The Jews of Karnobat
by Zvi Keren
Sofia: American Research Center in Sofia, 2014 hard cover; 191 pp.
Reviewed by Steven F. Sage
Karnobat, a small town in southeastern Bulgaria, was home to a Sephardic community from the end of the 15th century to 1949. A locale without pretension, it never rated on picture postcards or calendars depicting scenic spots. Karnobat languished, instead, as a nondescript backwater of the Ottoman Empire. Several hundred Jews resided, worked, and worshipped in this place, their neighbors being mainly Christian Bulgarians and Muslim Turks. Altogether about four thousand people lived there in the 1820s. Adherents of the different faiths mingled freely in life, yet were interred in separate graveyards. The mortal remains of Jews found rest in a cemetery which is the largest such remaining necropolis in Bulgaria. Though other Jewish communities around the country were far bigger, at Karnobat the gravestones have remained more or less intact. Less so recently, to great regret. This study has been a work of salvage.
Professor Zvi Keren meticulously examined the stones’ inscriptions from which he has fashioned a brilliant text which draws the breath of life from ages past and imparts memorable character to an otherwise forgettable place. It is as if the modest marker monuments over the bones of Karnobat’s Jews were erected so that we might know not only these individuals in particular, but their kindred all over Bulgaria as well. For The Jews of Karnobat is no narrowly confined Yizkor book. Rather, Zvi Keren uses the stones and related documentation from Karnobat to range beyond and explore the cultural dynamic of Jewry throughout this part of the Balkans. The task demands skills acquired from diverse disciplines. And the author duly supplies those skills.
Keren’s mastery of the requisite scholarly tools is dazzling. He is no ordinary historian of the sort content to draw merely on legible archived documents. Instead, he braves the technically difficult and sometimes messy challenges of archaeology and epigraphy. Not all weathered inscriptions can be easily read or deciphered, but Keren has done the work. Selected epitaphs are transcribed into clear Hebrew or Judeo-Spanish. Then Keren applies linguistic virtuosity – and sensitivity – to translate into English.
Since the inscriptions also include motifs, Professor Keren demonstrates as well the techniques of an art historian and a cultural anthropologist to fully elucidate their meaning, the interplay between word and symbol. What does a belt buckle mean, chiseled into a gravestone? Why an outline drawing of a pair of sandals? And why does the Magen David appear so rarely on these Jewish stones? The author explains all this, and much more. Some symbols, like scissors, were used on Christian graves as well as those of Jews, indicating a degree of cultural influence across the divide of faith. And there are tombstone motifs that show the deceased’s profession such as carpenter or seamstress. Never, though, on Jewish graves is there a picture of the departed. Halakha prevailed.
But does the use of symbols imply adherence to some rigidly formulaic pattern? Not at all! The inscriptions convey far more biographical information, individuality, pathos, and indeed even poetry on the Karnobat epitaphs than we would dare to include on cemetery monuments nowadays. At burial times then there was less reserve than in our own prim, self-conscious culture about expressing love, pain, and inconsolable bereavement. Emotion gushes forth. Here for eternity is the Torah scholar “like a flourishing vine” who, although betrothed, “did not live to stand under the bridal canopy.” Here too the young woman who gave birth but tragically passed away before the circumcision of her infant son. The laments carved in stone on these resting places convey the anguish of living loved ones across the chasm of elapsed generations. Too many died young, from epidemic diseases that have all but vanished today. This was the fatalistic “circle of life” stoically borne then, although grief hovers like lichens on the finely wrought marble. “I wail like a jackal” shrieks a widower for his wife on her inscribed headstone. We want to reach out and embrace him in sympathy yet he too reposes, somewhere underneath this desolate village of rocks.
When Zvi Keren is not welling up his readers’ tears, he presents cold statistics to summarize the subject. He has surveyed the surnames present on the 577 remaining gravestones, the distribution of stones by type and shape and content, the times of year in which deaths occurred, and several other factors. Then again as an archaeologist, he describes such burial details as the compass direction in which the body was placed. Many were arranged with legs to the east so that at the time of future resurrection, the revived person may begin walking toward Eretz Israel.
Besides the gravestones, there is much documentation here as well to chronicle the living cultural existence of those who eventually found their way beneath the surface of the cemetery. Numerous documents are given in facsimile and there are ample photographs too. Historical information is quoted by Keren from the memoirs of Albert Confino, a Karnobat native. The instances of anti-Semitism are not ignored, including the travails endured by Karnobat’s Jews during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, which gave birth to modern Bulgaria. Then the 20th century saw greater hardships until the community made aliyah en masse in 1948-1950. No Jews inhabit Karnobat today.
Worthy of its subject, this elegant volume has been printed to last on heavy, glossy paper of high quality. One small oversight must be mentioned; i.e., a locator map of Karnobat would have been appropriate. But the omission is not crucial since the requisite information is present in Zvi Keren’s text. A map of the cemetery is duly included as an Appendix. There is also an Index and a four-page Bibliography. All told, the savant’s amazing book about a humdrum Bulgarian town and its Jewish graveyard is somehow: vibrant.
Steven F. Sage, Ph.D., is a researcher at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum