Comprehensive inventory, with many photographs, carried out between 2003 and 2006 by the Shalom Association on behalf of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of American’s Heritage Abroad. The information presented below is largely based on material used to prepare this report, which was published at the end of 2011 and probably represents the most detailed published survey of Jewish heritage sites in Bulgaria.
The above link is an informative online preview of this book by Dimana Trankova and Anthony Georgieff, one of the most extensive published descriptions of Jewish heritage sites in Bulgaria. Photo galleries of many sites described in the book can be seen on the book’s web site.
There are believed to be 24 Jewish cemeteries in Bulgaria, some of them Jewish sections of general municipal cemeteries:
Burgas (municipal), Chirpan, Dupnitsa, Gotze Delchev (municipal), Haskovo (municipal), Karnobat (old), Karnobat (new) (municipal), Kazanlak, Kyustendil, Lom, Pazardjik (municipal), Pleven, Plovdiv (municipal), Ruse (municipal), Samokov (municipal), Shumen, Silistra, Sliven, Sofia (municipal), Stara Zagora, Varna (municipal), Vidin, Vratz, Yambol (municipal)
“After the end of World War II some twenty-five synagogue buildings could be seen in Bulgaria. Three of them were professionally restored (Pazardzhik, Sofia, Plovdiv — the latter two are operational as prayer houses), few were given a facelift on being converted to art galleries (Yambol, Burgas), some became Jewish community houses or Christian churches (Ruse, Silistra, Gotze Delchev), others are now in use as cafeterias (Pazardzhik). Regretfully, the other half of the then standing synagogues was razed during the last fifty to sixty years. The worst thing about another quarter of the remaining ones, is the fact that they are in such poor condition (Vidin, Samokov, Varna Ashkenazi and Varna-Sephardi) and are threatened by the same fate as that of the vanished! Despite the curiosity of the cultural public towards the ancient mosaics in Philippopolis, the issue when-and-where they might be seen, is hidden behind a concrete wall of bureaucracy and partial scholastic interests.”
Information and photos on many Jewish heritage sites in Bulgaria may be found by consulting the links above. In the following section, we highlight sites that have their own web sites or other online resources.
Ekzarkh Joseph 16
1000 Sofia, Bulgaria
Tel: +359 2 983 12 73
mobile: +359 988 878 806
Fax: +359 2 983 12 73
Designed by Austrian architect Friedrich Grünanger (1856-1929) the Central Synagogue is the largest synagogue in the Balkans and one of the largest in Europe. Tsar Ferdinand himself cut a ribbon to formally inaugurate the building in September 1909. The eclectic design, with a huge flattened dome and slim turrets, combines Byzantine and Moorish styles. The dome has a diameter of 19 meters and a height of 23 meters; its ceiling is painted to portray the heavens – a sea of stars on a blue background. The sancutary is further decorated with multicolored mosaics, Carrara marble columns, ornamental carvings and other types of wall ornamentation. A brass chandelier weighing more than 2,200 kilograms, a large candelabra and other decorations were imported from Vienna. The imposing structure underwent a lengthy and fitful restoration process that was completed in 2009 in time for gala centenary celebrations.
The synagogue complex also includes the offices of the Jewish community, a small prayer room, and a Jewish museum that includes exhibitions of Judaica and as well as historical exhibitions. Of special note are several historic Ark curtains (Parokhot) from Bulgarian synagogues.
Tel: +359 2 983 1440
The Jewish cemetery is a 50,000 square-meter section of the Central Sofia Cemetery (Zavodskya St. 14) and includes about 7,000 grave markers, most of them toppled or broken. They are made of granite, marble and limestone and engraved in Bulgarian, Hebrew and Ladino. Most date from the 20th century; many have laminated photo portraits of the deceased. The cemetery also contains several ohalim and a memorial grave for Jews killed by fascists. The cemetery is walled, gated and guarded. Although the Central Israelitic Spiritual Council looks after it, the community lacks the funds to maintain the site. Vegetation and drainage constantly cause problems.
A Jewish community has been present in Burgas since 1600; in 1901, there were 641 Jews out of a total population of 5,000.
The eclectic design of the synagogue, constructed in 1905-09, incorporates neoclassical, Moorish and Byzantine elements. In the 1960s the synagogue was transformed into a civic cultural center, the Petko Zadgorski Art Gallery. It retains some of its interior features including original frescoes that had been painted over but rediscovered during restoration work in the 1990s. The synagogue was long attributed to the Italian architect Riccardo Toscani, who designed other buildings in Burgas, including the train station (1917) and the Hotel Chiplakoff (1925). But during the announcement of a restoration project for the building in 2009, it was stated that it was actually the work of Austrian architect Friedrich Grünanger, who designed the Great Synagogue in Sofia. The small Jewish community in Burgas uses the building next door as its community center.
Metropolitan Simeon St 24
Gallery web site (most info in Bulgarian) www.burggallery.org
The small Jewish section of Burgas municipal cemetery dates from the 19th century and contains approximately 30 gravestones. The cemetery is still in use by the local Jewish community.
The Sephardi Jews of Dupnitsa came from Thessaloniki (Salonika) in 1536. In 1910, 1,150 of the town’s 8,000 people were Jewish. Until 1907 most of the community lived around the town’s Jewish spa.
Dupnitsa has had a synagogue since the late sixteenth century. The current building dates from 1859. The main gate faces the interior courtyard. The exterior has decorative stonework and a beautiful dome with six windows in rows.
Ivan Rilski St 143
Established in the 16th century; owned by the Jewish community and used until at least 1979. The gravestones are of granite and sandstone and are inscribed in Bulgarian and Hebrew. It is spread over about 13.5 acres of its hillside site, though its boundaries have been encroached upon by housing. A paved path now cuts through the center of the site, and there have been episodes of vandalism.
Old Jewish Cemetery
The expansive Old Jewish cemetery dates from the 16th-19th centuries and is the largest pre-20th century Jewish burial ground in Bulgaria, with some 577 surviving gravestones bearing symbolic carvings and inscriptions in Hebrew, Ladino, French, German, and Bulgarian. Fat gravestones – many with long, beautifully-carved epitaphs – cover an open hillside. A large farm stands alongside the perimeter, and sheep graze on parts of the cemetery, keeping the grass short. It is not clear if the farm has in other ways encroached on the site. There are no Jews living in the area today, but Shalom has provided financial assistance to a recording program run by the Bulgarian Archaeology Institute; this project has re-erected some gravestones at the site. The cemetery has also been recorded by the Diaspora Research Institute of Tel Aviv University. Construction of a highway across it was prevented by Shalom, with support from the Archaeology Institute.
The scholar Zvi Keren analyzed the gravestones, their carvings and their epitaphs in a book published in 2014 titled The Jews of Karnobat: Chapters from the depths: the history of a vanished community published in Sofia by the American Research Center in Sofia.
In 2015, it was announced that the Alef Center for Jewish Bulgarian Cooperation in Burgas had been given the go-ahead to work on the restoration of the Old Cemetery, in partnership with the German-funded European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative, in hopes of turning the cemetery into an attraction for tourists — but it was unclear whether this got off the ground..
There is also a New Jewish Cemetery, founded in the 20th century and part of the town’s municipal cemetery. The site contains about 50 gravestones, made of granite and limestone and bearing inscriptions in Hebrew and Bulgarian. The site is fenced and gated, but overgrown.
Founded in 1900 next to the municipal cemetery, it was used until 1951 and has about 600 grave markers.
There appear to have been Sephardi Jews in this town as early as 1492, and 17th-century Jewish gravestones have been found here. By the end of the 19th century, about 10 percent of the 17,000 inhabitants were Jewish. With its location on the highest navigable section of the Marica river, Pazardzhik had become a place of some importance and Jews had a monopoly in the trading and distribution of grain. They sponsored the creation of several public buildings.
Built between 1825 and 1850, the so-called Small Synagogue is one of the oldest in Bulgaria. Although it is now a coffee shop, the 7×13-meter building remains an important example of the blending of local and Western European influences.
Assen Zlatarov 11
Stavri Temelkov of the Bratsigovo architectural school designed this synagogue, which was built in 1850. Five meters high, the building is a fine example of Balkan Revival architecture and is characterized by its many windows – there are 30 in all. There are geometrical patterns carved in the wooden ceiling, and the walls are covered with decorative paintings. As with many 19th-century Balkan synagogues of the Ottoman era, there are four wooden pillars in the center of the building, probably once used to support a canopy over the bimah. Today, the building is empty.
The 660 square meter Jewish section of the municipal cemetery (located at the north-east entrance of town, heading towards the village of Dobronitsva) is still in use. It is separated from the rest of the site by a fence. Its old section contains about 720 19th-century gravestones. It also has new section, established after 1991, in which there are about 100 monuments. The stones are made of granite and marble and inscribed in Bulgarian and Hebrew. The Jewish community occasionally clears the spread of vegetation, which is a year-round problem.
Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria, is an ancient settlement, known in antiquity as Philippopolis or Trimontsium. It has long been a key link in trading routes connecting Europe to the Middle East. There has been a continuous Jewish presence in the town since at least the Byzantine era; the remarkable discovery of a third-century CE synagogue has added a Jewish element to the town’s impressive Roman heritage. The modern Jewish community is mostly descended from Sephardim who arrived in around 1496. The community numbered about 5,000 before the Second World War; 90 per cent of Plovdiv’s Jews emigrated to Israel in 1948, and about 300-400 Jews live in the city today.
Tsar Kaloyan St 13
Plovdiv’s former Jewish quarter has largely been replaced with modern residential blocks, but among its remnants is this synagogue, the only one in Bulgaria outside Sofia in which services are still held. A synagogue may have stood on the site as early as 1711. The current structure is one of the first synagogues to have been built after independence in 1878. It is also one of the best surviving examples of the so-called Ottoman-style Balkan synagogue.
The 12-meter square building has a nondescript exterior, but inside it is elaborately decorated. The rich blue-and-green colour scheme features Middle Eastern geometric designs; there is a Venetian glass chandelier and a gilded Ark.The synagogue was renovated and restored in 2003 with financial assistance from the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. A cultural centre and school have also been added to the complex, which is now quite active. There is a small granite memorial to Jews who died fighting anti-Semitism and fascism.
(A synagogue founded in Plovdiv in 1850 by Jewish settlers from the nearby city of Karlovo was demolished in 1955, but the site, on Ortho Mezar square in front of the Turkish Baths, has been restituted to the Plovdiv Jewish community.)
In 1989, the local Jewish community erected a monument in the Plovdiv city center, near the corner of Sixth of September Blvd and Russki Blvd, acknowledging the protection they were offered during the Holocaust. The monument is a curved, white stone stele, inscribed with a menorah. The inscription, in Hebrew, English and Bulgarian, reads: “To all who helped to save us on 10 March 1943. From the grateful Jewish community of Plovdiv.”
During archaeological excavations in 1981 near the Central Post Office, remains of a synagogue dating from the second or third century CE were discovered. The mosaic floor of the building was removed and restored, and since 2016 has been on permanent display at the Plovdiv Archaeological Museum.
The site lay in an insula, or lower-status residential complex, within the old walled city of Philipopolis, and not far from a group of ancient baths and a basilica. Only the substructure and a few upper parts, with traces of later reconstruction, have been preserved. The building and its associated forecourt, which probably included a well, took up the whole width of the insula and about 20 metres of its length. The synagogue itself was 13.5 metres long and basilican in form, with a central nave 9 metres wide and aisles each 2.6 metres wide. The building faced south to Jerusalem, with the forecourt to the north, facing the easternmost north-south street of the city.
Two floor-levels were excavated, and three high-quality mosaics, each about 3-3.8 metres square, were found in the central nave of the building. The middle panel depicted a menorah and lulav, with a donor’s inscription; the side ones contained an inscription in Greek: “Thanks to the sources and due to the Cosmian’s prudence, so-called Joseph decorated (the synagogue), bless them all” [sic].
The synagogue appears to have been demolished and restored on two subsequent occasions: first during the Gothic invasions, and again, during Christian persecution at the beginning of the fifth century. As part of this second reconstruction, a new mosaic with 5th- or 6th-century Byzantine geometric and floral patterns was laid over the earlier one.
Knyaginya Maria Louisa Blvd 73
The 147 hectare Jewish cemetery, with its 2,600 granite and marble grave markers, is part of Plovdiv municipal cemetery and is still in use. The earliest Jewish gravestones probably date from about 1878, and include memorials to Jews who fought for the Russians in the Russo-Turkish war of that year. Inscriptions are in Bulgarian and Hebrew. Some 200 gravestones have been destroyed or stolen, the vast majority are intact.In spite of an increase in the overall size of the cemetery, the Jewish section has lost some 1.5 hectares since 1938, partly as a result of boundary changes, but also because of illegal settlements by Roma families. The site is open on the side facing the Christian cemetery, but there is a stone wall to the north, and to the north west a wall of concrete panels over 2 metres high has been constructed by Shalom to separate it from the Roma families who live in the park with their domestic animals.
The Plovdiv cemetery is owned by the local authority and managed by the municipal Funeral Activities Company, who keep it locked and guarded at night. They and the local branch of Shalom have done much to control the growth of vegetation, though this remains a big problem at the site.
Note: Between 1970 and 1990 Jews were often buried elsewhere, including the cemetery on Rogozhko Chosse Street, as it was then believed that both the Jewish and the adjacent Turkish sections of the municipal cemetery were going to be closed down. Today, a shortage of plots in the Christian section has put pressure on the site, as Christian families are sometimes granted permission for burial in the Jewish area. In addition, the remains of Jews who died in the struggle against fascism have been moved to a central memorial, the Plovdiv Common Grave.
Former Synagogue and Sarafska House
One of the oldest surviving synagogues in Bulgaria, and a fine example of Balkan architecture, this two-storey building has 38 windows and walls 8 meters high; there is a Hebrew inscription in gilded letters over the entrance and wall paintings and carved wood paneling enrich the interior. Much of the wall painting displays a knowledge of western European artistic styles. Interestingly, it appears that the same craftsmen also worked on the nearby, and also impressive, Bajrakli mosque.
There are differing accounts of the synagogue’s construction. The records of the wealthy Arie banking family state that it was built from 1854 by artisans from Edine; the Aries were Jews, and certainly played a prominent role in funding the work. Other testimony says that the synagogue was completed between 1858 and 1860, and that its builders were of the wellknown Samokov School.
Standing in the Jewish neighborhood in the so-called Lower Section (Mahala) of the town, it served as a local museum until it was gutted by fire in the early 1980s. Today it is owned by the Sofia Jewish community; however it remains little more than a ruined shell in need of urgent restoration, and some of the wall paintings are deteriorating from exposure.
However, the Sarafska House and garden next door (at Knyaz Al.Dondukov St 11), once the elegant residence of the Arie family, have been turned into a museum of the Jewish home. A larger Sephardi synagogue nearby was destroyed in 1947.
The municipal cemetery stands on the crest of a hill outside town, near the village of Shipochene. The Jewish section contains 20 sandstone gravestones, most of which date from the 18th century. It is an unprotected and neglected site, much of which is used as a rubbish dump, is surrounded by a Roma settlement.
Next to Stadium N17
The original cemetery founded at the end of the 16th century no longer exists. A new cemetery was established in 1872 because of an outbreak of cholera. It is owned by the Jewish community was used at least until 1964. Enclosed by a wall, it has about 650 grave markers, both vertical headstones in a variety of shapes, as well as horizontal slabs and the higher horizontal “breadloaf” type of gravestone that resemble sarcophagi with a rounded top. Many of the vertical headstones are decorated with enameled portraits of the deceased and simple decorative devices – especially the Jewish stars. Inscriptions are in Hebrew and Bulgarian. Some maintenance is carried out but there have also been episodes of vandalism. There is a pre-burial house and also a monument to 356 individuals whose remains were moved to this site in 1935.
Located near the Romanian border near an old Christian cemetery, this site remains a place of pilgrimage in spite of being heavily overgrown and in close proximity to an oil refinery and several apartment blocks. It contains the tomb of Rabbi Eliezer Papo (1785-1827?), an influential expert on Jewish law and ethics, who was born in Sarajevo but died here during a cholera epidemic. Although the 1,200 acre site is unprotected, the tomb itself is fenced off and features a new monument erected in 1998. Scores of marble and granite gravestones inscribed in Bulgarian, Hebrew and Romanian, mostly 20th century, can also be seen. The site is owned by the Jewish community.
The large, neo-Baroque/Moorish style Sephardi synagogue dating from the late 19th century is a gaping ruin. The much smaller Ashkenazi synagogue was used as a sports hall after World War II, but deteriorated badly. In the 2000s, it was razed and rebuilt as a business center, whose exterior preserves the original facade — see pictures HERE.
The first Jewish cemetery in Varna was near the seacoast and functioned until 1935, when it was confiscated and made into a city garden. Only one gravestone, dated 1878, remains from the first cemetery. It is now kept in the municipal museum. With the closing of the first Jewish cemetery in 1935, a new Jewish burial place was opened the same year as part of the municipal cemetery, and is known today as the “Old Cemetery.” The community erected a memorial wall in the old Cemetery engraved with the names of several hundred people who were buried in the first cemetery. The Jewish section of the municipal Cemetery is 0.7 hectares in size and it contains 342 graves and a pre-burial house. The marble and granite gravestones, with inscriptions in Hebrew and Bulgarian, all date from the 20th century. The site is surrounded by a fence with a gate that locks.
Vidin, with its border location not far from Romanian Wallachia and Hungary, has changed hands more than once in the past. It developed a cosmopolitan Jewish community, with four synagogues in the city by the end of the 17th century and, in 1900, 1,780 Jews out of a total population of 14,772 people. Near the main square stands a white stone monument erected by Vidin Jews now living in Israel, thanking Bulgaria for its help in saving them during World War II.
Corner of Baba Vida and Jules Pascin streets
Today a gaping roofless ruin, the synagogue was completed in 1894 in a triangular plot in the old section of the city known as Kaleto (Fortress). The great church of the Christian Orthodox Patriarch of Vidin and a historic mosque both stand nearby, as do the ruins of a Jewish school.
The building is of basilican form, with a single apse and four towers. Its eclectic design is influenced by a combination of Jugendstil, Romanesque and Neoclassical forms. The façade is dominated by a large two-storey arch, within which stood an arched entrance surmounted by a circular window; above this were decorative Stars of David, and a corbel table which extended across the façade and around the entire building. Massive towers, each with a cupola and two levels of windows, stood at all four corners of the building, with the apse and entrance façade projecting between them; the side walls were each further articulated with two levels of four pairs of arched windows, 16 in all.
Inside, the synagogue had a massive vaulted ceiling, enriched with tiles; there were two levels of arcaded galleries on either side, supported on wrought iron columns. These columns, which still exist, are fluted and their capitals are painted with spirals, palmettes and acanthus leaves. Stained glass, floor mosaics, decorative grilles and crystal chandeliers also formed part of the decorative scheme. Two vestibules contain marble bas-reliefs and a bronze inscription in Hebrew.
The building was already empty when it was damaged by an earthquake in 1976. (It had been used as a warehouse after World War II.) Intermittent repairs ceased altogether in 1989 and the building has continued to deteriorate. There is no roof or windows and the brickwork is being damaged by erosion and swallowed by rubbish, rubble, trees and undergrowth.
Discussions about restoration began as early as 1973. The project was under development between 1974 and 1981; in 1984 the National Institute for Cultural Monuments began conservation and restoration work, but funding was withdrawn in 1989 (after workers had removed the roof). The building was returned to the Jewish community, which, preoccupied by the restoration of Sofia Central Synagogue and other projects, was unable to raise the funds (at least U.S. $1 million) needed. Plans have been floated to restore it as a museum honoring Jules Pascin, a Vidin-born painter (born Julius Mordecai Pincas) who worked mainly in the United States and Paris before committing suicide in 1930. In November 2017, Bulgarian’s Jewish community formally transferred ownership of the ruined synagogue to the Vidin municipality, again lending hope that restoration of the building and its conversion into a cultural center might finally begin.
The cemetery, today unprotected and in devastated condition, was established in 1879; the oldest known grave dates from the following year. The Jewish community still owns the 1.85 hectare site, which contains 1,056 monuments. Their mixture of vertical and horizontal matzevot reflects the local Sephardi and Ashkenazi cultural traditions. The stones are of granite, marble and limestone, with inscriptions in Bulgarian, Hebrew and Yiddish. Three have been moved to the Christian cemetery.
The site has suffered serious vandalism over the years. Graves have been smashed and excavated by scavengers looking for treasure. Vegetation and poor drainage further both threaten the site.