Reflections on a sojourn in Bulgaria

December 11, 2020

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As the bus barreled across the Thracian plain towards Sofia, capital of Bulgaria, it followed a five-hour straight course west from my temporary home of Burgas, an ancient port on the shores of the Black Sea. Along this route, 9,000 years of civilization have etched their narratives. The armies of Alexander the Great (and his father, Philip, before him) marched this way, as did occupying Slavs and Turks, Germans and Russians, all passing the same Neolithic mounds and once treasure-filled Thracian tombs as the modern traveler. The plain and its richly layered history never failed to spark my imaginings. That day, I was further entranced by my first glimpse of storks, their spectral white figures harbingers of new life since ancient times. I had no inkling that this would likely be my last time traversing the distinctive landscape, its spring-touched fertile land rimmed by the Balkan Mountains on the horizon.

After six months of a 10-month teaching assignment through the U.S. Fulbright program, I was taking a week’s personal leave, flying from Sofia to attend my daughter’s wedding in Baltimore. I was filled with anticipation at reuniting with my family to celebrate such an auspicious occasion, but also excited to continue my Balkan adventure. I had plans to visit Istanbul, Kiev, Odessa, and Israel, and every weekend promised visits from family and friends.

Then, fate intervened: After my arrival in Baltimore and just one day before the March 14 wedding, Fulbright cancelled all its programs worldwide due to the novel coronavirus pandemic and sent everyone home—effective immediately. My foray into Eastern Europe was abruptly over, with no time to return for goodbyes or even to collect my belongings.

Two days later, I returned home to Norfolk and started the readjustment to U.S. life in the COVID-19 era. Meanwhile, I mourned the loss of an additional four months to dig into the fascinating culture, language, and history of Bulgaria.

History and geography
As a nation, Bulgaria dates to 681 CE, making it the oldest continuous civilization in Europe, but its land was inhabited centuries earlier by groups from the pre-literate, metalworking Thracians to Romans, Greeks, and Romaniote Jewish communities. There is layer upon layer of history to uncover in this intriguing and beautiful land, which also has the greatest biodiversity in Europe thanks to its location regarding glacial retreat.

Imagine a place the size of Virginia bounded by half a dozen neighbors, but instead of Maryland, West Virginia, and North Carolina, the shared borders include shifting lines with Greece, Romania, Serbia, and Turkey. In its most recent glory days, starting in 1878 when with Russian help it reclaimed independence after 500 years of Ottoman rule (aka “the Turkish yoke”) and ending with World War I, Bulgaria stretched almost the width of the Balkan peninsula, touching the Aegean Sea in the south and the Black Sea to the east. In its heyday in the 10th century, it stretched still farther to the Ionian Sea. Today, the Balkan nation remains sandwiched between larger powers, bounded by the River Danube to the north with the Black Sea its only remaining coastline. It has a still-declining population of 7 million, almost a third of whom live in and around Sofia, down from a peak of 9 million under the Soviets in the 1980s.

Initially neutral, then allied with Germany in WWII, Bulgaria and neighboring Romania changed sides in the waning years of the war, and both fell into the Soviet sphere between 1945 and 1989. Now a member of both NATO and the EU, Bulgaria is on course to adopt the Euro in 2023. Purportedly, as many as two million young Bulgarians currently live and work overseas in search of economic opportunity.
Buffeted by so many influences, Bulgaria has a proud, but understated culture, one in which people reveal themselves and their connections slowly.

For me, the country had multiple lures: It offered an intriguing location, poised at the juncture of Europe and Asia; from high school Russian studies I was familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, in actuality invented by Bulgarian clerics, which I naively thought would make language acquisition a breeze; as a student of history it offered an unparalleled opportunity to see up-close a post-Soviet society struggling to establish and maintain the institutions and mindset necessary to democracy; and professionally I had the chance to practice my language-teaching skills gained through a recent Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics. And, not least, it halved the distance between me and my family in London.

It didn’t disappoint on any of those counts, but it also had an unanticipated impact: for the first time I didn’t just know about the complete and utter devastation wrought by the Holocaust across Europe, but I felt it in lives and communities lost. The ghosts were everywhere visible.

Learning the basics
Our program started with a 10-day dawn-to-dusk orientation in Sofia on everything from teaching and language to customs, food, and holidays. During this, I and my 30 U.S. colleagues (average age 22.5 years) learned that 85 percent of the population identify as Orthodox Christian, 10 percent as Muslim, and 5 percent as “other.” The country’s estimated 2,000 to 6,000 Jews (most sources cite the lower figure) don’t number sufficiently to even rate a mention. For me, in all our tours, talks, and outings, the very absence of any mention was striking. By contrast, there were frequent references to the Roma, a vilified and growing minority often referred to as “gypsies,” possibly 10 percent or more of the population, who were also subjected to Nazi atrocities.

We were constantly warned about a lack of tolerance for diversity, to expect racism and the free use of the ‘n’ word, and that many school desks would likely have swastikas carved into them. All true, and hard to reconcile with the strikingly gentle, modest, inclusive, and caring people I met.

At a U.S. Embassy presentation, I sought out the resident physician, a New Yorker married to a secular Israeli, and queried him about Jewish life in the community. He said he attended holiday services solo at Sofia’s magnificently restored 1909 synagogue, the largest in the Balkans and third largest in Europe, and that he and his wife kept a kosher home. When pressed about anti-Semitism, he also mentioned, but dismissed the Lukov March held in Sofia each February. Though no longer sanctioned by the government, the march continues to attract thousands of neo-Nazis to honor the memory of the Nazi-sympathizing Bulgarian general.

“You will find that Bulgarians take their religion lightly,” the doctor said in explanation of this apparent conflict between tolerance and open prejudice. Over the ensuing months his words rang true. Certainly, Orthodox Christianity is culturally embedded: there are churches and monasteries galore, innumerable saints’ days offer reasons to celebrate, and age-old customs, such as the Nestinari icon-bearing firewalkers, continue.

Despite a constitution that endorses separation of church and state, Orthodox priests often have a role in official state and city celebrations. However, church attendance hasn’t recovered from 45 years of communist rule and is largely confined to major holidays. Likewise, there’s no recognition of any day as a Sabbath, with school functions and training happening at all hours on weekends. As to the Muslim 10 percent, there are active mosques in only the major cities, and in six months I never observed anyone in traditional dress. The most passion I encountered on the subject of beliefs came from students expressing fiercely held atheistic views.

It was in keeping then, on our final-day walking tour of Sofia, when the guide stopped in the Square of Tolerance, so called for the side-by-side Synagogue, Catholic, and Orthodox churches and Mosque (the only Mosque remaining from 400 extant under the Ottomans), and explained that the muezzin foregoes two of the five daily calls to worship in order to comply with the city’s noise ordinance.

He then introduced the story of how Bulgaria saved its 50,000-strong Jewish population in World War II, including shout-outs to the then-head of the Orthodox Church for being prepared to give up his own life; to ruler Tsar Boris III for his procrastination or intentional obstruction (no one’s sure which) to Nazi deportation demands; and to the people of Bulgaria for protecting their Jewish neighbors.

Bulgarian Jews in WWII
The history of the Jews in Bulgaria goes back 2,000 years to Romaniote groups, later followed by small Ashkenazi settlements in cities along its northern border. By WW II, however, the vast majority of the 50,000 Jewish citizens were Sephardic with roots in the 1492 expulsion from Spain, Ladino speakers who uniquely wrote the language in Bulgarian Cyrillic script.

Bulgaria carries the distinction of being one of only two Eastern European countries during World War II to protect their Jewish populations, the other being Muslim-majority Albania, which took in and sheltered Jewish refugees. In recent years, Jewish organizations have donated prominent “thank you” sculptures to several towns to honor the Bulgarian people for their protection, the message mixing gratitude with a caution against a repeat of the horrors of the Holocaust. The plaques stand in stark contrast to both the somber, heart-wrenching Holocaust Memorial built in Bucharest in 2009 to commemorate the deaths of 280,000 Romanian Jews (and thousands of Roma) in which the blame is laid squarely with the Romanians themselves, and the “Red Cross” Concentration Camp Museum in Nis, Serbia, so close to the city center as to make it crystal clear that residents must have been aware of the atrocities perpetrated there.

However, Bulgaria’s story is not straightforward. In 1940, before any formal alliance with Germany, Bulgaria enacted discriminatory laws regarding Jewish identification, along with housing restrictions and curfews, and in March 1943 it allowed the deportation to Nazi camps of more than 11,300 Jews from territories it controlled outside its borders. Sofia resident Leah Davcheva (mother of a friend of one of my daughters) recalled how her father was in a forced labor camp in the southwest part of the country at that time. From there, he witnessed trains carrying Jews from Greece and northern Macedonia to Treblinka and he warned Leah to never forget that they were Bulgarian trains protected by Bulgarian soldiers. Nearly all those transported died in the camps, a sobering contrast to the last-minute rescue of Jews within Bulgaria’s own borders.

I asked Sofia native, Prof. Joseph Benatov, director of Modern Hebrew Studies at U of P, about this discrepancy in treatment. He explained that in March 1943 the Bulgarian administration had secretly agreed to German demands for the deportation of 20,000 Jews, to include those within Bulgaria as well as the 11,000-plus beyond its borders as a quid pro quo for Bulgaria’s desired territorial expansion. However, when the extra-territorial deportations in Greece and Macedonia began, the information leaked, and Dimitar Peshev, an influential politician from Kyustendil, set the internal rescue in Bulgaria in motion. Peshev, who was deputy speaker of the Bulgarian parliament and a member of the majority ruling party, was looking after his constituents, his friends and neighbors. With support from Orthodox Church leaders and multiple others who had already publicly opposed the discriminatory 1940 laws, Peshev won a last-minute reprieve and a delay. Two months later, in May 1943, presented with two courses of action, Tsar Boris III chose the life-saving option of dispersal rather than deportation.

Still, after the war, when the Soviet-backed communist regime took over, 48,000 Jews left Bulgaria voluntarily for the new state of Israel, more than three-quarters between October 1948 and the following May, according to heritageabroad.com.

Jewish life In Sofia
Seventy years later, the remnants of Bulgarian Jewish life are largely confined to Sofia, where there’s a community center helped by American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee funds and the Ronald S. Lauder Jewish School, which opened in 2019. Together, they complement the Sofia Central Synagogue, a glorious Moorish Revival style building designed by Austrian Friedrich Grunanger to accommodate 1,300 worshipers,
and whose 1909 dedication was attended by Tsar Ferdinand 1 and his wife. However, despite the community’s
post-Soviet revival—at its rededication in 1996, the mayor of Sofia and other dignitaries attended—and the attendance of hundreds for Hanukkah celebrations, according to volunteer guide Leon Benatov (Joseph’s father), the Orthodox shul cannot always raise a minyan for Friday night services.

When cousins Marilyn and Ken Siegel from Virginia Beach met me in Sofia in mid-February, we called the synagogue in advance to identify ourselves. On arrival, we were admitted and entered a small side chapel; there, Marilyn and I were ushered to the back to follow the Kabbalat Shabbat service from behind view-blocking lace curtains. Meanwhile, Ken sat with a handful of men of varying ages as we all listened anxiously for the arrival of enough men to form a minyan; it was close to 30 minutes after the designated time for services until a sufficient number of men had gathered. The Israeli rabbi, on staff since 2016, proceeded to race through the prayers at breakneck speed using a siddur with Hebrew on one side of the page with Bulgarian facing.

We returned on Sunday morning for a tour of the main sanctuary, a truly spectacular and elaborate interior from the turn of the 20th century when many of the extant synagogues in the Balkans were built, a testament to the general prosperity of Bulgaria’s most recent ‘golden age’ and the comfortable place held by Jews in that society. The guide, Leon Benatov, pointed out a corner of the sanctuary’s floor damaged by an aerial Allied bomb.

He was one of those saved during WW II , when in June 1943 his family, like all 25,000 Jewish residents of Sofia, were dispersed to 20 towns in the countryside for their protection. His family stayed in one room in another Jewish family’s home in Provadia, a small town near Varna, the country’s largest port on the Black
Sea. Then five years old, Leon recalled the hunger and difficulties of the family’s 15-month exile, but also noted that he, his parents and sister stayed together (his father being over 45 was exempt from the labor camps), and it providentially saved them from the Allied bombing of Sofia.

They were also fortunate to return to their home—and eventually were even able to reclaim most of their belongings. After the war, he remembers receiving packages of clothes and food from the JDC.

Now 82, Leon, many of whose family were among those making Aliyah after the war, is working to preserve the history and legacy of Jews in Bulgaria. He recently translated a history by Avram Takhzher from Ladino to Bulgarian, a book I purchased (at some expense!), but which was a casualty of my unexpected departure from the country. He has almost completed a book of 3,200 Jewish proverbs in Ladino with a Bulgarian translation; and he’s preparing a reprint of a four-volume Israeli series featuring the biographies of 137 prominent Jews in Bulgaria.

Leah Davcheva, in her mid-60s, is also involved in preserving the heritage of the country’s Ladino speakers. She has interviewed more than a dozen in Sofia (some of whom have passed since she began the project) in Bulgarian for an ethnographic study slated for publication in December 2020. She grew up nonobservant in a
Jewish community of about 200 in Ruse (Roo-say) on the Danube with parents who were both Communist Party members.

They were Ladino speakers, but Leah never learned the language. She and her husband settled in Sofia in the ‘70s, but she still considers herself an outsider in its religious community.

Synagogues but no services
Beyond Sofia, there’s a telling absence of active synagogues or any semblance of Jewish life in communities that once hummed with activity. Yet, emblematic of the lack of violence accompanying their abandonment, many of the buildings are well preserved.

Before school started, I had a few unencumbered days to explore Burgas, the Black Sea resort city of my teaching assignment and the country’s fourth largest behind Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna. With 2-hour direct flights to Tel Aviv, its beaches and casinos make it a popular summer tourist destination for Israelis even after a 2012 terrorist bus bombing that killed six. I quickly found a former synagogue, the same early 20th century
vintage as Sofia’s, but designed by Toscani, an Italian architect; in the heart of downtown, the city has  repurposed it as an art gallery like those in nearby Yambol and Haskovo. On its second story, stars of David are just visible on the painted arches forming an unlikely juxtaposition with the exhibition of Christian
iconography. Its courtyard has the obligatory thank-you to the people of the town, a freedom statue, and an adjacent building that’s a community center—though seemingly closed—for the “approximately 100” Jewish residents of the city.

A couple of weeks later, I planned to attend High Holiday services in the larger, more prosperous resort/port city of Varna, 2 1/2 hours north by bus. However, the renovated synagogue in a residential neighborhood, home to Chabad since 2010, was deserted on Friday evening. With only a 30-minute break from mandatory
training on Saturday morning, I took myself instead to the Archeological Museum, past the prominently situated shofar statue of gratitude to the Bulgarian people, and whisked around a gallery that has the oldest known gold jewelry in the world—crafted by Thracians in 4,600 B.C.E. and discovered this century in a
local burial site. Spectacular!

The next day, not far from some Roman ruins, I stumbled across the Naval Museum, where I learned that as early as 1934 Bulgaria became a transit point for Jews fleeing persecution in Europe. They made for the Black Sea coast via the River Danube or by train via Ruse, and thousands boarded retrofitted ships in Varna. The displays record the dangers that faced the refugees in their sea passage to Palestine, including the sinkings of
the Salvador, in a storm in 1940, and the Struma, which departed Romania with a Bulgarian crew in Feb. 1942, victim of a Soviet torpedo. Together, the two ships accounted for the loss of more than 1,000 lives. Many more, however, were saved with one steamship alone carrying 1,500 safely to shore in four voyages.

In October, when my husband, Mike, made the 5,100 mile trek from Norfolk, we opted to explore Plovdiv,
arguably Europe’s oldest continuously occupied city, the 2019 European Capital of Culture; once Philip 11 of Macedon’s capital city, Philippopolis; home to a wonderful hillside Roman amphitheater, an ancient synagogue ruin and, we were told, the country’s second active synagogue. The latter was under renovation and not available to tour so we took photos of its weed-strewn exterior, found a nearby apartment block with a Star of David design in its metal grille, the de rigeur gratitude statue—and what appeared to be an anti-Semitic football sticker pasted on the street sign. There was no question about the intent of the sticker at the bus stop which depicted a cartoon-style Nazi soldier cutting a Jew’s beard, or the half page of anti-Semitic jokes beneath a caricature of a Jew in the Standart, a weekly newspaper (the following week the jokes
were at the expense of “artists”).

With national mayoral elections pending, the ugly side of the political scene emerged with some political parties—there are a multitude—openly avowing hate speech against different groups, including the Roma and the LGBTQ community. A young Jewish Fulbright colleague, a Georgetown grad, conducted a mock election in his class and had one ‘candidate’ run on a platform of killing Jews and Roma, which received resounding support from his classmates. These jarring incidents also coincided with the racist chants and Nazi salutes of
Bulgarian soccer fans at a Euro-qualifying game against England that led to a fine for the Bulgarian team and a game played in an empty stadium — a great punishment pre-Covid!

Among my fellow educators, there was a “collective shrug” in response, a general acceptance of prejudice as part of life, not to mention that many openly shared anti-Roma sentiments. I still struggle to reconcile the political hate speech and targeting of groups with the truly remarkable kindness, notable gentleness and individual caring that I observed all around me. The Bulgarians are a patient people.

“Five hundred years,” they’ll say, referencing Ottoman rule. “We can wait.” Meanwhile the building continues to deteriorate and it doesn’t seem that there’s sufficient will or population to prop up any Jewish community beyond Sofia. In the capital, there’s a spark for the future with its new Jewish school established in 2019, a glimmer of renewal, even as the old guard vanishes and takes the Cyrillic written Ladino language with it.
Though 50,000 Bulgarian Jews survived WWII relatively unscathed, their “voluntary” departure, and with it the near-obliteration of centuries of Jewish life in Bulgaria, is yet another inescapable tragedy of the Holocaust. Their lives echo in the silence.

To read more about Jewish life in Sofia and beyond in Bulgaria, go to JewishNewsVa.org or read it in the next issue of Jewish News.

- Prue Salasky

Letter to the Editor