A history of the Jews of Bulgaria - 28 July 2016

Rabbi Stanley Coten welcomed and introduced Rabbi Zerbib to our Synagogue members and thanked him for coming.

Rabbi Zerbib began by giving us a profile of his own family, how he finally arrived in England to become a Rabbi at Northwood United Synagogue. He comes from a long line of Rabbis on both sides of his family; his father is Ashkenazi, his mother is Sephardi.

He was brought up both in Israel and England. He married in Israel, and wanted to widen his horizons and his wife said she was willing to go wherever he wanted to live. He then took up posts as a Rabbi in different parts of the world including America and France and was given the opportunity of becoming Chief Rabbi of Bulgaria. Rabbi Zerbib describes this country as very beautiful, but extremely poor.

To make a start in getting to know the community better, he first visited a school and was surprised how many Jewish children attended. As he became more involved with the children and to know them individually he became aware that most of the children were from mixed marriages, but were most emphatic that they were Jewish. The realisation that the majority of the older community had lived under a communist regime after WWII and had been unable to practise their religion, although they were allowed to keep their beautiful Synagogue to pay visits, but not uphold any of the High Holydays or Shabattim.

The Synagogue, Mosque and Catholic Church are all situated in the same area and for centuries there has been no animosity amongst the different religions. They were all Bulgarians first. The Jews had always been traditional Jews, not orthodox.

The Rabbi showed us many slides of both the map of Bulgaria and at the many Jewish celebrations that are still kept, such as Chanucah and Purim. The Rabbi related the story of one young boy who was so pleased to see him when he came to talk to the children about Rosh Hashanah, that he wanted to learn more and his name for the Rabbi, was Rabbi Rosh Hashanah. This particular little boy’s father was Jewish but not his mother. The boy’s enthusiasm encouraged his father to become more knowledgeable and the father became less afraid to enter the Synagogue. Rabbi Zerbib still keeps in touch with the family by Skype. The Rabbi also visits Bulgaria frequently, especially to deal with the Schkitah for all the surrounding area.

There were slides of Hitler meeting with members of the Bulgarian government in 1930s, when they signed a treaty with Hitler, not initially realising the seriousness of what this meant. When the request came from Hitler to send 20,0000 Bulgarian Jews to the camps, the Bulgarian Government refused. Eventually Hitler insisted on rounding up this number of Jews, but Bulgarian non Jews stood in front of the train and would not allow the train to move. Unfortunately eventually, Hitler 10,000 Jews from the Macedonian area were sent to the camps and their deaths. Many Christians took families into their own homes and produced false identities and most of the Jews were saved by the bravery of their fellow Bulgarians.

The history of the Bulgarian Jews goes back to Roman times and there still remains a small group of Roman Jews in Bulgaria.

The Rabbi knew of a Bulgarian Rabbi living in Israel who had a great love of football and although he was a Rabbi he used to go by scooter to the grounds where his favourite team was playing even on a Shabbos.

The Jewish people are still a little afraid of actually going and praying in their own Synagogues now, as the communists had a strong hold for quite a few decades, but gradually they are beginning to relax more and Rabbi Zerbib even began a much requested conversion class. He then described quite touchingly of holding a Selichot service with a group of youngsters, sitting around a fire, they could each write down on pieces of paper the worst things they had done over the year, they then would burn these sins and he said for some of them it was very emotional.

It is amazing that a small country like Bulgaria managed to save such large numbers of their fellow Jewish countrymen during WWII, when other European countries were unable to do so.

After this very illuminating presentation the Rabbi asked for questions from the floor.

One asked why he had left Bulgaria for Northwood and he said frankly, he had three young boys who needed an education and as he himself had been educated in England he wanted the same for his sons.

Another asked how he managed to communicate because of the language barrier. Apparently the Bulgarians speak English, Russian and Ladino from their Sephardic heritage.

Someone also commented that as there was such friendship amongst people of different religions, it might upset the equilibrium of this unique situation if the Jews began to segregate themselves too much by stronger religious observance. The Rabbi said that Hashem would make sure all would turn out well.

Helene Briskman gave a vote of thanks for a very interesting talk.

The evening concluded with social interaction and light refreshments.


Rabbi S. Coten, Rabbi A. Zerbib and Chairman M. Briskman

By Doreen Davis