Jews form one of the oldest communities part of Bulgaria’s resident makeup. Historic evidence mentions the presence of Jewish communities during the reign of Roman emperor Caligula (37-41AD), a few decades before the Sack of Jerusalem. Later, the Balkans became the destination of various Jewish migratory waves. The latest and largest wave took place at the end of the 15th century. It resulted from the banishment of the Jewish communities from Spain.
The present-day Central Synagogue in Sofia is part of the Sephardic tradition. The Jewish community of Sofia commissioned its construction in the 1900s to an Austrian architect working at the time in Bulgaria. The architectural style resembles that of old synagogues in Spain. However, their look is reflected through the then-contemporary style of Viennese Secession.
Construction of the Central Synagogue ended in 1909. The entire Sofia Jewish community attended the opening ceremony. It was honored by the Bulgarian tsar, by government ministers and by bishops of the Orthodox Church. The building has 1100 seats, and today it is one of the largest in Europe. It is built over the remains of a smaller synagogue dating back to Ottoman times.
The Jewish neighborhood is located right next to the synagogue. In the Balkans, Jews have never been restricted to ghettoes like those in Western Europe. In the Ottoman Empire, there was a rather liberal attitude to non-Muslim communities, due to an Islamic political tradition stemming from a treaty that the Arab caliph stroke in the 7th century with the Christian Patriarch of captured Jerusalem. However, like any medieval city, Sofia was segmented in neighborhoods of different religious and ethnic communities, each centered around its religious institution. With Judaism, there is an additional element, that in Saturday (Sabbath, the Judaic holy day) one is forbidden to work, trade or even do domestic chores. This includes a limit of making no more than 800 steps outside home. That is why Jewish neighborhoods are always compact and located near a synagogue.
The tall residential buildings opposite the synagogue appeared in the 1910s. They replaced the poorer village-style houses typical for Ottoman Sofia. Some of the façades are ornamented with the Star of David. Although nearly 90 percent of Bulgaria’s Jews immigrated to Israel in the late 1940s, today the remaining community continues to occupy the same buildings. Usually, 50 to 60 people attended the synagogue on Sabbath due to the generally weak religious feelings of those who chose to remain in then communist Bulgaria. Recently, though, the interest to the traditional culture and religion was revived.
The Jewish Museum of History functions alongside the synagogue. It documents the life of Jews in the Bulgarian lands over the centuries. The main focus is on the rescue of Bulgarian Jews from deportation during WWII. At that time Bulgaria was Germany’s ally and the Nazi required of our government to extradite Jews to the concentration camps in Poland.
A protest movement began and spread very widely in the Bulgarian society. Some parliament members and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church took active participation in the protest. The Bulgarian tsar turned to his personal friendship with Hitler. He convinced Hitler that the Jews should be kept in Bulgaria to be used as a forced labor, badly needed by the poor country for construction of roads and factories. Thus, 50,000 Bulgarian Jews escaped deportation to the Nazi camps.
The Central Synagogue is located at the corner of Ekzarh Iosif and George Washington streets. The museum works every week day from 9 am to 5 pm.