For several decades, the great hall of Sofia Central Synagogue – however inspiringly magnificent the interior – was somewhat bleakly frosty in the winter months, with the heating system long out of order.
Annual celebrations of Hannukah, in the final weeks of the year, required celebrants of the festival of light to take their own measures for heat – cladding themselves in winter coats, scarves and gloves. It may be fairly be said that to step out into the dark after the service was over was to experience a temperature a tad warmer than it was inside.
Now all of that is history, with the Bulgarian Jewish community warmly grateful for generous donations from World Jewish Congress president Ronald S Lauder and the WJC, the Sofia municipality, the Knapp family and JDC from New York, that made a possible a meticulously-executed renovation of the Synagogue’s heating system and other core items in the soaring grandeur of the interior.
Completed and opened in 1909, the Sofia Central Synagogue is precious not only to the Bulgarian Jewish community but also to the country’s heritage, and so the process of restoring a functioning heating system was handled with the greatest care.
To handle the process, Bulgaria’s Central Israelite Religious Council, headed by Sofia Cohen, set up a committee, which contacted engineers to advise on how to call for proposals and assess companies suitable to take on the task.
This was not simply a matter of making holes and sticking in pipes. Anything but. The installation would require not only appropriate modern technology, but also achieving energy efficiency through repairs to doors and windows, leaving heat no avenue to escape.
Having received bids from three companies, the committee decided an option that involved the installation of Viessman thermopumps and convectors, instead of the old technology of coal-burning fireplaces. However, the system operates using the same pipes that were part of the original architecture. Further, floor heating using hot-water pipes were installed.
Proceeding required drafting and getting official approval for a new architectural project. The work itself required diligent care in the interior, leaving untouched the Synagogue’s exquisite mosaic flooring.
Perhaps every such project has its surprises. In the case of Sofia Central Synagogue, it was a close encounter with history – the history not only of the Bulgarian Jewish community but of the country as a whole.
Opening the wooden floor led to the discovery of a crater caused by an Allied bomb in 1943, when at the time of the Second World War Bulgaria was part of Hitler’s Axis. The bomb, which causing serious damage including to the archives then held in the Synagogue, thankfully did not explode.
It did, however, leave a large hole under the floor, of which the contemporary community was unawares. The covering-over the hole in those years left artefacts in it, including some of the oldest elements of the building, dating back more than a century and decorated with finest gold.
The crater having been found, a decision was taken not to fill it in, but to incorporate it as a display element, a witness to history for visitors and worshippers to gaze on.
The display was quite the talking point as celebrants of Hannukah 2018 crowded in to the Synagogue, and not only that. From the leadership of the community – Sofia Cohen, and Associate Professor Alexander Oscar, president of the Organisation of the Jews in Bulgaria “Shalom” – to everyone in the great hall, none settled down to enjoy the service without remarking on the comfortable warmth and the lack of need to wrap up against the chill.
When WJC president Ronald Lauder came to the Synagogue in March 2018 for commemorations of the 75th anniversary anniversary of the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews, and to honour the memory of the 11 343 Jews deported to their deaths from the “new lands” of the time then under Bulgarian administration, he remarked to those present: “It’s cold in here”. That inspired him to ensure that a change would come.
Between that cold March night and a cold November night, thanks to the support from Lauder and the WJC – 50 000 euro, and 25 000 euro from Sofia municipality – there is a new homeliness in Sofia Synagogue. The warmth of home, but also a home of warmth.
(Photos: Central Israelite Religious Council, and the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria ‘Shalom’; main photo: Neil Carey)