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In Bulgaria, a haven is no longer a home


SOFIA, Bulgaria -- The frail and aged cantor leads the Sabbath service in the last Bulgarian synagogue in the rhythms and accents of the Jews expelled from medieval Spain.

Haim Meshullam is 87 years old and the last cantor in Bulgaria. His voice is strong and firm but has a faint quaver. He stands erect on the bimah, the dais before the lectern, an unwavering figure enrobed in black. He wears a cantorial headdress that rests like a great black dome on his head.

"Then were finished the heavens and earth and all their host," he chants in Sephardic Hebrew. "For God had completed by the seventh day his work which he had made, and he rested."

His words wash over you like the flow of time in this small bet hamidrash, this room of Talmudic study. Time has slowed to the pace of the pendulum in the wall clock next to the ark holding the torahs. The ticking becomes audible in the pauses of the cantor's chant.

Flowing white curtains filter the late afternoon sun falling on this tiny gathering of devout Jews. Birds flutter in the chestnut trees in the lovely court outside the door. Streetcars rattle by behind the courtyard wall.

About 50 people have assembled for this Sabbath service, about half of them men and half of them women. Most are middle-aged or older. But there are a few young people and one small boy in a white yarmulke.

"My name is Victor," he volunteers in English. "I am 8."

Victor doesn't know if he has a Hebrew name, as do most small Jewish boys.

The last rabbi here died more than 25 years ago. The Jewish community in Bulgaria is very old and very small. It is small not because it was caught in the Holocaust, but because it survived.

About 50,000 Jews lived here at the end of World War II. No Bulgarian Jew, it is said, went to Nazi death camps. Between 1948 and 1956, 90 percent emigrated to Israel.

Now, a good guess is that 3,500 to 5,000 Jews are still here, maybe 1,500 in the capital city of Sofia.

Jews have lived in Bulgaria at least since the time of Byzantium a millennium ago, and perhaps since biblical times. They have generally been tolerated if not welcomed. Through the ages, Jews have come here from Russia, from Germany during the Crusades and especially from Spain after the expulsion by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.

The Jews of Bulgaria ever since have been Sephardim who follow a Spanish ritual in their services. The common language is Ladino, a form of Spanish -- not Yiddish, the German dialect of the Ashkenazi Jews of Poland, Russia and Germany.

(Sephardic Jews were, in fact, the first to arrive in America, in the 17th century long before the great waves of immigration from Eastern Europe. Their Judah Touro synagogue in Newport, R.I., is the oldest synagogue in the United States.)

The Great Synagogue of Sofia was the largest Sephardic synagogue in Europe when it was completed in 1909. It may be the largest synagogue in Europe to have survived the Nazi terror.

Nearly 3,000 worshipers once gathered in the main auditorium. Now it is being restored and is filled with scaffolding rising in complicated tiers to the interior of the dome.

These days, perhaps 250 or 300 people come for the High Holidays. On an ordinary Sabbath, hardly enough come to fill the RTC bet hamidrash.

Perhaps uniquely in the Soviet bloc, the Communists, who ran this country from World War II until 1990, allowed Jews to go freely to Israel and to take their possessions with them -- not that they had much to take after World War II.

A half-dozen people at this Friday night Sabbath congregation are visitors from Israel.

Joining Cantor Meshullam in conducting the service is Avram Bekar, "Avramiko" (Little Avram), a Bulgarian-born cantor who has lived in Israel since 1946.

"I love Bulgaria," Avramiko says after stepping down from the bimah. "Bulgaria is the best land in the world."

The survival of Bulgarian Jews has become legendary and non-Jewish Bulgarians are celebrated as "righteous gentiles."

In May, former King Boris III, the reigning monarch in World War II, became the first non-Jew awarded the Jewish National Fund's Legion of Honor for resisting deportations ordered by Nazi Germany.

"The King did not give Jews to the Nazis," says a Israeli woman who has come with Avramiko. "That is why Jewish people love Bulgaria. It's a nice, civilized country."

She was born in Bulgaria and left when she was 16, more than 40 years ago. She's brought a thick packet of $50 bills to donate to the restoration of the synagogue.

The role of King Boris is somewhat disputed, but the resistance of the Bulgarian people to the transportation of the Jews is history.

Ironically, Bulgaria was an ally of Germany, and there were vicious Bulgarian Fascists. The anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws of the Nazis were enacted here.

"On this very street, Jews wore yellow [identifying] stars," says Stephen M. Mallinger, a U.S. Information Service officer who attends services regularly at the synagogue.

But when Berlin ordered deportation, there was widespread resistance. The patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church objected, as did political leaders, intellectuals and everyday people.

A famous story relates that the Orthodox Archbishop of Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second city, said that if the Jews were forced to go, he would go with them.

The German ambassador complained that Bulgarian people lacked the Nazis' "ideological purity."

Jews in Macedonia and Thrace, which were occupied by Bulgaria, were transported, then murdered in death camps. Bulgarian Jews were dispersed in the countryside and small towns where life was harsh, but they survived.

Today in Bulgaria, Jews are as poor as everybody else, says Josiff Levi, the president of the community. But there is little anti-Semitism. In fact, the most virulent anti-Semitism comes from books sent by a Bulgarian living in the United States.

"Jews have very positive feelings about Bulgaria," says Steve Mallinger. "And Bulgarians have positive feelings about Jews. It's very prestigious to be Jewish here."

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