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Feature 21 Nov 17

Ruined Bulgarian Synagogue Awaits Belated Return to Glory

For decades, the once sumptuous synagogue in Vidin has crumbled into a roofless ruin, with one restoration project failing after another – so will the latest plan make any difference?

Mariya Cheresheva
BIRN
Sofia
The Vidin sinagogue in July 2017. Photo: BIRN

While searching a list of Bulgaria’s main tourist attractions last week, Vessela Nickolaeva, editor-in-chief of a website dedicated to northwest Bulgaria, severozapazenabg.com, was surprised to see among them the synagogue in Vidin, a city by the Danube river.

The once spectacular Jewish prayer house, built towards the end of 19th century in neo-Gothic style, is listed in the register of must-sees maintained by the Ministry of Tourism as “a free [site], open throughout the year and accessible for people with disabilities”.

Nickolaeva took to Facebook to disabuse potential visitors – who would be in for a shock.

“I hope tourists do not depend on the ministry [for information],” she wrote, “because the synagogue is dangerous; there is no roof, one of its walls is torn and fortified in order not to completely fall down, the yard is overgrown with plants, and inside it is full of broken bottles, syringes and trash – all this without counting the swastikas scratched on the walls.”

How this abandoned and ruined synagogue, the second largest in Bulgaria, had ever been qualified by state experts as a safe and accessible tourist site, remains a mystery.

Тhe Vidin sinagogue in July 2017. Photo: BIRN

However, despite its shell-like, derelict condition, the building retains memories of the Jewish community’s rich history, as well as never-ending dreams of revival.

After over 30 years of being totally abandoned, this Thursday, the tiny Jewish community of Vidin, which is incapable of raising funds on its own to restore the synagogue, will transfer property rights over the building to the local municipality, hoping that this will bring it back to life.

“For a long time, there have been ideas and projects about turning it [the synagogue] into a museum. The municipality will apply for European funding; that is why we are donating it the building,” Roza Marinova, from the Jewish organization Shalom in Vidin, told BIRN.

Marinova added that Shalom would seek to oblige the Vidin municipality to restore the synagogue within five years, having learnt bitter lessons from a series of unsuccessful attempts to restore it in the past.

The synagogue in Vidin was built in 1894 with donations by the once influential local Jewish community to replace the town’s old synagogue, which was destroyed during the Russo-Turkish war of 1878 to 1879.

Its magnificent architecture resembles that of the famous Great Synagogue in Budapest. Located near the bank of the Danube, it is considered one of the most beautiful buildings in the country.

Its fate, however, has been unfortunate. In the 1940s, shortly after the Communist regime took power in Bulgaria, thousands of Jews left Vidin for the newly established state of Israel, or migrated to other Bulgarian towns and cities. The municipality appropriated the synagogue and from the 1950s used it for storage, which resulted in significant damage to the building’s interior and facade.

An old postcard of the Vidin sinagogue. Photo: Miko Stavrev/Wikimedia

In the 1970s, however, the authorities announced a major renovation project, aiming to turn the synagogue into a concert hall, making use of its great acoustics.

Work began in 1983 and continued until 1989. But after the Communist regime fell, the restoration project was abandoned and the ownership of the synagogue was transferred to Shalom in 1991.

However, in the 1990s the building’s decay only escalated, resembling the downfall of Vidin itself, which over several decades declined from being a major cultural centre and important river port to becoming the impoverished and depopulated centre of Bulgaria’s poorest region.

Since the local Jewish community, which currently counts less than 20 people, regained ownership over the building, several failed attempts to restore the synagogue have started and stopped.

In 2009, Shalom temporarily granted property rights over the building to Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture, which, in 2012, presented a project to turn the building into a museum named after the Vidin-born Jewish painter Jules Pascin.

The plan foresaw the creation of a museum, library, conference hall and a prayer space in memory of the Holocaust, but it never materialized.

This March, the municipality presented a new project to renovate the emblematic synagogue and transform it into a multi-functional town hall.

Vessela Nickolaeva, who has dedicated much of her work to the forgotten history of the run-down northwest region of Bulgaria, says the restoration of the synagogue would contribute a good deal to the preservation of the cultural heritage of Vidin and, hopefully, lure more tourists to the town.

“In general, no good care of Jewish houses of prayer in Bulgaria,” she said.

“That is why such a restoration would become one of the few positive examples of preserving the memory of the Bulgarian Jews, who have left the country, leaving behind a rich culture heritage,” she added: “Now everything depends on the municipality.”

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