Sofia Synagogue and its History Museum – Sofia City
The largest Sephardic (Spanish – Jewish) synagogue in Europe is situated in Sofia on the corner of the streets Ekzarh Yosif and G. Washington. This is the only Jewish house of prayer in Sofia. The Sofia Synagogue is one of the most beautiful architectural monuments in Bulgaria.
It was built where the old synagogue Ahab and Hased (in Hebrew- Love and kindness) used to be. On September 9th 1909 the Central Synagogue of Sofia was formally opened.
As a show of respect for the many Bulgarian Jews who actively participated and suffered many casualties in the recent Serbian-Bulgarian war, the country's leaders attended the consecration of the Synagogue. Led by Tsar Ferdinand, Prime Minister Malinov, other Ministers and Bishops entered the Synagogue where they were greeted by the Chief Rabbi: Rabbi Dr. Ehrenpreis. Avram Tadjer continues with the description of the ceremony.
Avraham Tadjer, the historian of the Sofia Jewish community, describes the event in his wonderful Ladino book "Notas Historikas" as follows:
"The ninth of September, 1909 will be a historic day for Bulgarian Jews. On this day the Sofia Synagogue was opened, a great holiday not only for the Jews of the capital, but on this day the prestige of all Bulgarian Jews was elevated. With the opening of the Sofia Synagogue the respect for the Jewish community and all Bulgarian Jews was increased a great deal. All the stores were closed as for a holiday, and the whole Bulgarian population congratulated these children of Israel in honor of the festive opening of the Synagogue."
Friedrich Gruenanger, the most famous architect in Bulgaria at the time, was selected to design the Synagogue. Gruenanger had been trained in Vienna but worked in Bulgaria for much of his career. He designed a number of Sofia landmarks including the Surmadjief House (presently the Turkish Embassy), the Yablanski House (the former Chinese Embassy), the Ecclesiastical Seminary, and the Religious Academy of St. Kliment of Okhrid.
The architecture of the Sofia Synagogue is magnificent. The temple consists of a central domed building and a narthex. The prayer hall is in an octagonal shape. There are semicircular niches with rectangular premises between them in the four corners of the hall. The prayer room for the women is situated over the niches. The main chandelier weights two tons and is the biggest one in Bulgaria. An altar, surrounded by a beautiful railing, stands on a platform of white marble. The capacity of the hall is 1,170 seats. The interior is decorated by articles of the applied art. The facades are richly decorated with architectural elements, plastic ornaments and stone carvings. The floor of the synagogue is covered by Venetian mosaic.
The Central synagogue regularly conducts public worships. It was only closed during the period 1943 - 1944, when most Jews from Sofia were deported to the province. During the bombing of Sofia in 1944 the Synagogue was partially destroyed. The balcony and several columns in the main hall were affected. The famous Jewish community library was destroyed.
A Jewish History Museum of the Organization of the Bulgarian Jews “Shalom” has been operating in the Sofia Synagogue since 1992. The museum is a continuation of the earlier exposition entitled Rescue of the Bulgarian Jews 1941 - 1944. The purpose of the museum is to find, explore and preserve items, pictures and documents, related to the Jewish culture and historical heritage in the country. It has two permanent exhibitions – The Jewish Communities in Bulgaria and The Holocaust and the Rescue of the Jews in Bulgaria. They recreate the Jewish religion, way of life, and culture and community history from its settlement on these lands to the establishment of Israel. A general emphasis of the museum is the rescue of many Bulgarian Jews during the Second World War.