19TH CENTURY RABBI HALTS MAJOR EPIDEMIC

19TH CENTURY RABBI HALTS MAJOR EPIDEMIC

Tue, 06/02/2020 - 16:53

Eliezer Papo quarantines Silistra and saves it from cholera

eliezer-papo-grave_0.jpg

Israeli pilgrims at Rabbi Papo's tomb

The coronavirus outbreak has stopped the world in its tracks and made the word quarantine a part of everyday life, and vocabulary. The word describing the practice of isolation as a way to fight epidemics, of course, is much older and there is a Bulgarian town that is an example of how instrumental quarantining could be in saving lives.

In 1828, the decisive action of a single man protected Silistra, on the River Danube, from an outbreak of cholera. Astonishingly, this man was not a general or a prime minister, but a modest Jewish religious scholar.

Eliezer Papo was born in Sarajevo in 1785 but settled in Silistra (both towns were within the Ottoman Empire at the time), where he became a rabbi for the local Sephardic community, in existence there since 1477. He was a truly remarkable Judaic scholar. His books included classics such as Pele Yo'ez, Elef HaMagen and Hesed La Alafim, but what made him so popular was his belief that a genuinely pious Jew ought to divest himself of all worldly pleasures. Significantly, he not only preached asceticism, but also practised it, to the extent that he was referred to as HaKadosh, or the Saint.

As Silistra found itself on the frontline in the 1828-1829 war between Imperial Russia and the Ottomans, a cholera epidemic broke out. Papo, who had also been trained in medicine, set up field hospitals to isolate the sick and prevent the disease from spreading. Unfortunately, he was smitten and did not survive, but the grateful residents of Silistra would not forget him and erected a monument to his memory.

The old Jewish cemetery of Silistra, where he was buried, has long since been destroyed when the town modernised itself and the memory of Papo started to fade. Papo's original tombstone has also disappeared. When you walk today in the overgrown remains of Silistra's Jewish cemetery, squeezed between the Danube and the border with Romania, you will see mostly tombstones from the 20th century.

The local Jewish community was spared the Holocaust by an ironic twist of history. In 1940 Hitler took the region of southern Dobrudzha from his ally, Romania, and gave it to neutral Bulgaria. This was enough to convince the Bulgarians to join the Axis, which they did in 1941. Thanks to Hitler's manoeuvre, the Silistra Jews were spared the fate of their brethren in Romania, and were not deported to extermination camps. However, Silistra's Jewish community did all but disappear in 1949-1951, when most of its members, and most Jews still living in Bulgaria, emigrated to Israel.

In the 2000s, the last remaining Jewish family in Silistra decided to do something about the tomb of Rabbi Eliezer Papo. A new monument and a tombstone were erected on the site of the former cemetery, and Silistra was reinstated on the map of Jewish heritage as a place of pilgrimage. Today, thousands of Jews are flown in from Israel and elsewhere, especially at the time of the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, to commemorate Rabbi Papo.

You will find Papo's memorial at Kapitan Krastev Street, a dusty side road that leads to the Romanian border, in front of a Communist-era block of flats rather incongruously called Havana. 


us4bg-logo-reversal.pngVibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners


Issue 164 America for Bulgaria Foundation Jewish Bulgaria The Danube
0 comments

Add new comment

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Discover More

lions bridge sofia 5.jpg
LIONS BRIDGE
Unlike most great cities, Sofia is located neither at a sea, nor near an important river. The Perlovska and the Vladayska, the two rivulets that skirt the northern, eastern and southern boundaries of the city centre, are too small to count.

The remains of the 1981 secret digs at Golyamo Gradishte peak
LAND OF FAKE MYSTERIES
"I dislike bringing people here." The voice of the guide from the tourist office in Malko Tarnovo drops, as we approach the summit of Golyamo Gradishte, the highest peak in the Bulgarian part of the Strandzha mountains. It is summer.

Rock niches near Zhenda village
WONDERS OF STONE IN RHODOPE
When travelling around the Eastern Rhodope, you are bound to encounter this strange sight: on certain precipitous rocks, here and there, are scattered small, dark niches. Some are on their own, others form groups of dozens.

poppy.jpg
TOP 5 INSTAGRAMMABLE LOCATIONS
As Bulgaria and the world slowly come back to life after the Covid-19 pandemic travellers, visitors and expats prepare to put into practice the plans they had so many stay-at-home days to draw. Many can't wait to get on the road again.

nestinari-3.jpg
BULGARIA'S FIREWALKERS
Police checkpoints, scores of cars parked along the roadside and throngs of people crowding between stalls selling candyfloss, kepabcheta and cheap Made-in-China toys: on 3 June, the village of Balgari looks much like any Bulgarian village during a country

haberlea-rhodopensis2.jpg
FLOWER OF IMMORTALITY
In myths, science and fiction, people have searched for immortality since time immemorial – pun not intended. So far, as much as we know, to no avail. However, a plant that is found exclusively in Bulgaria solved the problem millions of years ago.

3e1d29b65e89b5e0b3c1385d51031f62_XL.jpg
VALLEY OF THRACIAN KINGS
The Valley of Roses: Until recently, the picturesque valley between the Stara Planina and the Sredna Gora mountain ranges was known by this name, as it is the centre for the production of the famous Bulgarian attar of roses.

cb0e1b464e3b5c1afaf2aa277dff6070_XL.jpg
SATIRE, MUSIC & TAIL-LESS CATS
Bulgaria is hardly on the list of the world's most famous carnival destinations such as Rio, Venice and New Orleans, and even less famous local ones such as the carnivals in Greece.

46a6d3fa3730bbc176c46dd1be92fe9e_XL.jpg
WHO WERE CYRIL AND METHODIUS?
The image of two men, one young and sporting a dark beard and the other older and white-bearded, with books and parchments in their hands, are to be found all over Bulgaria. There are countless statues and posters, church murals and icons.

d5983bb71ac089893bdb47b02778b646_XL.jpg
FLOWER TURNS BULGARIA RED
Travelling around the countryside in Bulgaria is a true joy in late spring and early summer, when the days are long, the sun is bright, and lush greenery brings life to the empty villages and abandoned industrial ruins that still define the local landscape

a2429d666fe7ce4e9cc4add5ad02bfd0_XL.jpg
BULGARIA'S MYSTERY ROCKS
When the first Western traveller saw Pobiti Kamani near Varna, he could not believe his eyes.

1571de7e2c9161c3c33c0f290e73ebfe_XL.jpg
EASTER IN RILA MONASTERY
The chatter of the small group of people at the gate of Rila Monastery in the cold spring evening is of the sort you can hear anywhere and anytime: hellos, how-do-you-dos, smalltalk, but neither the place, nor the people nor the occasion are ordinary.