The Concise Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Jewish Communities and their Synagogues in Bulgaria
By Elko Hazan, Ester Georgieva, Angelina Rashkova, Sonya Levi

Translation, Julian Hazan. Sofia : Kamea Design, 2012. ISBN: 9789546290410; 9546290416. 190 pp.

Reviewed by Steven F. Sage.

Town-by-town Yizkor memorial books have mostly been lacking for the Jewish communities of Bulgaria. There is the Hebrew language compendium for the whole country, compiled as Volume X of the Encyclopaedia of the Jewish Diaspora, and one volume, also in Hebrew, on the city of Shumla (now called Shumen). But readers seeking information about most particular localities in Bulgaria had nothing comparable to the richness of material about the many large and small places in Germany or Poland where Jews once lived, thrived, and left architectural traces of their existence.

That gap has now been rectified. The Concise Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Jewish Communities and Their Synagogues in Bulgaria was just published in Sofia in 2012, in separate Bulgarian and English editions. Jewish history in Bulgaria is now at last more accessible to readers. There are 41 entries covering separate settlements. This is a large format work, replete with illustrations and maps, but it must not be consigned to the intellectually shallow ‘coffee-table book’ genre. It’s a serious work: the serious work on the topic. The lead author / compiler is Elko Hazan, a historical scholar originally trained as an architect. He has given conference presentations on the topic but the Encyclopaedia is his magnum opus, the result of some five years of painstaking research.

Joining Hazan in this endeavor were three others. The historian Esther Georgieva focused on south-western and north-western Bulgaria as well as the city of Veliko Turnovo in the north central part of the country. Angelina Rashkova, a theologian, concentrated on the local history of Jews in north-eastern and southern Bulgaria. Dr. Sonya Levy, who passed away in 2010, explored the localities in northern Bulgaria. She was affiliated with the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem.
For the many illustrations, the word ‘vibrant’ is fully applicable. Wherever possible the compilers have brought the Bulgarian Jewish world back to life in color photographs. The now-renovated great Sephardic synagogue of Sofia gets its regal due as the crowning jewel. But other temples around the country are by no means slighted. There is attention to detail of decoration as well as to structural plan, with an occasional reproduced blueprint. Art historians and readers with an architectural interest will not be disappointed by the Encyclopaedia. Care has also been taken so that Hebrew inscriptions are legible in the photographs of tombstones and of synagogue interiors.

Two chronological sections comprise the body of the Encyclopaedia. One, discussing what is known about four Jewish communities from the remote past, is placed near the end of the book with essays on Eskus, Plovidiv, Veliko Turnovo, and Nesebur. Here it is worth noting that Jews were present in Bulgaria during Roman and early Byzantine times, well before the arrival of the Bulgar overlords from whom the country derives its present name. The article on medieval traces in Veliko Turnovo shows that Hebrew prayers were spoken there during the heyday of Bulgarian power in the Balkans. But the bulk of the book consists of 37 entries on communities which had their origins during Ottoman times. These entries are alphabetical, from Asenovgrad to Yambol. The longest entry is of course on Sofia, where half of Bulgaria’s Jews – about 25,000 people – resided before the Second World War. There they concentrated in the neighborhood called Iuchbunar, a Turkish name meaning ‘three wells’.

Ordinarily, reference works are not expected to present much in the way of new material which is unavailable elsewhere from accessible secondary sources. But the present Encyclopaedia does blaze new trails. The authors drew upon local archives and a breadth of Bulgarian journal articles. They have presented a picture here which corrects the breezy, superficial, but largely prevalent notion that the Jews had somehow become ‘fully assimilated’ or were merely ‘Bulgarians of Mosaic faith’. On the contrary, the Encyclopaedia by Hazan, et al. recounts a Jewish presence fully engaged in the commercial life of the country while retaining its distinct identity. The Ottoman Empire was after all an ongoing multi-cultural arrangement. Distinctiveness imposed limits on full assimilation, notwithstanding Jewish fluency in the Bulgarian language after Turkish power retreated and Bulgaria became independent. Jews still tended to cluster in their own neighborhoods. Until the 20th century they remained overwhelmingly endogamous and largely observant. Sephardim, by far the majority among Bulgaria’s Jews, spoke Judeo-Spanish at home and in company with co-religionists. They sang songs and wrote poetry in Ladino. Synagogues retained their role as the foci of community life as well as houses of prayer.

Those neighborhoods in which Jews clustered were usually located near the center of each town. The Encyclopaedia offers maps, usually reproduced from period sources, to pinpoint these residential districts within the settlements. Jewish districts were not ghettos; no one shut the inhabitants behind walls. They were there, ordinarily beside the town centers, because they had built or bought homes close to where they pursued professions, produced crafts, or conducted business. Such geographic positioning is not a real estate accident. It testifies to the importance of this ethno-religious community to the country writ large as Bulgaria urbanized. The sometimes lavishly adorned synagogues erected in some towns’ Jewish quarters also attest to prosperity, at least of some who worshipped there. Poor Jews in need could in turn rely on their wealthier brethren. There were Jewish community networks for banking and for social welfare.

As noted, the arrangement of the 37 principal entries is alphabetical, i.e., the customary order for an encyclopedia. This order certainly facilitates the finding of narrative, maps, and photographs for each town. But there is always something lost, no matter how a book is organized. An alphabetical sequence necessarily obscures to some extent whatever regional networks and affiliations functioned among Jews beyond the streets of each town. The larger, regional picture might have been considered had this Encyclopaedia included a historical introduction in addition to the short Preface. An introduction could have emphasized as well that the country’s Jews maintained close ties to other Sephardim in the Ottoman realms, across the frontiers of present-day Bulgaria. Bulgaria’s Jews were just part of the Balkan Ladino cultural and economic ecumene, with its hub at Salonika. It should be remembered that Jews in this country built their synagogues, prayed, and plied their trades before the borders were set and they perforce became ‘Bulgarian’.

Conveniently located maps on the endpapers offer the reader a ready means to locate each town, which does help to situate the entries regionally. There is also a glossary and a comprehensive bibliography. And the translation by Julian Hazan from Bulgarian into English is excellent, in welcome and marked contrast to many such scholarly projects marred by inadequate editing or proofreading.

On Jewry’s deep roots in Bulgaria, this is now the definitive volume in a world language and will stand as such for the foreseeable future.

Steven F. Sage, Ph.D., is a researcher at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Copyright by Sephardic Horizons, all rights reserved. ISSN Number 2158-1800