The Jewish Museum of History in Sofia, Bulgaria is housed on the second floor of the Sofia Synagogue in the center of Bulgaria's capital, just steps away from an Orthodox Church, and Sofia's Mosque. This clustering of places of worship — it's hard to find another example of this in Europe — is part of the unique story of Jewish people in Bulgaria.
While the museum tells the full story of the Jewish people in Bulgaria from ancient Roman times to today, Yulina Mihaylova of the Jewish Museum of History says that the culmination of the story is the rescue of the Jews in Bulgaria from deportation to Nazi death camps during the Second World War. The museum takes on the complexities of this story, including the fact that not all Jews in Bulgarian-controlled territories were saved from deportation, and uses it to challenge young visitors.
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00:14 Jewish Museum of History in Sofia, Bulgaria
01:10 Yulina Mihaylova
01:50 The Sofia Synagogue
02:10 Jews in Bulgaria in the Early 20th Century
04:00 Jews in Bulgaria During World War Two
04:50 The Holocaust and the Rescue of the Jews in Bulgaria
09:44 Jews in Bulgaria During Communist Times
10:45 Educational Programming Moral Message
12:05 Outro / Join Club Archipelago
Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 51. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear and the only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.
Sometimes in the Museum Archipelago, museums are isolated from other institutions by vast bodies of water, and sometimes, points of interest are clustered in dense island chains.
The Jewish Museum of History in Sofia, Bulgaria is one of the latter. The museum is housed on the second floor of the Sofia Synagogue in the center of Bulgaria's capital, just steps away from an Orthodox Church, and Sofia's main Mosque. This clustering of places of worship -- it's hard to find another example of this in Europe or the rest of the world -- is part of the unique story of Jewish people in Bulgaria.
Yulina Mihaylova: It's very unique because it makes this triangle of the three religions. The combination and interaction between the ethnic groups together shows this very rich historical past when the Jews live among the others. It's also part of our unique narrative which we try to say in the museum itself.”
This is Yulina Mihaylova.
Yulina Mihaylova: Hello my name is Yulina Mihaylova, and I'm working for the Jewish Historical Museum in Sofia for the past 15 years. My job combines working with visitors and. Our main task is to represent the history of the Bulgarian Jews back 2000 years. It’s just not the story of the Jewish people. It’s more than it because we try to say the story of the interaction of the Jewish people and the Bulgarians also.
The Sofia Synagogue is the third largest in Europe. This particular Synagogue, built on the site of earlier Jewish prayer houses, opened in 1909, with a ceremony that included Sofia's political and religious elite. The opening ceremony took place 31 years after Bulgaria's liberation, which guaranteed equal civil rights to minority religious groups.
Yulina Mihaylova: We speak about the early time of the early 20th century, and just to make comparison to what happened at that time in Europe, mainly in Eastern Europe, in Russia with the persecution of Jews there, and on the same time we have in Bulgaria quite a good relation between the regime and the Jewish community. I mean, not everything was so idealistic of course. But in general we can say that the Jews, after the liberation of Bulgaria from the Turkish domination, gained equal rights with other minority groups who lived in Bulgaria, which was guaranteed by the Bulgarian constitution. Means that it actually gave push to the development of the Jewish communities in Bulgaria, on a new ground. The fact that we have communities and synagogues in almost every Bulgarian city, and there was almost 30 communities all around Bulgaria. So the opening ceremony was a remarkable event. The fact that actually, the political elite was invited to [participate] in the ceremony, was a very important sign for the connection between the officials at the time and Bulgarian Jewish community.
While the opening of the Sofia Synagogue represents the high water mark of the relationship between Jews living in Bulgaria and the rulers of Bulgaria, one of the main tasks of the museum is to represent the historical trace of Jewish people on the Balkan peninsula from ancient Roman period, to the present day. In the museum, this is achieved through a permanent exhibit called Jewish Communities in Bulgaria. A section of the exhibit is an ethnographic display which shows the daily life of the Jews from the late 19th to early 20th centuries and ritual artifacts from synagogues across Bulgaria.
The other permanent exhibition is about Bulgarian Jews during World War II, the topic that Mihaylova says is at the front of mind of most visitors. For a summary of Bulgaria’s early 20th century political history up to World War II, listen to episode 49 of this program, about the Bulgarian Museum of Military History, but here are the important section for this story:
Anti-semitism notably increased across eastern Europe after the introduction of the Nuremberg laws in Nazi Germany in 1935, and by the late 1930s, anti-Jewish propaganda gradually intensified within Bulgaria with Bulgaria's rising economic and political dependence on Nazi Germany.
The exhibition itself is called The Holocaust and the Rescue of the Jews in Bulgaria, and, as Mihaylova explains, this title is overly simplistic.
Yulina Mihaylova: The story of what happened during the years 1941 and 1943. This is the culmination of the story, of the long existence between both two people. The first time when the Jews were tried to be divided from the rest part of society came during the World War II, when Bulgaria connected to Nazi Germany and it began to be connected to Nazi policy. What happened in brief: during the war, it was official policy with special legislation passed by the Bulgarian government after 1941. We treated Jews in a different way on economic, social, culture and political range, with a limitation of their rights, and this law became even more severe in 1942 when already there was an institution which was arranged for trying to organize the life of the Jews and confiscated Jewish property and also starting the organization of the deportation of Bulgarian Jews, which in 1943 started already with the Jews from the so-called new territories of Macedonia and Trace. This part of the story is not easy to explain, because usually it is good to think about the bright side of the story, and to neglect this part. It's important on one hand because this was part of the official policy of the Bulgarian government and this territories was part of the administrative territories of the Bulgarian at that time. Unfortunately, almost 12,000 Jews were deported from the territories of Macedonia and Trace, only to be the first stage, which had to continue with the Jews from Bulgaria, also.
The Jews from the territories of Macedonia and Trace were sent to Treblinka extermination camp in Poland. But these deportations, intended to be the first of many, would be the last. No other Jews were deported from Bulgaria or Bulgarian-controlled territories.
Yulina Mihaylova: But what is important is that when it came to Bulgaria we saw something very unique. Already, when they started discussions of law in 1940, it became clear that it wasn’t going to pass in peace, because there began to be very strong civil opposition against it from the many different circles of the Bulgarian society. It already give a clear sign that the Bulgarian society in general, it was not ready to accept this sort of policy against their Jewish fellows in Bulgaria. We see in 1943 when the plan for deportation started to be clear, even in Bulgaria, it actually faced a very strong opposition, even from the right and from the left and we see this opposition even in the circles of the Bulgarian political majority. On top of it was the vice-chairman of the Bulgarian government, Dimetre Patechiv, who organized this opposition and also managed to put pressure on the government between the crucial time.
All this civil pressure made the government have to postpone, ultimately indefinitely, the deportations to Nazi extermination camps. While Bulgarian officials remained differential to their German contacts, internally, they delayed and delayed, citing the need for Bulgarian Jews to remain in Bulgaria to work on Bulgarian infrastructure projects.
Yulina Mihaylova: Bulgarian example is very unique, and sometimes they try to compare this to the Danish Jews, the Jews there were saved by the locals. But Bulgarian example is the Bulgarian example. It’s a combination of facts. There was the one hand there was policy against Jewish minority, but on the other hand we have full mobilization of civil power in 1943 which became one of the major factors of saving the live of the entire Jewish community who live within the Bulgarian borders during the war. That's very important to say. It's good example and good lesson for us to understand what we can understand from this is what we can learn from this, is that it's actually a very good idea to raise your voice, even when you think that it's actually desperate.
The Holocaust and the Rescue of the Jews in Bulgaria is an example of an exhibit about a topic that can’t be neatly summarized -- and any attempt to tell a positive story without including the deportation of the Jews from the Bulgarian-controlled territories of Macedonia and Trace is wrong. To resist the simple story, or the comfortable narrative, is what we rely on museums for.
Towards the end of the war, the synagogue roof was badly damaged by an American bombing raid on Sofia and the building remained in bad condition for many years. After the war ended Bulgaria was under control of a Socialist government, and many Bulgarian Jews, in fact the vast majority, immigrated to Israel.
Yulina Mihaylova: More than 90% of the 50,000 Jews who live in Bulgaria immigrated to Israel after the war, and most of the artifacts from the other synagogues were replaced to Sofia, and are exposed to our museum also so this is part of our story to tell, the entire story of Jews in Bulgaria not just from Sofia. During the communist time, the community shrunk to some very crucial number of several thousand people, but it's very important to say that it's not true that everything stopped after the war. Although, of course, the communist regime didn't encourage so much the religious activity,but still there was a small flame which keep the Jews who remained in Bulgaria, but they actually gave the push, after the collapse of the communist regime to try to revive the Jewish life.
Today, the Synagogue is fully active, and the museum on the second floor presents the sweep of Jewish history in Bulgaria. But the museum also offers a strong moral message to visitors through its educational programing.
Yulina Mihaylova: I try to say to my audience, which is on one hand tourists from many different countries, mainly from Israel, from the US, from Europe who are guests in Sofia, but on the other we have many students from Jewish high schools, from universities who are actually interested in the topic. For me, the great challenge is to speak before young people and try not just to tell them the story but to ask them questions and try to challenge them to think about the story, if they were on this place and how they could react in this moment. It's not an easy task. Sometimes because we are a small museum, our programs are not so well developed, but we are very limited in staff, but I think this is the only place in Bulgaria where you can hear the full story of the Jewish presence in Bulgaria, with the story of the Bulgarian Jewish [experience] in World War II and till present days.