I entered the small exhibition space of the Bulgarian Cultural Institute in London and was immediately drawn in by a close-up portrait of a young Jewish boy. His eyes were alive and rejoicing, bringing a sense of peace and harmony. The brief description of the photograph, in both Bulgarian and English, reads: Purim at the Sofia Synagogue. Indeed, the gaze of the young boy conveys a sentiment of genuine celebration and joy to be shared with the community of worshippers at the Sofia Synagogue. It’s this gaze that welcomes the visitors of Antony Georgieff’s photography exhibition Jewish Bulgaria at the Bulgarian Cultural Institute, which opened on 20 June 2018.
Jewish Bulgaria investigates the historical past of the Jewish community in Bulgaria. It’s well-known that Bulgaria rescued around 48,000 Jews from extermination during the Second World War. Who should be credited for the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews remains contentious. Despite the support of the Bulgarian government, most Jews left Bulgaria after the Second World War. Georgieff’s exhibition incisively reopens the questions remaining, nurturing a collective memory of Jewish Bulgaria.
The exhibition presents the viewer with an emotionally charged landscape of memories about a vibrant Jewish community which no longer exists. Photographs of abandoned synagogues and decaying Jewish cemeteries give a sense of gloom, tension and nostalgia over a shared past. A photograph of an empty chair at the former synagogue in Dobrich – now used for rehearsals by the local choir – leaves the viewer with a sense of voidness,and an awareness for the disappearance of the Bulgarian Jewish community.
Beyond the remains of the sacred derelict buildings lies the legacy of the Bulgarian Jews, their lives, stories and choices. Jews of Vidin symbolically reunites the former Jewish community of Vidin, a town in Northwestern Bulgaria. The portraits of men, women and children suggest a vibrant past and community spirit. After Bulgaria became independent from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, the population of Vidin was about 15,000 people, of whom 1,400 were Jews. The Grand Synagogue of Vidin, constructed in 1894, fell into disuse and disrepair after almost all of Vidin’s Jews left for Israel in the late 1940s. Today, the building is in ruins, unprotected and left to abandon and decay.
The portrait of the young Jewish boy positioned at the forefront of the exhibition conveys hope that the remaining Jewish community in Bulgaria will grow and that the legacy of Jewish Bulgaria will be preserved. The Sofia Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Southeastern Europe, has been thoroughly restored in 2009 for its centenary celebrations. The synagogue in Plovdiv, restored in 2003, is also still active, holding services on Sabbath and religious holidays.
Jewish Bulgaria raises contentious questions about the reasons why most Jews left Bulgaria after the Second World War and about the state of the Jewish historical sites in Bulgaria. While there are not straightforward answers, the exhibition powerfully reminds us of the need to preserve Bulgaria’s Jewish heritage. Bridging the past and present, Georgieff’s photographs are in their own right important pieces of memory. The exhibition will run until September 2018 at the Bulgarian Cultural Institute in London.
For more information see:
D. Trankova and A. Georgieff, A guide to Jewish Bulgaria (2011)