Jews in Bulgaria: A Brief Historical Account




An image in Indian ink and water colour.
The Jewish synagogue is in the centre, 
above it - the patroness of the Bulgarian capital Saint Sofia 
(on both sides are the Christian cross and the Davidic star).
Painted by H. Tatchev, Museum of the History of Sofia

The first Jews appeared in the Balkans as early as the 2nd century, after the conquest of their lands by Rome. This had been recorded on a tombstone found near the town of Nikopol by the Danube river. These Jews were known as Romagnotes, and their language as ladino.

The Middle Ages

In medieval Bulgaria, Jews were concentrated in separate quarters of some of the country's larger cities. There were some very rich, as well as poor people and outcasts among them. It is known, for example, that in the capital city of Turnovo the executioners were Romagnote Jews.

By the criteria of the Middle Ages, the attitude of the Bulgarians to the Jews was more or less tolerant. Towards the mid-14th century, two councils were convened in the metropolis of Veliko Turnovo to deal with the Jews (accused of blasphemy against the Christian Holy Scriptures); but these conventions persecuted to no lesser degree the Bulgarian heretics - Bogomils, Adamites, Barlaamites, etc. Repression was inflicted upon their top leaders only, the punishments involving castigation, branding, banishment, and - very rarely - death penalty. Even under extreme circumstances  such as conventions, executions were very few indeed.


Tzar Ivan Alexander and his Jewish wife Sarah.
In between - their son Ivan Shishman, the last Bulgarian ruler
Medieval miniature, 14th century 


After their banishment from Spain

In fact, the really large influx of Jews to the Balkans began after 1492, when they were driven away from Spain. At this particular point, the Turkish sultan allowed the refugees to settle in the Ottoman Empire, and they were tolerantly treated both by the authorities and by the population of the Peninsula as a whole. These migrants came to be known as Sefarades, whose language came from Spanish and who now constitute 90 per cent of the Bulgarian Jews. Besides, the following centuries saw the migration to Bulgaria of Eskenazi Jews, mainly from the German lands; their language, Yiddish, is a German dialect. Unlike the Sefarades, they were received with hostility, which waned with time. The one-time Romagnotes, in turn, were assimilated, without a trace, by these two groups.

It is extremely important to know that in the Balkans Jews met with the rivalry of the local tradesmen and craftsmen - Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians, Serbs, Wallachians, Turks, etc. Indeed, some Jewish families rose to posts in the sultans' courts and even became their creditors, but generally, the Balkan Jews did not have the strong economic positions characteristic of their contemporaries in other parts of the Continent. 

In the Restored Bulgarian State  

Like everywhere else, across the Bulgarian lands Jews lived in the bigger cities. As evidenced by the great Czech historian from the late 19th century, Konstantin Irecek, Bulgarian Jews were "mostly fair-haired, a temperate, modest, industrious and kindly people". The bigger businessmen are to be found only in Sofia, Plovdiv  and, most of all, in Bourgas. Jews are shopkeepers, money-changers and pedlars, but many of them are also craftsmen and even porters. Espanoles, continues the same author, even in Sofia used to wear fez and kind of Turkish dress, including an ankle-length padded jacket, made of yellow or many-coloured cloth, but for the time being the European dress and the fur cap prevail. "Espanoles carried on very well with the Bulgarians. In Sofia the chief Rabbi, a white-bearded old man with a black turban, stood out among the city notables, whose presence was indispensable for any official ceremony. Espanoles always voted with the government, in large crowds, as if by command", concludes Irecek.

Against the background of the cyclic waves of anti-Semitism in modern Europe, the co-existence of the Jews and the Balkan peoples seemed almost idyllic. Thus, the consecration of the extremely beautiful synagogue in Sofia, in 1909, was attended not only by all the government elite, but by tzar Ferdinand himself, accompanied by tzaritza Eleonora.


A young woman in a festive Jewish costume

Jews, in turn, not only were loyal citizens of their home country - they were also fervent patriots. Tokens of this can be found on the numerous monuments of the killed in the three wars that were fought for the unification of the Bulgarian lands (1912-1918), where many a Jewish names are engraved.

In the period of 1923-1925, when Bulgaria was twice thrown into bloodshed, there were Jews on the two opposite sides. In 1925, one of the Communist assailants in the "Saint Nedelya" church in Sofia, where over 150 people were killed and 500 injured, was a Jew, Marco Friedman. One of the innocent victims of the terror in which the authorities engaged following this outrage, was also a Jew - Joseph Herbst, a renowned journalist, the first director of the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency.


World War II

The nation-wide Bulgarian outrages were repeated in the years of World War II - first in the actions of the pro-German governments against the Communists and the other upholders of the anti-Hitlerite coalition (among whom, naturally, there were many Jews), later - in the retaliation of the victors against the vanquished, succeeding the invasion of the Soviet Army in this country in September, 1944. Thus, for example, some of the agents carrying out the Communist nationalization of industrial property, part of which had been owned by Jews, were Jewish functionaries.

In this period, however,  there was something essentially new. During the war, Germany began to exert an increasing pressure on the Bulgarian authorities to arrange the so-called "final settlement of the Jewish question". So, in December 1940,  the National Assembly adopted the disgraceful Defence of the Nation Act, which initiated a state-organized terror against  and persecution of Jews (and freemasons). Intermarriages were contracted only illegally, a ban was imposed on practising certain professions, extraordinary taxes were levied. This is how the everyday consequences  of this law were described by Bohor Pilosov from Dupnitza, "the most Jewish of all towns in Bulgaria" (one fourth of its population):"Then we had to wear Davidic badges, we were put under curfew, we could buy bread from only one particular baker's shop, there were streets where we were forbidden to step in. Six or seven months a year the men, starting from pre-recruit age up to 50-55 years old, were sent to "labour camps". Food was enough, but of incredibly poor quality. Among the warders, most of them retired officers and sergeants, there were downright beasts, but also regular Bulgarians, who made every effort to alleviate our plight."

Nevertheless, anti-Semitism, as well as the Defence of the Nation Law itself were utterly alien to the Bulgarian way of life and national mentality. The anti-Jewish campaign met with no understanding by both peasants and city dwellers, by the intelligentsia, the Orthodox church, and the ruling circles. The planned secret deportation of the Jewish population to the German concentration camps was frustrated by the civil protests, as well as by the official counteraction of the deputies. The Deportation Act was repealed by the then deputy chairman of the National Assembly, Dimitar Peshev (even so, after the war, there was not a single person to defend him, and he was sentenced as a Fascist and ... anti-Semite). Apart from this, many Romanian, Polish, as well as Czech, Hungarian and Lithuanian Jews travelled through Bulgaria and Romania on their way to Haifa and Palestine.

In present-day Bulgaria there is an ongoing argument as to who is to thank for saving the Jews. There is some evidence that this happened with the help also of some backstairs combinations of tzar Boris III himself. In any case, one thing is beyond question: the local Jews were not sent to the gas chambers owing to the energetic opposition of the majority of the Bulgarian society.

Unfortunately, this did not affect the Jews from Aegean Thrace (now in Greece) and Vardar Macedonia (now Republic of Macedonia), which  were then under Bulgarian and German occupation. In March 1943, about 11 thousand Jews from these parts were deported and later perished in the Holocaust.

The Great Migration and the Years After

Following World War II the number of Jews in Bulgaria ran to nearly 50 thousand, i.e. - as many as in the pre-war period. After 1948 the great majority of them migrated to the newly formed Israeli state, as well as to the United Sates and some other countries. 


Mr. Izhak Shamir, former Prime Minister of Israel, 
 in the Sofia synagogue 



Mrs. Shamir, a native of Bulgaria, 
on her visit to Sofia

According to the latest official census of the population carried out in late 1992, only 3461 persons reported their Jewish identity. Now this figure is probably even smaller, since over the years that followed there was a new  wave of emigration of younger generation Jews to Israel. Moreover, according to data presented by the Jewish organization "Shalom", the number of Bulgarian citizens of Jewish origin is nearly 6000, including individuals born of mixed marriages. 
It is difficult to tell how this number has changed. Emigrants usually keep their Bulgarian citizenship, they go, they come back. They work in Israel, then in Bulgaria. And it is hard to say  whether pensioners  live here, or there. The 2011 census was carried out in winter time; if it was conducted in the summer, the number would have probably been different.

In the course of their century-long presence in the Bulgarian lands, the Jewish community continuously contributed to all spheres of life. Figures of world renown are painter Jules Pascin, born in Vidin, and Elias Canetti, born in  Russe, a literature Nobel Prize laureate.

However thin the Bulgarian Jewish community today may be, it keeps contributing to the spiritual and material world of modern-day Bulgaria. Significantly, after the changes that occurred in 1989, Andrei Loukanov, a Jew on his mother's side, was twice prime minister in the ex-Communist cabinets (although formally he was not even a Bulgarian citizen). Of Jewish origin was also Ilko Eskenazi (who  met his death in an absurd surf-boat accident) - vice-premier in the cabinet formed by the anti-Communist Union of Democratic forces in 1991. George Pirinski, a former foreign minister (in the 1994-1997 red government), is also of Jewish origin on his maternal side. The same holds true of Filip Dimitrov,  premier 1991-1992, Sergey Stanishev, premier 2005-2009, as well as Alexander Bozhkov, vice-premier in the UDF cabinet led by Ivan Kostov (1997-2001)...

To wind it up, these facts are utterly unknown to the wide Bulgarian public. Not that anyone deliberately keeps them covered - in fact, Bulgaria is simply not engaged in questions such as who of the people involved in her government is of Jewish origin and who is not.  Or from any other ethnic group, except in cases when the person  himself/herself begins to trumpet forth the subject.