BULGARIA'S ABANDONED SYNAGOGUES

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Ruins, galleries, or churches - most of the country's Jewish temples have long forgotten Shabbat prayers

vidin synagogue.jpg

At the end of the Second World War, Bulgaria was the only European country whose Jewish population was bigger than before the war began. Still, by the early 1950s, Bulgaria's 49,000-strong Jewish population has shrunk to about 8,000. Fearful of their future under the new Communist regime, with its repression and nationalisation of businesses and properties, the majority of the Bulgarian Jews decided that they would rather live in the nascent State of Israel.

What was left behind were the synagogues. Their archives were moved to Sofia, and the abandoned buildings were lent to local city councils. In the following decades, the empty synagogues were used and reused as community centres, concert halls and warehouses, or were left to decay. After democratisation in 1989, the synagogues were returned to the Jewish community but, lacking congregations and funding, only two of these were capable of sustaining religious life: the synagogues in Sofia and Plovdiv. The rest remain abandoned, or used for other purposes. Here are some of the most interesting examples.

VIDIN

Situated on the Danube, an old and important trade route, Vidin had a vibrant Jewish community from the end of the 17th Century, which lived in their own neighbourhood beside the Baba Vida fortress. In 1894, the Jews of Vidin built a grand synagogue, whose design was inspired by the Great Synagogue in Budapest. Its adornments were crafted in Transylvania and Hungary, and the chandeliers were imported from Vienna. It was the largest synagogue in Bulgaria, before the consecration of the Central Sofia Synagogue, in 1909.
The Vidin synagogue fell into disrepair in the late 1940s, when almost all of the local Jews left for Israel. In 1950, the authorities turned it into a warehouse. In 1964 the synagogue was declared a monument of culture, but plans to convert it into a concert hall never materialised. Today, the synagogue is in a severe state of disrepair.

 

VARNA

Varna synagogueAt the beginning of the 20th Century, Varna's Jewish community was among the most significant minorities in this port city, and there were both Sephardic and Ashkenazi synagogues. Under Communism, however, the community lost both of its temples. The Ashkenazi Synagogue was turned into a sports hall, and by the 2000s had fallen in such disrepair that it was knocked down and rebuilt as a business centre, with the old façade restored. The Neo-Baroque Sephardic Synagogue, for its part, found itself rubbing shoulders with Admiralty House, the current home of the General Staff of the Bulgarian Navy, and was off limits to the public. Now the fence around the synagogue has gone, but its roof has already collapsed, trees are growing inside it and there is doubtful whether the fine late 19th Century structure can ever be restored.


 

BURGAS

Burgas synagogueA lively economic and trade centre on the Black Sea, at the end of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries Burgas had a Jewish community to match, with a number of prominent merchants, businessmen and men of arts and letters. In 1905 or 1909 (accounts differ), the Jews of Burgas built a synagogue in the Moorish style, designed by either Italian architect Ricardo Toscani or Austrian-Hungarian Friedrich Grünanger (these accounts also differ). The synagogue closed in the late 1940s and, after being used as a warehouse and a non-Jewish community hall, in the 1960s it was turned into an art gallery. It remains so to this day, its hall divided into floors for exhibition purposes. A reconstruction in the 2000s led to the discovery of Old Hebrew letters and Stars of David, which had spent decades under layers of newer plaster. These have now been revealed, and watch over the collection of Christian Orthodox art in the gallery.

 

SAMOKOV

Samokov synagogueSamokov is now a quiet town which you pass through on your way to the winter resort of Borovets, but until the beginning of the 20th Century it was a vibrant mining centre. Samokov was also the home of a significant Jewish community, which in 1857-1860 built a spacious synagogue in the characteristic Revival Period architecture of the region. It extended to 330 sq.m, was 8 metres tall, and had 38 windows. The Jewish community in Samokov began to decline when the mining industry died and the city slowly turned into a backwater. By the 1940s, there were no Jews left in Samokov, though their synagogue survived, and in 1965 was listed as a monument of culture. There were plans to convert it into a concert hall, and restoration had started, but it ended abruptly after a fire broke out in 1975. Ignored and abandoned, the building fell into dilapidation. At the beginning of the 1990s, it was returned to the Bulgarian Jewish community, but plans for restoration are frozen due to lack of interest and funding.


Gotse Delchev synagogue

GOTSE DELCHEV

This small town in Bulgaria's southwest looks like the last place to go in search of a synagogue, but here it is, with red-brick walls and a dome still bearing a tiny Star of David on its pinnacle. Inside, however, it is not a prayer house, but a house for living in.

After the Gotse Delchev Jews made the Aliyah in the late 1940s, the only Jewish family left in the city was permitted to settle in the now disused synagogue, which they did, dividing the building into two floors. The second floor became an apartment, and in the attic can easily be seen the crumbling, but still beautiful dome of the synagogue, painted blue as the sky, with fading golden stars. No longer a monument of culture, the building is now used for storage by a thrift shop.


SILISTRA

Silistra synagogueIn modern Bulgaria, small and economically struggling Silistra is one of the unlikeliest places to be the country's most popular Jewish pilgrimage site, but so it is. Each year thousands of Jews flock to Silistra to pay their respects at the grave of Rabi Eliezer Papo (1785-1828), one of the most prominent Jewish scholars of his day.

The fate of the city's old synagogue, a humble building in a quiet central street, is different. Services at the temple have not been held since the late 1940s. Later, following failed plans to convert it into a cinema, the synagogue was finally turned into a sports hall. After 1989, with the local Jewish community numbering just a couple of people, the synagogue was rented out and is now used as the prayer hall of an Evangelical denomination.


RUSE

Ruse synagogueA great city on the Danube which flourished in the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, Ruse had Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish communities, and many of its well-off citizens were of Jewish origin. Today, the tiny number of Sephardim still living in Ruse use the former Ashkenazi synagogue as a community centre. The fate of the former Sephardic synagogue is curious. Abandoned and in danger of collapse, the synagogue was sold to the US Church of God of Prophecy in the 1990s. Most of the interior has been preserved, but the huge wooden-carved Star of David in its dome has been veiled with opaque plastic sheeting. Signs in Bulgarian and English outside the synagogue refer to the "heroic" deed of converting a "Jewish synagogue" into a "Christian church."

America for Bulgaria FoundationHigh Beam 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.

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

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.

Discover More

WHO WAS LYUDMILA ZHIVKOVA?
Her father's daughter who imposed her own mediocrity on Bulgaria's culture? Or a forbearing politician who revived interest in Bulgaria's past and placed the country on the world map? Or a quirky mystic? Or a benefactor to the arts?

CATHOLIC BULGARIA
In 1199, Pope Innocent III wrote a letter to Bulgarian King Kaloyan to offer an union.

RHODOPE IN FULL BLOSSOM
The Rhodope mountains have an aura of an enchanted place no matter whether you visit in summer, autumn or winter. But in springtime there is something in the Bulgarian south that makes you feel more relaxed, almost above the ground.

BIZARRE BULGARIA
There are many ways to categorise and promote Bulgaria's heritage: traditional towns and villages, Thracian rock sanctuaries, nature, sun and fun on the seaside, and so on and so forth.

KARLOVO
Karlovo is one of those places where size does not equal importance.

SILENCE OF SHARDS
Pavlikeni, a town in north-central Bulgaria, is hardly famous for its attractions, and yet this small, quiet place is the home of one of the most interesting ancient Roman sites in Bulgaria: a villa rustica, or a rural villa, with an incredibly well-preserv

BULGARIAN EASTER
How to celebrate like locals without getting lost in complex traditions

BULGARIA'S TOP 10 SMALL TOWNS
Small-town Bulgaria is a diverse place. Some of the towns are well known to tourists while others are largely neglected by outsiders.

BORDER ZONE VILLAGE
Of the many villages in Bulgaria that can be labeled "a hidden treasure," few can compete with Matochina. Its old houses are scattered on the rolling hills of Bulgaria's southeast, overlooked by a mediaeval fortress.

WHO WAS GEO MILEV?
Poet who lost an eye in the Great War, changed Bulgarian literature - and was assassinated for his beliefs

SEEING DEVIL IN DEVIL'S BRIDGE
In previous times, when information signs of who had built what were yet to appear on buildings of interest, people liberally filled the gaps with their imagination.

URBEX BG, PART 2
If anything defines the modern Bulgarian landscape, it is the abundance of recent ruins left from the time when Communism collapsed and the free market filled the void left by planned economy.