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.
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.
At 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.
A 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 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.
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.
In 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.
A 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."
High 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. This series of articles is supported by the America for Bulgaria Foundation. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.