For over 110 years Sofia Central Synagogue remains focal point of Bulgaria's largest Jewish community
The largest Sephardic temple in Europe is situated in a central Sofia street, in an area where a mosque and several churches of various denominations "rub shoulders" with each other.
The story of how Sofia Central Synagogue appeared is a fascinating one, as it encapsulates the history of Bulgaria in the past century.
As soon as Sofia became the capital of newly independent Bulgaria, in 1879, people from all corners of the country and beyond flocked to it in search of opportunities. Jews were a part of the process. In a couple of decades their community swelled from 4,300 to about 20,000, or about half of all Bulgaria's Jews. The great majority of them were Sephardi, descendants of Ladino-speaking Jews who settled in the Ottoman Empire after they were expelled in the late 14th century from Spain and Portugal.
Sofia's Jewish community engaged in activities ranging from business to culture and art, to factory work. In the early 20th century, the eight synagogues in the city were already insufficient to properly serve the community. A larger and really representative temple was called for.
To build such a temple, however, the Jews had to broker an agreement among themselves. Many of them refused to donate money for the construction works as they were ardent supporters of Theodor Herzl's Zionist ideas and considered it wasteful to spend money on buildings when the main purpose of all Jews was to return to the Holy Land.
The Jewish Consistory did manage to collect the money, and the names of the main benefactors can still be seen on a plaque on one of its walls. Friedrich Grünanger, a reputable Viennese architect of the time, was contracted to go ahead with the project.
Grünanger was instructed to erect a building similar to the great Sephardi synagogue in Vienna (now demolished).
The project did not go very smoothly.
After extensive restorations, Sofia Central Synagogue is the centre of Jewish life
The Consistory sent the initial project back to the drawing board. Then it decided it wanted a synagogue for 1,100 rather than the originally planned 700 people. Work on the building began as late as 1905.
The building, an amalgamation of Moorish and Viennese Secession styles, welcomed its first congregation on 9 September 1909. Bulgarian King Ferdinand (1887-1918), his wife Queen Eleonora, Prime Minister Aleksandar Malinov, as well as a number of government ministers, MPs and the heads of both the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches were all in attendance.
By all accounts, the new synagogue was a marvel. Its main prayer hall could accommodate up to 1,170 people, and its 31-metre high dome had a span of 20 metres. A 1,700-kilogram Vienna-manufactured brass chandelier, the largest in Bulgaria, hanged from it.
The synagogue was shut down in 1943-1944, in keeping with the wartime Defence of the Nation Act, as most Sofia Jews were deported to the hinterland. During the Allied bombings of Sofia a bomb fell on the roof. It failed to explode, but the walls of the synagogue collapsed under its weight. The library as well as some of the community's archives were destroyed for good.
However, the most serious changes to the synagogue were yet to come. The new regime of the Soviet-backed Communists declared itself officially atheist and started to actively discourage religious practices. In the 1950s then Chief Rabbi Asher Hananel was tried for "malfeasance in office" and sent to prison. The synagogue was thus rendered rabbi-less, a situation that would continue up until 1994.
Yet the regime had no intention of leaving the synagogue empty. The building had excellent acoustics, and the government decided, in the 1960s, to convert it into a concert hall. Construction work on the building's interior started in the 1980s, but was never completed. For much of that period the synagogue's interior was enmeshed in scaffolding and ladders.
The synagogue was given back to the Jewish community after the fall of Communism. In 2008, major renovations began. They were paid for by the Bulgarian Culture Ministry, as well as by private donors in Israel and the United States. The works ended in time for the 9 September 2009 Centennial Anniversary of the Sofia Central Synagogue.
Nowadays Sabbath and other prayers are usually held in the small hall of the synagogue. The great hall is used for major holidays, state visits and occasionally concerts.
Vibrant 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