Anne, Harriet, Ken and I entered the foyer of the Sophia Synagogue and we were greeted by a short, slightly stooped looking old man who spoke with quiet authority. He said that he would get back to us soon, after he finished his discussion with some other tourists who were speaking to him in Spanish. A few minutes later he returned, and began to give us a tour of the synagogue.
It was an amazing edifice. The second largest synagogue still standing in Europe. Designed by a Viennese architect, both the exterior and interior exude grace and elegance, with one of the most beautiful chandeliers that I have ever seen prominently hanging from the high ceiling.
After the formalities of the tour, our guide requested that we sit down in the front pew. He had something more to tell us; something very personal. Standing closely in front of us, one could see the sadness of his face. This was a man who had known suffering.
He said his name was Leon Bentov, and that he was born in Sofia in 1936. His family, as most Bulgarian Jews then, were Sephardic, and they spoke Ladino at home. This explained his fluency with the Spanish visitors.
Leon told us most Bulgarians wanted neutrality at the onset of the Second War, but a deal was eventually struck between the Nazi Germans and the Bulgarian fascists to seal an alliance between the two nations. According to Joseph, the ruling monarch of that time, King Boris, The Third, felt that he had no choice but to go along with this “unholy alliance.” Meanwhile Bulgaria was given administrative control of some areas of Macedonia and Greece by the Germans as part of the deal.
Leon strongly believes that King Boris worked cunningly, and stealthily, and yes, heroically, to save the lives of the 45,000 Jews within the borders of Bulgaria. Bulgarian Jews were relocated throughout the land, assigned to forced labor, and yet they still lived in private homes, and not camps. Although a child at the time, Leon recalled these tragic memories vividly to us. He flinched as he described to us how all the Jews had to wear the identifying Star of David patches on their shirts and blouses when they were outside. I thought that I could discern a tear or two in his eyes.
While the neighboring Romanian, Greek and Macedonian Jews were shipped off to the death camps, the Bulgaria Jewish community remained intact, emotionally scarred, but alive. Scholars and politicians today all have various opinions on how this happened. Some say it was the moral, and highly public stance, of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in opposing the deportations that kept the Jews from death. Others claim that some Bulgarian political leaders, although officially supporting the Nazis aims, were, in fact, doing their all to protect their Jewish citizens.
In the end, after the Red Army liberated Bulgaria in 1944, after four years of German Nazi control, Bulgaria’s 45,000 Jews somehow survived, although the Greek and Macedonian Jews residing under Bulgarian authority were deported to the death camps. A messy, tragic story in so many ways, and yet the Bulgarian Jews made it out of the maelstrom of the Holocaust alive. Leon wholeheartedly contends that King Boris was the Bulgarian Jews protector. He lived through those terrible times, so who am I to question his belief?
After the establishment of Israel, Bulgarian Jews, for the most part, made Aliyah to the Jewish state. Leon is one of about 3500 Jews who still remain. His ex-wife and one son live in Israel; the other son lives in the States. He told us sadly that they couldn’t find a tenth man for a minyan at prayers that morning at the synagogue.
As we announced our intention to leave and see other sites in Sofia, Leon offered to be our tour guide. “Free of charge,” he said. It was as if he wanted to cling to us, to not let go of a new emotional connection. We thanked him, and let him know we preferred to be on our own, as we went on our way.
The next day, we left Sophia for further travels. We stopped at St. John of Rila, Bulgaria’s most beautiful and historically significant monastery. In one of the incredibly stunning chapels there, Illuminated by thousands of candles,Harriet and I espied the bier of King Boris, The Third. We looked at each other, and nodded, and instinctively started reciting the shehecheyanu (the Hebrew blessing of praise) together, surrounded by the flickering candles and the icons of saints.