The Sephardic Jews fleeing Spain settled in Bulgaria when it was part of the Ottomon Empire. During WWII, Bulgaria was initially neutral. However Hitler needsd access to cross the borders into Greece. He threatened to destroy Sofia unless access was given. Under threat of attack Boris the First, the reigning king, joined the Axis power and promised to send all the Bulgarian Jews to the concentration camps.
Due to mass demonstrations by the Bulgarian people against the deportation, King Boris asked for a delay of deportation by telling Hitler that the Jews were needed for war manufacturing. An extension was given but with time a 2nd attempt at deportation was ordered. During that attempt someone blew up the railway preventing the Jews again from being deported. On the 3rd time attempt, members of the Parliament stood up in front of the train refusing to let the Jews get deported to the camps. As a result of these efforts, 50,000 Bulgarian Jews were saved. After the war, an exception was made to allow Jews to leave for the newly established state of Israel. Half left and today there are only 5,000 Jews in Bulgaria.
We learned this history during our free waking tour of Sofia. The next day we went to visit the synagogue. The synagogue in Sofia is the 3rd largest in Europe.
Unfortunately the history museum had just closed when we arrived but we were able to tour the beautiful schul. Similar to our visit to a synagogue in Greece, there was an armed guard guarding the gate. We also had to pay 3 Lev or $1.80 each to enter.
[…] The Bulgarian people are very proud of its history of tolerance despite the intolerance of different ruling empires. There is an area called the Square of Tolerance where a mosque, a church, and a Jewish temple are all visible. We later visited the Jewish temple, which you can read more about here. […]
I don’t know whether it is the same guard, but when we lived in Sofia the guard was not Jewish. However, he told me that he had decided to learn Hebrew since he had worked there so long. He was very protective of the synagogue. The Jewish community in Bulgaria is very small since nearly the entire Jewish population emigrated to Israel in 1948 and the years immediately following. But it is very active and opened a second Jewish community center a few years ago just across the street from the synagogue. The calendar of activities is very full.
Wow what an interesting fact from your time in Sofia. I wish we had more time to explore the Jewish community in Sofia. Thanks so much for sharing!
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