The Sofia Synagogue: Epitomizing the Spirit of Bulgaria's Capital for 100 Years

Features | September 12, 2009, Saturday // 05:34|  views

 The Spirit of Old Sofia, i.e. the Young Capital

It is not just a coincidence that the same year Sofia turned 130 years as the capital of Bulgaria one of its most famous landmarks - the Sofia Synagogue - celebrated 100 years since its opening.

Because upon becoming a capital of the newly liberated Bulgaria in 1879, Sofia was still a small provincial town, more like a village, and not even one of the more important towns of the Ottoman Empire. It is landmarks such as the Sofia Synagogue (opened on September 9, 1909) built at the end of 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, which little by little made Sofia look like a real capital.

Not much remains to be seen today from the old Sofia from before 1944, the year after which the communist regime changed a lot in terms of how Bulgarian cities and towns looked. The Sofia Synagogue is one of those few remaining landmarks of another era when Sofia was the young capital of a brave new nation overfilled with an enthusiastic spirit of catching up with the developed world and bringing modernity to these latitudes.

The Sofia Synagogue, however, is also an important testimony of another aspect of that spirit - the heritage of ethnic and religious pluralism of the former Ottoman Empire, which, while being backward and oppressive, was a place where different ethnicities and religious often found a way to live happily together.

So while Sofia at the time was not as significant as cities like Plovdiv or Ruse, its development quickly gained momentum; it was a rapidly growing, bustling new city where Bulgarian, Turkish, Gypsy, Armenian, Jewish, Greek kids played all together in its muddy streets..

In a nutshell, the construction of the Sofia Synagogue in 1905-1909 together with other similar projects symbolized the economic upsurge of Bulgaria and its growing capital, and the place that the Jewish community - just as the other minority communities - had in it.

The Sofia Synagogue in the 1920s. Photo by

"The message was that the Jews have a future and place in this land for many years ahead. With its grandiosity, the synagogue shows that it is not something transient, that our ancestors hoped Bulgaria would develop successfully, and they'd have the opportunity to live well here, and to remain here," says Robert Jerasi, Chair of the Central Jewish Religious Council in Sofia.

Thus, with the new Sofia Synagogue opened in 1909 in the place of an older synagogue, together with already existing St. Sofia Cathedral and the Banya Bashi Mosque, all three located within less than 100 meters from each other, the downtown of the Bulgarian capital Sofia has started to look as a real-world representation of the Ring Parable of Lessing's play "Nathan the Wise" - a confluence of the world's three major monotheistic faiths - Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.


The Sofia Synagogue

The Sofia Synagogue is the third largest in Europe after the synagogues in Budapest and Amsterdam. It was designed by the Austrian architect Friedrich Grunanger, who also designed several of the early 20th century buildings preserved in Sofia such as today's Turkish Embassy, the former Chinese Embassy, the Religious Seminary - which shows a real pattern of continuity in the way Sofia developed as a capital.

The synagogue was designed in the Sephardi style, modeled after a Vienna synagogue destroyed by the Nazis. (Many Sofia buildings of that period were clearly designed to resemble the architecture of the capital of the former Austrian Empire.)

It can accommodate 1300 people, and features the largest chandelier in Bulgaria, which weighs over two tons. The synagogue is 31 meters high, and is located on an area of 659 square meters; it's dome has octagonal shape.

The synagogue's front entrance faces the Exarch Joseph Street, right behind the the Central "Hali", i.e. the Central Sofia Market Hall, another major landmark of the Bulgarian capital, which is just a little younger than the synagogue - it was opened in 1911.

One of the fairly unique things about the Sofia Synagogue is the fact that in its entire 100-year history, it has never been desecrated or sprayed upon or violated in any other matter - something that cannot be said of many other Jewish monuments in Europe around the world. The synagogue was not vandalized even in 1941-1944, in World War II, when Bulgaria was allied with Nazi Germany of Adolf Hitler.

1943-1944 was the only period when the Sofia Synagogue did not have regular services. It did not have the fate of other Jewish sites in Bulgaria turned as a center for the attempted but failed deportation of the Bulgarian Jews.

Paradoxically, the only time the Sofia Synagogue was ever damaged was by an Allied bomb in 1943 during the Anglo-American bombardments aimed at forcing the Bulgarian government to break its alliance with Hitler. The bomb failed to explode but caused a fire in the synagogue library destroying all of its invaluable Judaism literature. This damage done more than 65 years ago was fully repaired only recently in 2009, for the celebrations of the temple's 100 birthday.

The Anglo-American bombardments of Sofia in World War II damaged a lot of its landmarks include the Sofia Synagogue - its dome is visible here behind the ruble and the Central Market Hall, 1943.

"You know th

at the emblem of Sofia is a woman with a crown. I have recently started to say that with the repair works and restoration of the synagogue we have polished one of the diamonds of the crown, and have made it shine in the crown of Sofia," Robert Jerasi has commented.

The celebration of the centennial of the Sofia Synagogue attracted guests from around the world. Photo by BGNES

Celebrating the Centennial

"The ninth of September, 1909, will be a historic day for Bulgarian Jews. On this day the Sofia Synagogue was opened, a great holiday not only for the Jews of the capital, but on this day the prestige of all Bulgarian Jews was elevated. With the opening of the Sofia Synagogue the respect for the Jewish community and all Bulgarian Jews was increased a great deal. All the stores were closed as for a holiday, and the whole Bulgarian population congratulated these children of Israel in honor of the festive opening of the Synagogue."

This excerpt is from "Notas Historikas" by Avraham Tadjer, the historian of the Sofia Jewish community, who also wrote that as a show of respect for the many Bulgarian Jews who suffered many casualties in the Serbian-Bulgarian War (1885), the country's leaders attended the consecration of the Synagogue. Ferdinand I, Tsar of the Bulgarians, Prime Minister Malinov, and other Ministers and Bishops attended the opening of the Synagogue paying their respect to the Bulgarian Jewish community.

Ferdinand, who had just become a Tsar (the Slavic-Bulgarian title for "emperor") after Bulgarian broke its status of an Ottoman vassal less than a year earlier (September 22, 1908) is known to have had very close relations with the first rabbi to serve in the new Sofia Synagogue, Rabbi Ehrenpreis. The Tsar would often invite the Rabbi to the palace for long intellectual conversations. In my mind, the two must have looked something like Nathan the Wise and Sultan Saladin in their meeting in Lessing's play (expect that there was no conflict between them).

The celebration of the 100th birthday of the Sofia Synagogue was as glamorous as its opening. It was attended by Bulgaria's President, Georgi Parvanov, who is also the chair of the initiative committee for organizing the celebration, and by Bulgaria's former Tsar (1943-1946) and former Prime Minister (2001-2005), the grandson of Tsar Ferdinand I, Simeon Saxe-Coburg, among the other top guests.

The major difference with the consecration 100 years ago was that the centennial was an international event with guests from around the world. The represented organizations included the European Jewish Committee, the Eurasian Jewish Congress, American Joint Jewish Committee, the Organization of Bulgarian Jews in Israel, the organization of Bulgarian Jews Shalom. The guests came from the USA, Russia, France, Belgium, Greece, Serbia, Romania, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Israel's delegation of about 50 people was the largest.

On September 9, 2009, for the first time since World War II, the synagogue was restored to its original condition, and the eternal fire inside it was lit.

Representatives of all major religious communities in Bulgaria paid respect to the synagogue celebrations. Photo by BGNES

Bulgarians and Jews

Nowadays, more often than not, Bulgarians and foreigners alike mostly tend to speak ill of Bulgaria, no matter whether that is deserved or undeserved, justified or unjustified.

But at the celebration of the centennial of the Sofia Synagogue there was not a single ill word of Bulgaria and the Bulgarians. In fact, I have never heard so many good words and positive things being said about my country anywhere, on any occasion.

Every single speaker at the memorable event - no matter where they came from - thanked Bulgaria and the Bulgarians for the way they had always treated the Jews:

Starting with the place the Jews had after Bulgaria's Liberation - for example, the fact that the Jewish community in Sofia grew from 10 000 in 1909 to 25 000 before World War II;

Going to the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews - the heroic operation of the Bulgarian society preventing the deportation of the 50 000 Jews living in Bulgaria to the Nazi death camps of the Holocaust;

And all the way to the support and good will, and the BGN 720 000 that the Bulgarian governments granted in the last few years for the restoration of the Sofia Synagogue to its original condition.

Even though most of the 50 000 Bulgarian Jews who lived through World War II emigrated to Israel in the late 1940s, and the Jewish community in Bulgaria was reduced to a few thousand people, the memory of the way Bulgarians always treated their Jewish fellow-citizens has been cherished and perpetuated, in Bulgaria, in Israel, all around the world, to be brought back and reminded at the centennial celebration of the Sofia Synagogue - one of the epitomes of the spirit of Old - and as it turns out - of New Sofia. That is the capital of Bulgaria where the synagogue was built, and where it was restored.

(Left - The cover of "Beyond Hitler's Grasp" by Michael Bar-Zohar - the book telling the story about the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust.)

"When we want respite from the dust of the earth, to escape the noise of the street, and the worries and banalities of daily life, here in this synagogue we will find the road to the heavens opened up to us... May God bless this land and its sovereign, so that our country will grow from strength to strength. May God bless this land which we love dearly, for the good of all Bulgarians, in whose sufferings and joys we take an active part. Let this beautiful city blossom. May God bless the builders of this synagogue, and all who joined their efforts for its completion, Amen".

Those are the final words of the prayer of Rabbi Ehrenpreis at the synagogue's opening September 9, 1909, and as it was remarked at the centennial celebration, they seem to resonate just as powerfully 100 years later.

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Tags: Sofia Synagogue, synagogue, centennial, Jews, Jewish community, Tsar Ferdinand, Simeon Saxe-Coburg, Georgi Parvanov, World War II, Nazi Germany, Holocaust, rescue of Bulgarian Jews


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