THE JEWISH COMMUNITY IN ROUSSE

@Teodora Bakardjieva@

Teodora Bakardjieva. A graduate of Veliko Turnovo University. MA in history. Specialises Ottoman Studies at the Centre of Eastern Languages and Cultures at Sofia University. Expert at the Historical Museum in Rousse. Author of 'The Bulgarian Community in Rousse in the 1860s'- a socio-historical research. A number of publications on the history of Rousse Region between XVth and XIXth centuries. Her latest interests focus on Muslim and Jewish religions and cultures, ethnic and confessional community interaction.

"This town is one of the largest in Turkey.
The Holy Spirit hovers above it and our brethren.
They lack neither wealth nor human courage.
Wisemen will find there whatever they want.
Rouschouk spreads before us like a crown
upon the columns on which this home rests."

Israel Frumkin, 1871

Rapidly changing statistical data point out that there are 157 people of Jewish descent in Rousse today, 102 being descendants of mixed marriages. The overall number of families is 49: 6 - Jewish; 2 - widowed, 41- in which one of the partners is a Jew. Yet behind the statistical data there lies a 200 year long history ups and downs and continuous struggle for winning a place worthy of respect in the economic and cultural life of the Danube town.

For the first time Jews were made mention of by the Catholic Archbishop of Bulgarian origin in Sofia, Petar Bogdan. During his visit to Rousse in 1640 he found out that most of the customs officers at Danube ports were Jews. From this we can assume that most of the customs officers at Rousse port were also Jews but their stay in the town was obviously linked with only their official duties which virtually meant they were temporary residents of the town.

In 1651 the Turkish traveller, Evliya Chelebi, gave further evidence in support of the fact that Jews were temporary residents of Rouschouk. In his detailed description of the town he says, 'There are no Jews here, they drop in only in connection with trade and immediately leave afterwards'. Only towards the end of the XVIIIth century, in the time of the Turkish - Austrian War of 1788 - 1789, Jews inhabiting the regions immediately affected by the military activities there, took refuge in Rousse. We can find details about the origin of the first Jewish settlers in Rousse in a responsium (answer) written by Rabbi Raphael Joseph Hazan. In this responsium he had to solve the problem to which of the Edirne rabbis the newly established Jewish commune in Rousse was to be subordinated. 'And it happened so', the document says, 'that Jews started coming to the new town of Urudjuk /Rouschouk/ and many of our fellow townsmen from Edirne, Vidin, Belogradchik and Nish gathered there'. According to the historian Rozanis who had the chance to rely on ample documentation material and had the rare opportunity to get in personal contact with ascendants of the first Jewish settlers. The first Jew who settled here was Meir Behar Aaron. He came here from Vidin in order to work as an apprentice of an Armenian tinsmith in the home of the then Rouschouk governor, the notorious Ismail Aga Trastenikoglu. Thus the first Jewish child in Rousse was born exactly 200 years ago in 1798. That was Yeuda, son of Aaron Ben Meir and Beya. From local legends we find out that the first Jewish families settled here had the names of Ventura, Gartziani, Canetti, Rozanis etc. Thus at the end of the old XVIIIth and the new XIXth century the Jews settled permanently in Rousse. The good conditions of life and economic activity in the town predetermined the rapid increase of the Jewish community. Thirty two Jewish families settled in Rousse until 1842. The tendency of steady increase is clearly seen from the register ofthe Jewish commune according to which the number of Jewish households in 1852 was already 214. These data totally overlaps with the first official census results in Tuna Vilayet which show that the number of Jews living in Rouschouk amounted to 956 people.

Because of their unique historical predestination to live in alien religious and ethnic communities Jews developed an ability to build up the internal life of their community in spite of difficulties of all kinds. In Rousse, also, they quickly established an well-arranged system of organisation. As a result the Rouschouk Jewish community was to play the role of a mainstay in the life of local Jews for years on end. Its sacred duties were: to elect a rabbi, to look after financial affairs of its members, to create most favourable conditions for bringing up and educating the younger generation, to settle interpersonal conflicts, to regulate relations between the commune and official institutions in town. And whilst Jews in Rouschouk spoke Judeo- Spanish in their everyday contacts, all documentation of the commune was written in Hebrew.

One of the most important duties of the commune was to provide conditions for normal spiritual development of its members. At first on Jewish holidays of importance, the Rouschouk Jews travelled to Bucharest or other neighbouring towns, containing older colonies of Jews or Jewish temples. Very soon, however, taking into consideration the inconvenience and risk of such travels, they made arrangements for building up their local temple. The synagogue was situated in a small riverside house, on the Danube, and was given to the commune as a personal gift by Ismail Aga. Its ceremonial consecration was carried out in 1797. Unfortunately the building was ruined during the shellfire of Rousse in the summer of 1810 and was turned into a stable during the ten-month Russian occupation that followed soon afterwards. After the war the Jews, who had mainly settled at the mouth of the River Roussenski Lom, moved to the central part of the town forming the so-called Jewish quarter there. For years on end worship was conductd in private homes or in the popular for the time 'Yahudi hane' and only in 1826 the financial stability of the commune allowed the erection of a new temple. This particular synagogue was small, dug in the ground and soon turned out insufficient for the growing number of parishioners. A second synagogue, called 'Geron' opened its doors in Rousse in 1852. From then on worship was to be carried out in two synagogues, each one with its own Board of Trustees, subordinated to a Common Community Board. The common governing body managed to overcome the apparent split within the Jewish community in the name of its future spiritual survival. The fruit of the increased financial potential of the commune was the new synagogue, built in 1868. The event is referred to in 'Havalet' paper whose editor Israel Frumkin wrote, 'the honorable community built a new temple of worship not long ago, a temple I have never been able to see in the whole blessed Ottoman Empire. Its magnificence my pen is weak to describe. It's engulfed by the Holy Spirit and human beings hold their breath in admiration.'

Another constant concern of the Jewish community was the education of its children on whom it laid hopes for the future. If we carefully look at community history of education, we shall immediately define two periods in its development. The first one from the first settlement of Jews in Rousse until the middle of the XIXth century and the second from the middle of the XIXth century onwards. During the first period children obtained their elementary education in private schools being instructed reading and writing and the quality of the teaching process depended mostly on the personal merits of the teacher. Some of the most renowned teachers of the period were Yakov Ben Moshe, Shelomo Kapon, Mordohay Atias, Sabetay Ben Avraam. At the beginning of the 1860s in line with the requirements of the times the community vested Avraam Israel Rozanis with the responsibility to introduce new methods of teaching in educating the young. He undertook enthusiastically the task but was confronted with the prejudices of some ommunity members. In spite of difficulties a new building for the provision of schooling was bought. Menahem Fahri, a teacher who had won the respect of all, was invited to teach and the school made its first achievements. More than 150 boys were already studying there in 1871 and its fame of an excellent educational institution spread to other Jewish communes.

The War of 1877/78 had no disastrous effect on the Jewish community in Rousse. Although a number of Jews left the town during the warfare, they came back to their homes soon after the war ended. The first national census in the Principality of Bulgaria points that the number of Jews living in Rousse then was 1943 people. In the years to follow, demographic indicators show a steady growth of Jewish population. The peak was reached in 1910 when there were 3 854 Jews permanently resident in Rousse. In spite of the overall increase of the town's population, Jews still comprised a very substantial part of it, which was reflected in their growing economic and public activity. A lot of Jewish factories and firms were set up, most of them engaged in the manufacture of clothes, hats, explosives, cellulose, paper, polish, dyes and glues. No less successful was Jewish participation in metalworking, woodworking, cabinet making, the production of sugar and sugar products. A Jewish Popular Bank was set up and contacts of Jewish merchants went beyond the limits of the Balkan market.

The economic crisis which made itself felt in Rousse after the First World War, affected the Jewish community, too. A lot of Rousse Jews left the country between the two Great Wars, a migration process, which still persists among them. As a result of emigration today we can come upon Jews from Rousse almost in every part of the world. Yet wherever they go they carry with them one particular type of spirit and human dignity, typical of all whom were once citizens of the riverside town of Rousse.

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