Berlin he would not consent to the deportation of Jews from Bulgaria, offering as an official reason that they were needed to build roads.

The Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church sent an official letter to Boris, to the National Assembly, and to the Cabinet demanding that there be no deportations. Deputy Speaker Dimitar Peshev, supported by a large group of MPs from left and right of the political spectrum, attempted to pass legislation that would such deportations illegal.

Meanwhile, Bulgarian diplomats, against official orders, were issuing large numbers of transit visas to Jews elsewhere in Europe to enable them to reach Palestine.

Israeli president Shimon Peres and his Bulgarian counterpart, Rossen Plevneliev, in March 2013. Photo: president.bg

The end of Boris’s life came in August 1943, under mysterious circumstances, shortly after a meeting with Hitler in which the Nazi leader railed against him for the king’s refusal to send Bulgarian troops against Russia, and his refusal to consent to the deportation of Jews from within Bulgaria.

Ironically, Peshev, one of the leaders of the campaign to prevent the deportation of the Jews, was put on trial in a communist kangaroo court after World War 2 on charges including “anti-Semitism”.

Yet, for all the unquestionable heroism in the face of fascism, there was the collaboration in Jews from Greece and Macedonia being sent to die in places like Auschwitz and Treblinka – and sometimes en route, as in 1943 when some of the old river cruisers being used to transport Jews up the Danube capsized, causing the deaths of the incarcerated Jews.

Of this aspect, Professor Nissan Oren has written that since the Jews of these territories were never given Bulgarian citizenship, the Bulgarian government could not effectively oppose German pressure.

No doubt debate will continue of this period of Bulgaria’s history, because the final word has not been spoken, even if Bulgaria’s heroism has been acknowledged by some historians and by the Israeli government.

As quoted by Nick Kaltchev in an article on an international symposium in Sofia on who should be credited for saving the Jews in World War 2, one academic, responding to another who pointed out that the Jewish community had had to endure persecutions, humiliations and hardship, “You’re right. It was very hard. But I’m happy because we were spared. The other option was we to be sent to Poland and cremated. Had the king not done what he did, neither you nor I would be able to be here to argue!”

Another country

By the end of World War 2, the saga of Jewish people in the territory that is today’s Bulgaria had passed through a series of distinct phases over almost two millennia.

The first was that from the time of the arrival of the first Romagnote Jews, a side-effect of the transformations brought about the Roman Empire, and then the arrival of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, following their persecution in and expulsion from other parts of Europe, including Spain, Bavaria and Hungary. In the 17th century, there was a further landmark when one rabbi was appointed to serve all three streams of the Judaic community. Jewish people found places in many different levels and stations of the Ottoman Empire and then the re-born Bulgaria, but also experienced anti-Semitic persecution, even though on a lesser scale than in other European countries. The third phase was when Bulgaria allied itself to Nazi Germany during World War 2. During the war, courageous church and political leaders staved off mass deportations of Jewish Bulgarians to death camps, although Jews in territories nominally under Bulgarian control, but where Jews did not have Bulgarian citizenship, were deported to meet mass death at the hands of the Nazis.

In the autumn of 1945, with the end of the war and with Soviet Russia grasping to bring Bulgaria under its control, there were about 50 000 Jews in Bulgaria. More than three-quarters of the Jews lived in seven urban communities – Sofia, Plovdiv, Rousse, Varna, Kyustendil, Yambol, and Dupenitsa.

The advent of communism meant, supposedly, that all people were treated equally notwithstanding their race. But at the same time, the atheistic system moved against religious institutions of all kinds.

Marin Raykov, Bulgaria's Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, with Israeli ambassador Shaul Kamiza-Raz in April 2013. Photo: mfa.bg

Many Jews – some historians say 90 per cent of the population – moved to the land that was to be established as the state of Israel in May 1948. Those who remained saw the communist state move in to put Jewish communities under the centralised control of a Central Jewish Committee, which in turn was controlled by the party’s commission on national minorities. At the instance of the communists, the body “representing” Jews severed all ties with international Jewish organisations, whether Zionist or not. Within Bulgaria, Zionists continued to stand up to the system in the face of continuous harassment.

While the post-war regime promised restitution of property confiscated while anti-Semitic laws had been in place, in reality very little was. It took international assistance from other Jews for the Jewish community to survive, in some cases for as long as it took to arrange aliyah, the move to Israel.

The move was a difficult issue. In the first two years of communist rule, Jewish emigration to Palestine was forbidden. But as Kremlin policy changed, Bulgaria followed suit, and emigration became possible. For Jews in Bulgaria, the reasons for emigration were manifold – religious persecution, Zionist aspirations, the asphyxiation of intellectual and cultural life in Bulgaria by the communists, and the overall poverty in which most of the community had been left by the war.

There were many contradictions. There were a number of incidents where Jewish youths who tried to leave the country without documentation were shot and killed by border guards, even though communist dictator Georgi Dimitrov had in 1946 said there was no problem in principle with Jewish Bulgarians resettling in Palestine.

While Bulgarian Jewish communists supported the Haganah, the freedom fighters for Israel, persecution of Zionists within Bulgaria intensified.

Those who stayed in Bulgaria were ordered by the communists to celebrate no Jewish holy days except Purim and Hannukah, and there were directives about how these could be celebrated.

While Bulgaria recognised the state of Israel in 1948, control from Moscow led to a deterioration of relations. In August 1955, an El Al passenger aircraft that strayed into Bulgarian air space by mistake was shot down by a Bulgarian air force aircraft. All the El Al passengers were killed.

Sofia severed diplomatic relations in 1967 after the Six Day War, and at the instance of the Kremlin, Bulgarian representatives at the United Nations joined in the regular bitter attacks on Israel in the General Assembly.

Within Bulgaria, the community became increasingly secularised, with only the synagogue in Sofia retaining a form of regular religious life, while the rate of inter-marriage climbed. By the late 1960s, there were said to be only 7000 Jews in Bulgaria, though whether this figure is accurate, and how many were observant, is difficult to assess.

After the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, there has been some degree of revival. The rate of inter-marriage remains high, although it is said that some of the children of such marriages have, and are, returning to Judaism.

Among the positive effects of the end of communism was that it enabled new accuracy in the re-telling of what happened in Bulgaria during World War 2, after decades of lies in which the saving of Bulgaria’s Jews was credited solely to communist individuals and organisations.

The communal body established after the fall of communism, the Shalom organisation, has worked towards a revival of Jewish life, including the establishment of a school with religious education for children, and – with international assistance – social programmes, including assistance for the elderly.

Also working towards a revival of Jewish life in Bulgaria is the Chabad Centre, part of an international network.

Post-communism, there also has been some progress in investment, trade and mutual tourism ties between Bulgaria and Israel. Ironically, some Jewish people who have wanted to reclaim their birthright of Bulgarian citizenship have encountered difficulty, because they gave it up “voluntarily” while the communists were in power.

In the past century, a number of people of Jewish ancestry in Bulgaria have achieved prominence. They include, in the cultural sphere, Vidin-born Jules Pascin and Rousse-born author Elias Canetti.

(Main photo: Ark of the Torah, Sofia Central Synagogue: DMY)

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About the Author

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015).