History of the Jews in Bulgaria

History of the Jews in Bulgaria

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 played an often considerable part in the history of Bulgaria from ancient times through the Middle Ages until today.


The earliest written trace of Jewish communities in what is today Bulgaria date to the late 2nd century BCE. A Latin inscription found at Ulpia Oescus (modern day Gigen, Pleven Province) bearing a menorah and mentioning "archisynagogos" Joseph 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 a proof of earlier Jewish settlement in Bulgaria.

Bulgarian Empire

After the establishment of the First Bulgarian Empire and its recognition in 681, a number of Jews persecuted 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, 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, as well as 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 the heretics and the Jews and the death sentence of three Jews, who were killed by the mob despite the verdict's having been repealed by the tsar.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 settled.

Ottoman rule

By the time the Ottomans overran the Bulgarian Empire, 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 Thessaloniki by the rabbi of Sofia in the middle of the 16th century.

The first waves of Sephardim came from various places (through Thessaloniki, Macedonia, Italy, Ragusa, Bosnia) after 1494, with Jews settling 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 (such as the new trade centres like Pazardzhik), extending their economic activities due to the privileges they were given and the banishment of many Ragusan merchants after they took part in the Chiprovtsi Uprising of 1688.

Independent Bulgaria

With Bulgaria being liberated from Ottoman rule after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 and some small-scale looting of Jewish property by people regarding them as supporters of the Ottomans, 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 in the city and took part in the Constituent National Assembly of Bulgaria in 1879. However, signs of anti-Semitism and discrimination began to emerge.

Jews were drafted in the Bulgarian Army and participated in the Serbo-Bulgarian War in 1885. The Treaty of Neuilly after World War I emphasized their equality, bur nevertheless anti-Semitism began to spread and was indirectly introduced by the governments of the time, particularly after 1923 and the government of Aleksandar Tsankov. In 1936, the nationalist and anti-Semitic organization Ratnik was established.

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

Unlike all other Nazi Germany allies or German-occupied countries excluding Denmark, Bulgaria managed to save its entire 48,000-strong Jewish population during World War II from deportation to concentration camps, with Dimitar Peshev playing a crucial role in preventing the deportations.

Bulgarian authorities deported a very large majority of the Jews (non-Bulgarian citizens) in the areas of Macedonia and Thrace which were under Bulgarian administration during the war. Bulgarian authorities did not regard these Jews as Bulgarians, nor did they afford protection to Jews who had fled to Bulgaria from Nazi occupation elsewhere. Approximately 14,000, including nearly all the Jews of Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia and Thrace, were arrested by Bulgarian authorities and deported through Bulgaria, transferred to German control and then shipped to Treblinka for extermination.

After the war and the establishment of a Communist government, most of the Jewish population left voluntarily for Israel, leaving only several thousand today (1,363 according to the 2001 census).GR|Bulgaria According to Israeli government statistics, 43,961 people from Bulgaria have emigrated to Israel between 1948 and 2006, which is the fourth largest number of all European countries, behind the Soviet Union, Romania and Poland. [cite web |url=http://www.cbs.gov.il/shnaton58/download/st04_04.xls |title=Immigrants by period if immigration, country of birth and last country of residence |language=Hebrew and English |accessdate=2008-08-22 |publisher=The Central Bureau of Statistics (Israel) ]



Further reading

* Avraham Ben-Yakov, "Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust" vol. 1, pp. 263-272 (map, illus.)
* Frederick B. Chary, "The Bulgarian Jews and the Final Solution 1940–1944". University of Pittsburg Press, 1972. ISBN 0-8229-3251-2

External links

* [http://www.osaarchivum.org/db/fa/205-4-20-1.htm Bulgarian Subject Files - Social Issues: Minorities: Jews] Open Society Archives, Budapest

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