History of the Jews in Bulgaria

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Synagogue in Burgas (now an art gallery)
Sofia Synagogue designed by Austrian architect Friedrich Grünanger, established in 1909

The history of the Jews in Bulgaria dates to at least as early as the 2nd century CE. Since then, the Jews have had a continuous presence in the Bulgarian lands and have often played an important part in the history of Bulgaria from ancient times through the Middle Ages until today.

Roman era[edit]

Jews are believed to have settled in the region after the Roman conquest. The earliest written artifact attesting to the presence of a Jewish community in the Roman province of Moesia Inferior dates to the late 2nd century CE. A Latin inscription found at Ulpia Oescus (modern day Gigen, Pleven Province) bearing a menorah and mentioning archisynagogos Josephus testifies to the presence of a Jewish population in the city. A decree of Roman Emperor Theodosius I from 379 regarding the persecution of Jews and destruction of synagogues in Illyria and Thrace is also proof of early Jewish settlement in Bulgaria.

Bulgarian Empire[edit]

After the establishment of the First Bulgarian Empire and its recognition in 681, a number of Jews suffering persecution in the Byzantine Empire may have settled in Bulgaria. During the rule of Boris I there may have been attempts to convert the pagan Bulgarians to Judaism[citation needed], but in the end the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was established and the population of the Bulgarian Empire was Christianized in the 9th century. The names of many members of the 10th-11th-century Comitopuli dynasty—such as Samuil, Moses, David—could indicate partial Jewish origin, most likely maternal, though this is disputed.

Jews also settled in Nikopol in 967. Some arrived from the Republic of Ragusa and Italy, when merchants from these lands were allowed to trade in the Second Bulgarian Empire by Ivan Asen II. Later, Tsar Ivan Alexander married a Jewish woman, Sarah (renamed Theodora), who had converted to Christianity and had considerable influence in the court. A church council of 1352 led to the excommunication of heretics and Jews, and three Jews who had been sentenced to death were killed by a mob despite the sentence's having been repealed by the tsar.

The medieval Jewish population of Bulgaria was Romaniote until the 14th-15th century, when Ashkenazim from Hungary (1376) and other parts of Europe began to arrive.

Ottoman rule[edit]

By the time the Ottomans finished their conquest of the Bulgarian Empire in 1396 there were sizable Jewish communities in Vidin, Nikopol, Silistra, Pleven, Sofia, Yambol, Plovdiv (Philippopolis) and Stara Zagora. Another wave of Ashkenazim, from Bavaria, arrived after being banished from this country in 1470, and Yiddish could often be heard in Sofia according to contemporary travellers. An Ashkenazi prayer book was printed in Saloniki by the rabbi of Sofia in the middle of the 16th century.

The first waves of Sephardim came from Spain (through Salonika, Macedonia, Italy, Ragusa, Bosnia) after 1494, and settlied in the already established centres of Jewish population—the major trade centres of Ottoman-ruled Bulgaria. The modern capital, Sofia, had communities of Romaniotes, Ashkenazim and Sephardim until 1640, when a single rabbi was appointed for all three.

In the 17th century, the ideas of Sabbatai Zevi became popular in Bulgaria, with supporters of his movement like Nathan of Gaza and Samuel Primo being active in Sofia. Jews continued to settle in various parts of the country (including new trade centres such as Pazardzhik), and were able to expand their economic activities due to the privileges they were given and the banishment of many Ragusan merchants who had taken part in the Chiprovtsi Uprising of 1688.

Independent Bulgaria[edit]

After Bulgaria was liberated from Ottoman rule following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, some small-scale looting took place of Jewish property by people who regarded them as supporters of the Ottomans. However, the Jews in Bulgaria were secured equal rights by the Treaty of Berlin. The rabbi of Sofia, Gabriel Mercado Almosnino, together with three other Jews, welcomed the Russian forces to the city and took part in the Constituent National Assembly of Bulgaria in 1879.

Jews were drafted into the Bulgarian army and fought in the Serbo-Bulgarian War in 1885, the Balkan Wars, and the First World War. The Treaty of Neuilly after World War I emphasized their equality with other Bulgarian citizens. In 1936, the nationalist and anti-semitic organization Ratnik was established.

Before World War II, though their numbers increased, the percentage of Jews in the population steadily declined compared to that of other ethnic groups. In 1920 the 16,000 Jews were 0.9% of all citizens of Bulgaria. By 1934 there were 48,565 Bulgarian Jews (0.8% of the population), with more than half living in Sofia. Ladino was the dominant language in most communities, but the young often preferred speaking Bulgarian. The Zionist movement was completely dominant among the local population ever since Hovevei Zion.

World War II[edit]

Monument in honour of the Bulgarian people who saved Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust, Jaffa

In December 1940, 352 members of the Bulgarian Jewish community boarded the S.S. Salvador at Varna bound for Palestine. The boat ran aground 100 meters off the coast of Silivri, west of Istanbul, and sank. 223 passengers drowned or died of exposure in the frigid waters. Half the survivors were sent back to Bulgaria while the remainder were allowed to board the Darien II, but were imprisoned at Atlit by the British Mandate authorities.[1]

In 1941, the Bulgarian Parliament and Tsar Boris III enacted the Law for Protection of the Nation, which imposed numerous legal restrictions on Jews in Bulgaria. Specifically, the law prohibited Jews from voting, running for office, working in government positions, serving in the army, marrying or cohabitating with ethnic Bulgarians, using Bulgarian names, or owning rural land. Authorities began confiscating all radios and telephones owned by Jews, and Jews were forced to pay a one-time tax of 20 percent of their net worth.[3].[2][3][4][5] The legislation also established quotas that limited the number of Jews in Bulgarian universities.[5][6] Jewish leaders protested against the law, and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, some professional organizations, and twenty-one writers also opposed it.[5][7]

Bulgaria's 48,000 Jews were saved from deportation to Nazi concentration camps with the help of Dimitar Peshev, leaders of the Bulgarian Church, led by Metropolitan Stefan of Sofia, Tsar Boris, and ordinary citizens. The story is told in Beyond Hitler's Grasp: The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria's Jews[8] by Michael Bar-Zohar, an Israeli historian, politician and former Knesset member who was born in Bulgaria. Another book on the subject is by Tzvetan Todorov, a French intellectual born in Bulgaria and the Director of Research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (C.N.R.S.) in Paris. Todorov wrote The Fragility of Goodness: Why Bulgaria's Jews Survived the Holocaust (published by Princeton University Press), using letters, diaries, government reports, and personal memoirs to reconstruct what happened in Bulgaria during the Second World War, resulting in the preservation of the lives of almost 50,000 Bulgarian Jews.[9]

On the eve of the planned deportations, the Bulgarian government asked for a breakdown of the German plans for the destinations of the deportees, and was told that roughly one-half would be employed in agriculture in Greater Germany and one-fourth, reported to be semi-skilled laborers, would be "allowed to redeem themselves" by "volunteering to work" in the war industries of the Ruhr Valley, while the remaining one-fourth would be transported to the General Government (German-occupied Poland) for employment in "work directly connected to the war". (This information was also distributed to the neutral countries via German diplomatic channels and was reported on March 24, 1943, in the New York Times from Berne, Switzerland, along with the cynical statement that "the former death rate in the Jewish colonies of occupied Poland has shown a considerable decrease in the past three months", the reason given being that "now many of the male Jews are employed in army work near the fighting zones", and were receiving approximately the same rations as German soldiers.)

Hesitating to comply with German deportation requests in late 1942 and early 1943, following rumors of mistreatment of Jews transported to Poland, the Bulgarian government made use of Swiss diplomatic channels to inquire whether it was possible to deport the Jews to British-controlled Palestine by ships across the Black Sea. However, this attempt was blocked by British Foreign Minister, Anthony Eden.[10] Following that failure, the Bulgarian authorities permitted Germany to deport the majority of non-Bulgarian Jews residing in Bulgarian-occupied parts of Greece and Yugoslavia. The Bulgarian Government even discussed the cost of deportation with Nazi Germany, as recorded in the German Archives, which document that Nazi Germany paid the Bulgarian Government 7,144.317 leva for the deportation of 3,545 adults and 592 children to the killing camp at Treblinka.[11] Thus, 4,500 Jews from Greek Thrace and Eastern Macedonia were deported to Poland, while 7,144 from Bulgarian-occupied Vardar Macedonia and Pomoravlje were also sent to Treblinka. None of them survived.[12]

Although Bulgaria effectively controlled these regions immediately beyond its borders, the German authorities recognized only the Bulgarian military administration and not the civil one. Bulgaria granted citizenship to all ethnic Bulgarians living in occupied territory, and also to those of other ethnicities who wished to acquire it, with the exception of the Jews.[13] The territories of Aegean Thrace, Macedonia and other lands controlled by Bulgaria during World War II were not considered Bulgarian although they were administered by Bulgaria. On March 4, 1943, Bulgarian soldiers, assisted by German soldiers, took the Jews from Komotini and Kavala off the passenger steamship Karageorge, massacred them, and sunk the vessel. The Bulgarians also confiscated all of the Jewish properties and possessions.[14][15] In contrast with the old Bulgarian territories, where widespread protests against the deportations took place, including petitions to the government in Sofia, in Aegean Thrace and Macedonia such organized movements were lacking.[8]

As for the Jews in the kingdom of Bulgaria itself, German requests for their deportation to concentration camps were not complied with. Later, Bulgaria was officially thanked by the government of Israel for its defiance of Nazi Germany. This story was kept secret by the Soviet Union, because the royal Bulgarian government, the King of Bulgaria and the Church were responsible for the huge public outcry at the time, causing the majority of the country to defend its Jewish population. The communist Soviet regime could not countenance credit to be given to the former authorities, the Church, or the King, as all three were considered enemies of communism. Thus, the documentation proving the saving of Bulgaria's Jews only came to light after the end of the Cold War in 1989. The number of 48,000 Bulgarian Jews was known to Hitler, yet not one was deported or murdered by the Nazis.[8] In 1998, to thank Tsar Boris, Bulgarian Jews in the United States and the Jewish National Fund erected a monument in the Bulgarian Forest in Israel honoring Tsar Boris. However, in July, 2003, a public committee headed by Chief Justice Dr. Moshe Beiski decided to remove the memorial because Bulgaria had consented to the delivery of the Jews from occupied territories of Macedonia and Thrace to the Germans.[16]

The Bulgarian occupational zone included neither Thessaloniki, with over 55,000 Jews, nor the westernmost part of Vardar Macedonia, including the towns of Debar, Struga, and Tetovo, which were part of Italian-occupied Albania.[17] The Bulgarian authorities did offer protection to Jews who were not Bulgarian nationals residing in Bulgaria proper, including those who had fled there from Nazi occupied regions in other countries.

After World War II[edit]

After the war and the establishment of a Communist government, most of the Jewish population left for Israel, leaving only about a thousand Jews living in Bulgaria today (1,162 according to the 2011 census). According to Israeli government statistics, 43,961 people from Bulgaria emigrated to Israel between 1948 and 2006, making Bulgarian Jews the fourth largest group to come from a European country, after the Soviet Union, Romania and Poland.[18]

Historical Jewish population[edit]

Info from the Bulgarian censuses, with the exception of 2010:[19]

Historical population
Year Pop. ±%
1880 18,519 —    
1887 23,571 +27.3%
1892 27,531 +16.8%
1900 33,661 +22.3%
1905 37,663 +11.9%
1910 40,133 +6.6%
1920 43,209 +7.7%
1926 46,558 +7.8%
1934 48,565 +4.3%
1946 44,209 −9.0%
1956 6,027 −86.4%
1965 5,108 −15.2%
1992 3,461 −32.2%
2010 2,000 −42.2%
Jews as a % of the total Bulgarian population since 1900:
Year % Jewish
1900 0.90%
1905 0.93%
1910 0.93%
1920 0.89%
1926 0.84%
1934 0.80%
1946 0.63%
1956 0.08%
1965 0.06%
1992 0.04%
2010 0.03%

Notable Bulgarian Jews[edit]

Knesset members[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bulgarian Jews fleeing the Nazis drown in Sea of Marmara
  2. ^ Marushiakova, Elena; Vesselin Popov (2006). "Bulgarian Romanies: The Second World War". The Gypsies during the Second World War. Univ of Hertfordshire Press. ISBN 0-900458-85-2. 
  3. ^ Fischel, Jack (1998). The Holocaust. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 69. ISBN 0-313-29879-3. 
  4. ^ Wyman, David S.; Charles H. Rosenzveig (1996). The world reacts to the Holocaust. JHU Press. p. 265. ISBN 0-8018-4969-1. 
  5. ^ a b c Benbassa, Esther; Aron Rodrigue (2000). Sephardi Jewry: a history of the Judeo-Spanish community, 14th-20th centuries. University of California Press. p. 174. ISBN 0-520-21822-1. 
  6. ^ Levin, Itamar; Natasha Dornberg; Judith Yalon-Fortus (2001). His majesty's enemies: Great Britain's war against Holocaust victims and survivors. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 37. ISBN 0-275-96816-2. 
  7. ^ Levy, Richard S (2005). Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution. ABC-CLIO. p. 90. ISBN 1-85109-439-3. 
  8. ^ a b c Bar-Zohar, Michael (2001-07-04). Beyond Hitler's Grasp: The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria's Jews. Adams Media Corporation. ISBN 9781580625418. Retrieved 19 February 2014. 
  9. ^ A description of the book and some reviews can be found on the website of Princeton University Press, http://press.princeton.edu/titles/7026.html.
  10. ^ A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time by Howard M. Sachar, Alfred A. Knopf, N.Y., 2007, p. 238.
  11. ^ Macedonia-online
  12. ^ (eds.), Bruno De Wever ... (2006). Local government in occupied Europe: (1939–1945). Gent: Academia Press. p. 206. ISBN 978-90-382-0892-3. 
  13. ^ L. Ivanov. Essential History of Bulgaria in Seven Pages. Sofia, 2007.
  14. ^ [1]
  15. ^ vimeo.com
  16. ^ [2]
  17. ^ Chary, p. 45.
  18. ^ "Immigrants by period of immigration, country of birth and last country of residence" (in Hebrew and English). The Central Bureau of Statistics (Israel). Retrieved 2008-08-22. 
  19. ^ Berman Institute. "World Jewish Population, 2010" (PDF). University of Connecticut. Retrieved 2013-10-30. 

Further reading[edit]

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