October 18, 2018

Bulgarian Rhapsody

The exterior of the 1909 Central Synagogue inSofia. Below, Robert Djerassi, a Bulgarian official of the “JewishJoint” agency on a stairway of the Jewish Community Center with astar of David as part of the rail design

Photos by Larry Gordon

When I was asked to teach at a Bulgarianuniversity, my only clear images of the Balkan nation included itsinfamous Communist-era spy system, its great Olympic weight lifters,and its national women’s choir, whose haunting harmonies were popularin the West.

Quickly, however, I learned something else as Iresearched whether to accept the Fulbright grant to lecture injournalism at the American University in Bulgaria. “You know,” therefrain came to me suddenly from various sources, “that Bulgariasaved its Jews.”

No, I didn’t know. And, of course, as with allthings in history, the reality of Bulgarian Jewry turned out to muchmore complicated than that simple declaration. But this wasindisputable: The number of Bulgarian Jews actually increased duringthe Holocaust, even though the country was an ally of Hitler. Andafter the war, the new socialist government allowed 45,000 — thevast majority of Bulgarian Jews — to emigrate en masse toIsrael.

I was intrigued by the idea of an Eastern Europeancountry even marginally friendly to Jews during and just after WorldWar II. Partly as a result of that (and, I admit, a midlife desirefor an adventure), I moved with my wife and our then-5-year-olddaughter from our Los Angeles home to spend six interesting andchallenging months in a mountainside city close to the Greek border.When I wasn’t teaching, we often traveled two hours north to Sofia,Bulgaria’s capital, cultural center and focus of Jewish life. Thatwas two years ago. I recently returned by myself to Bulgaria for afew weeks to do more research about, among other topics, its Jewishcommunity and the entire country’s troubled efforts to create amarket economy from its post-communist shambles. Clearly, my initialinterest has turned into a deep emotional attachment to thisadmittedly obscure and small country (population 8.5 million) on theBlack Sea, just south of Romania. I like the yogurt and red winethere too.

During our first visit to Sofia, we attended RoshHashanah services at the Central Synagogue, an imposing Moorish-stylebuilding located a few blocks from the Sheraton Hotel and Sofia’smain department store. At the time, the crumbling main sanctuary wasin early stages of a restoration that continues today, its archwaysand domes being replastered and painted in vibrant colors, and itslovely chandeliers being repaired.

Services were held in a small side chapel, withTurkish-style rugs lining the walls and two rows of wooden seatssurrounding the bimah on three sides. I had never attended aSephardic service before and was fascinated at the differentmelodies. My daughter, accustomed to American Reform style, had neversat separate from me in a synagogue and was not happy aboutit.

At the synagogue, we were able to communicate withsome Bulgarians through a mixture of my Russian, which is closeenough to Bulgarian, and my wife’s Spanish, which is close enough tothe traditional Ladino that Bulgarian Jewish senior citizens stillspeak. The Ladino is a reminder of how far Jews settled after their15th-century expulsion from Iberia. In fact, Sofia’s rabbi, anIsraeli who arrived in 1994 and the first rabbi in Bulgaria in 30years, also can converse in Spanish. And young Bulgariansincreasingly study English. We also met young American social workersfrom the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, who laterinvited us to holiday meals and helped us a lot.

After services, a lively crowd gathered in thecobblestoned courtyard for the kiddush. That open-air plaza behind ahigh metal gate was most evocative to me. It was here that many ofSofia’s Jews had gathered in May 1943 to plan protests against whatalmost became their deportation to German death camps. And it washere that many learned the deportations were canceled. If stonescould speak.

Unlike most of its neighbors, Bulgaria had littletradition of anti-Semitism. That remained so during centuries ofOttoman rule and after Bulgaria won its independence in 1878. Forexample, Bulgaria’s King Ferdinand even attended the dedication ofthe Central Synagogue in 1909, something unthinkable for the rulersof nearby nations at the time. Ferdinand’s son and successor, Boris,had Jewish friends but became an ally of Hitler in hopes of regainingterritory lost in previous Balkan wars. That bargain with the devilhad its price, to be paid in part with a policy against the Jews.Starting in late 1940, Bulgarian Jews were expelled from majorcities, put on work crews, and stripped of professional status andproperty as an appeasement to Hitler. Bulgarian occupying troopshanded over 11,000 Greek and Macedonian Jews to the Germans. TheNazis kept pressing for the deportation of Bulgaria’s own Jews.However, many aristocrats, intellectuals and, perhaps most important,leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church publicly protested. The Jewsthemselves lobbied like mad. King Boris’ role in all this remains amatter of historians’ debate. Some think that he was crucial incanceling the deportations and should be considered among theRighteous Gentiles. Others maintain that the king decided to stallHitler only because the war had turned against the Germans and Borisdidn’t want Bulgaria to face even greater censure from the Allies.(The most complete source for this is Frederick B. Chary’s “TheBulgarian Jews and the Final Solution” [University of PittsburghPress].) Whatever the motives, the outcome was Jewishsurvival.

For the Bulgarian Jews who did not emigrate toIsrael by 1951, the next 40 years of Marxism brought religioussuppression and a high rate of intermarriage.

Between 5,000 and 8,000 remain, and they now arebenefiting from the new freedoms brought by the fall of communism.The old synagogue and the 1930s-era Jewish community center abouthalf a mile away are coming back to life. In fact, an entire newfloor is being added to the center for youth classrooms. Youngpeople, who come from highly assimilated families, gather to studyHebrew and Jewish customs that many of their parents never learned.The “Siddur” has been transliterated for the first time intoBulgarian. Pesach seders are big public affairs. And a new public dayschool, with government support, teaches Hebrew as part of itsrecognized curriculum, attracting many Jewish children.

Robert Djerassi, a 49-year-old Bulgarian who has beenworking for the Joint for several years, took me on a tour of thecommunity center. He showed me the new construction, the library, thewrought-iron Stars of David and the menorahs that have remained fornearly 70 years on stairway banisters.

Djerassi recalled the thrill of Jewish revivalstarting in 1989. Some of that emotion cooled as everyday life undercapitalism took hold, said the former engineer. “Still, Jewish lifeis very active, sometimes hyperactive,” he said. “Sometimes I jokethat we have almost too much in activities for the number of peoplehere. Sometimes I joke that we have to import Jews.”

All that is encouraging to an outsider from LosAngeles. But one can also see a very different side of BulgarianJewry in the community center. In the office of the Jewish Agency, anincreasing number of people have been applying for aliyah to Israel,often to escape the brutal economic troubles that have roiledBulgaria in the past few years. A corrupt government ruinedBulgaria’s banking system last year and caused hyper-inflation.Without outside Jewish aid for heating bills and food, some Bu
lgarianJewish elderly might not have made it through the winter. Finally,last spring, a reformist pro-Western government was elected, and theeconomic situation is improving.

Beyond economics, many of the young people whoseJewish consciousness is newly raised are torn between moving toIsrael and trying to keep things going in Sofia. With assimilationand emigration, some people wonder if there will be any Jewish lifeleft in Bulgaria in a generation.

“There is a tension. We develop young leaders,help make them become more and more interested, and they often makealiyah,” said Simone Shaltiel of Chicago, a 24-year-old Joint workerin Sofia. She spoke as she was getting ready to take a group ofJewish teens on a weekend retreat.

Joseph Levi, the 71-year-old president of theJewish community, has a philosophical view. I interviewed him in thedusty office of the synagogue, often interrupted as senior citizenspeppered him with all kinds of requests for help. I asked him: “Willthere be a Bulgarian Jewish community in 20 years?”

Levi chuckled a bit. “Look, 50 years ago, we werethinking this community would disappear in five or 10 years. And weare still here,” he said. “We hope in 50 years to still be here.”

Larry Gordon also writes for the Los AngelesTimes.

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