Svetoslav Velkov (SV): There is a new educational project in Plovdiv – the European Capital of Culture for 2019. I’m questioning Alex Levi about it. It has a striking name “Secret Jewish Tour of Plovdiv”. I can’t help it, but ask why “Secret”?
Alex Levi (AL): I am really glad that I have the opportunity to speak about this project. I have the honour to be elected as the chairman of the Israelite Spiritual Council which is the governing body of our synagogue in Plovdiv and the Judaic religious activities and affairs. Plovdiv has grown tremendously in the last couple of years both in economic, tourist and of course cultural sense. Plovdiv has the superpower to unite and create your dreams. Everything is perfect but most of the stuff connected with the Jewish community in the city remains hidden and unknown. The idea behind a “secret” tour is that the organizers will tell you about the living Jewish history of the city and you will enter in something like a time machine where you will hear, see and experience amazing stories that are hard to be found. The tour was created with the help of elderly community members and also a lot of archives were used. The idea is to see the bigger picture of Plovdiv’s Jews and the city by itself.
SV: Which organizations have started this initiative?
AL: The tour is supported by the Jewish community of Plovdiv and Plovdiv Synagogue. I believe that our synagogue which is the oldest standing Jewish temple in Bulgaria and one of the two open synagogues in the country as the face of the Jewish people in Plovdiv and as a landmark for tolerance and dialogue. The Secret Jewish Tour of Plovdiv project cooperates with Plovdiv 2019 and the local municipality. The Secret Jewish Tour’s engines are the young people of the community who dare to dream and talk about the Jewish history and future, obstacles and miracles happened thru out the centuries.
One of the things that are prepared for the guests of the city is a Free Secret Jewish Tour starting from the end of June. It will happen every Friday at 10:30 in front of Djumaya Square. It will have a charity character and the majority of the funds will be intended for the community. The aim here is to attract more people and to show the location of our synagogue which is also a bit hidden. Friday has been chosen as a day because after you see the Jewish history and tradition you can join us in the evening for a Shabbat prayer with the community.
SV: How long is the tour and which sights are covered?
AL: It is TOP secret information, but nevertheless, I will be happy to share it with you. The tour is organized as a walking tour and it is around 90 minutes long. The tour is located in the city center of Plovdiv and the historic Jewish neighbourhood of Orta Mezar next to Syedinenie Square. During the tour, an insight into the Jewish history of Plovdiv in the last 2000 years will be taken. We will start with the ancient period thru the Ottoman period till nowadays emphasizing on the salvation of the Bulgarian Jewry and the important role that Plovdiv played there. The tour is planned as a very interactive experience with videos and pictures in order to build a full scaled idea about the colorful Jewish community in the city and its habits, culture and tradition. The participants will have the opportunity to check the main Jewish places in the city such as the Jewish School; Jewish Bath, Monument of Gratitude and the synagogue itself. The participants will be able to see almost forgotten places and many other hidden spots in the old Jewish neighborhood.
SV: Plovdiv is considered one of the oldest towns in Europe. When did the first Jewish community settle in the town?
AL: The existing data takes us back to the 2nd century AD where the first synagogue was built. We could proudly declare the Jews in Plovdiv as one of the oldest minorities in the city with continuous presence for more than 2000 years. The members of the ancient community were Greek-speaking Jews and merchants coming from ancient Palestine. Plovdiv is on a crossroad and therefore the city played an important role as a marketplace for merchants and traders. The community that we know nowadays was established at the end of 15 century when the Ottoman Empire gave permission which allowed the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal to settle in the empire.
SV: Can you share with me intriguing historical facts connected with the life of the Jewish community in Plovdiv?
AL: First of all there are many secret facts and stories that could easily make us proud of our city. The best-known story that I personally believe it should be repeated over and over is the story of the salvation of the Bulgarian Jews which happened in Plovdiv. The Jews were arrested and sent to the Jewish school, waiting for a deportation order. We know from other communities around Europe where the deportation would lead to. The bishop of Plovdiv- Cyril with a risk for his life entered the Jewish school where 900 people of all age were gathered and announced that the Jews of Plovdiv are not going anywhere. If something happens he will come with them to the death camp and if he is kicked out by the police he will lay down on the railways. A couple of hours later with the help of many other people around the country, the deportation was first postponed and then cancelled. The salvation of the Bulgarian Jews has a special connection with the Plovdiv synagogue and the April uprising but this story I will keep as a secret for now.
SV: Are there any other towns and villages close to Plovdiv with preserved Jewish heritage?
AL: Unfortunately, after the war, the majority of the Jews in Bulgaria and Plovdiv immigrated to Israel and the property was sold out or abandoned. The synagogue in Pazardzhik is well preserved and it is used as a gallery. If we count Edirne, Turkey close to Plovdiv, the synagogue there was also renovated not long time ago and it is a pretty thing to check. An interesting story is that the village of Iskra next to Plovdiv was named after the Jewish partisan Klara Eshkenazi, killed during the war. Iskra was her partisan name. Of course, the central synagogue in Sofia is a real masterpiece and one of the largest in Europe.
SV: Are there ideas to do a similar tour in Sofia?
AL: There is a Free Jewish Tour in Sofia organized by our friends from “365 association”. Sofia has a lot to show in a Jewish sense as well.
SV: I keep my fingers crossed for the Secret Jewish Tour to go a long way and to have many customers. Judging by the increased Hebrew speaking customers on our tours from Sofia and in our ski shop in Bansko, I can say there a rising interest among foreign Jews that consider Bulgaria as an attractive holiday destination.
AL: I am sure that for our fellow Jews and Israelis there is a special place in their hearts for Bulgaria and Bulgarians!