Archeological findings indicate the presence of Jews in what is today Bulgaria as far back as the Roman period. After the establishment of the First Bulgarian Empire in 681, a number of Jews persecuted in the Byzantine Empire are believed to have settled in Bulgaria.
In the 14th century, Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331–1371) married a Jewish woman, Sarah (renamed Theodora), who had converted to Christianity and had considerable influence in the court. A series of legends arose around Theodora, who is venerated in Bulgaria as a saint-like figure. Their son, Ivan Shishman, is also regarded as a great national hero. Nevertheless, a church council of 1352 led to the excommunication of "heretics," and three Jews were sentenced to death and later killed by a mob, even though the tsar had lifted the convictions.
By the time the Ottomans overran the Bulgarian Empire, there were sizable Jewish communities in Vidin, Nikopol, Silistra, Pleven, Sofia, Yambol, Plovdiv (Philippopolis) and Stara Zagora. A wave of Ashkenazi Jews arrived in Bulgaria after being banished from Bavaria in 1470.
The first Sephardic immigration wave to Bulgarian commenced after 1494, with the newcomers settling in the already established centers of Jewish population. The modern capital, Sofia, had distinct communities of Romaniots, Ashkenazim and Sephardim until 1640, when a single rabbi was appointed for all three.
In the 17th century, the ideas of Sabbatai Zevi became popular in Bulgaria, with supporters of his movement, like Nathan of Gaza and Samuel Primo, active in Sofia. Jews continued to settle in various parts of the country, extending their economic activities due to the new rights extended to them.
In 1878, after Bulgaria was liberated from Ottoman rule following the Russo–Turkish War, Jews were granted equal rights by the Treaty of Berlin. The rabbi of Sofia, Gabriel Mercado Almosnino, together with three other Jews welcomed the Russian forces in the city and took part in the Constituent National Assembly of Bulgaria in 1879. However, signs of anti-Semitism and discrimination soon began to emerge.
Jews were drafted into the Bulgarian Army and participated in the Serbo–Bulgarian War in 1885. The Treaty of Neuilly following World War I emphasized their equality, yet anti-Semitism began to spread and was indirectly promoted by the governments of the time. The Bulgarian Jewish community found much of the anger and resentment that the gentile population had concerning their country’s destitute state of affairs directed at it, and as a result, the Jewish population in Bulgaria began to decline.
The interwar years saw the majority of Bulgarian Jewry concentrated in Sofia, with much of the community self-employed and engaged in commerce. There was a flourishing of Zionism during this period, despite the younger generation displaying a sense of assimilation by speaking Bulgarian instead of Ladino, the language of their fathers. However, all of this occurred under persistent and prevalent anti-Semitism that was inextricable to the country’s alignment with Nazi Germany.
Under the Communist regime following World War II and the Holocaust, the Bulgarian Jewish community found itself cut off from the rest of the world and wider Jewish organizations. The community was largely impoverished.
As Bulgaria became more and more communist, there was a concentrated effort in wiping out Zionist manifestations in the country. Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, Bulgarian communist authorities viewed outside influences with deep suspicion and disdain, with “illegal” movement from Bulgaria to Israel considered a crime at one point.
This strict suppression was later relaxed as the postwar years gave way to the latter half of the twentieth century. For example, at the WJC Plenary Assemblies in 1975 and 1981, the Bulgarian Jewish Community sent observers, as well as at the WJC European Branch meetings. Within the country, Solomon Razanis served on the Bulgarian Supreme Court from 1966 to 1992, and on a more cultural note, a film which showed the deportation of Bulgarian Jews during World War II, The Transports for the Death Camps Have Not Yet Departed, won the “National Front Prize” at the third festival of shorts films held at Plovdiv in 1978.
Such a development is demonstrative of Bulgarian Jewry today. The Jewish community enjoys a sense of stability it has not been afforded in the past, including inclusion in various facets of broader Bulgarian life. Solomon Isaac Passy served as Foreign Minister from 2001 to 2005 and was notable for negotiating and signing Bulgaria’s accession into the European Union and NATO.