Meet Bulgaria’s many ethnic minorities, from Turks to Russians and from Armenians to Jews
How many: 325,343 (2011 census)
Where: Virtually everywhere, big communities in Sofia, Plovdiv, Sliven, Montana
Language: Roma, Bulgarian, Turkish
Religion: Islam, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical denominations
Who are they?
The first Gypsies appeared in the Balkans in the 11-12th centuries and spent the next centuries as itinerant craftsmen. That came to an end in the 1950s when the Communists forced all nomadic groups in Bulgaria (Gypsies were not the only ones) to settle in villages and towns. Traditionally poor and with lower levels of literacy, the Gypsies suffered the transitional period after the collapse of Communism more than other citizens in Bulgaria. Many of them lost their low-paid but guaranteed jobs in agriculture and industry, and found themselves stuck in the downward spiral of crime, Third World living conditions, early marriage, and high birth rate. Traditionally negative, the general notion toward Gypsies turned openly hostile, and whole parties, like Ataka, won thousands of votes on an anti-Gypsy agenda.
Gypsies are divided into three major groups. Each has specific customs, crafts, and positions in the greater hierarchy, and people from different clans rarely intermarry. On the top of the pyramid is the Christian Kalderashi. The Yerlii are divided into two subgroups, a Christian and a Muslim one. The Ludari are thought to be of Romanian origin and are the ones that until recently roared the roads with their dancing bears and trained monkeys.
One peculiar Gypsy social structure, formed in the Middle Ages, is still surviving into modern times. The Meshere court is formed by an odd number of respected male Gypsies who judge on intergroup problems, most often on divorces or for which political party will the clan vote in the next elections.
A note on the term Gypsy. Gypsy sounds perfectly OK in English, but in Bulgaria post-1989 the new, supposedly politically correct term “Roma” was coined. Exercise common sense – it may be best to use the two interchangeably.
How many: 1,162 (2011 census), about 6,000 members of the Shalom Organisation of Bulgarian Jews
Where: Communities in Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, Burgas, Ruse
Language: Bulgarian, Ladino
Who are they?
Jews have lived in what would become Bulgaria since at least the 2nd Century. Today’s Bulgarian Jews, however, are predominantly descendants of the Sephardim, who were expelled from Portugal and Spain in 1492 and were invited to come by the Ottoman Empire for their skills as bankers and merchants. After 1878, Jews did fairly well in Bulgaria although many were impoverished after losing the Ottoman market.
Zionism was very popular and in 1909 the king and the prime minister attended the opening of the grand synagogue in Sofia. In 1941 Bulgaria allied with the Third Reich, having adopted draconian antisemitic laws. After a hectic public campaign, however, none of the 48,000 Jews in Bulgaria proper was deported to the extermination camps. Sadly, the 11,343 Jews from Bulgaria-administered Aegean Thrace and Vardar Macedonia were sent to death.
After 1944 an active campaign for the integration of the Jews into Communist Bulgaria began. The effort failed, as in 1949-1951 the great majority of Bulgarian Jews left for Palestine and many formed the backbone of the state of Israel. Soon after that, the Communist government suppressed religious or community life outside controlled cultural centers. The synagogues were closed, many were destroyed or turned into sports halls and warehouses. After the collapse of Communism, another migration wave to Israel followed, but with the help of foreign organizations, the community restored its religious, cultural, and social life. The Sofia synagogue was restored in 2009.
To be continued …