Correspondence for the New York Evening Post

Albert Sonnichsen




Life in the Kustendil Ghetto

By Albert Sonnichsen


New York Evening Post (Saturday, June 17, 1905)

Saturday supplement

Pages 1 to 14


[Special Correspondence of The Evening Post]




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Quaint characteristics of the Bulgarian Jews


Tenacity with Which They Cling to the Tribal Observances Brought from Spain at the Time of the Eviction by Torquemada — The Ceremonies Ushering in the Sabbath — A Young Hebrew Skeptic



KUSTENDIL, Bulgaria, May 15. — The town is long, narrow, thickest in the middle, and wedged in between the river and the high cliff called Hizzarluk. In winter, when the sun is low to southward, you have the ghetto almost exactly defined, by the shadow of Hizzarluk, a large, dark bite out of the middle. In the centre an old, crumbly mosque shoots its minaret up into the sunlight. About it, in widening semicircles, like rows of seats in an auditorium. stand the low-roofed houses of what was once the Turkish, but is now the Jewish quarter. From the top of Hizzarluk you see that the streets were intended to run around the mosque in concentric circles, but when you got down into them you cannot see that they run anywhere. The main street of the stores, wide and straight, cuts through the maze, passing the front of the mosque and separating. the Jewish from the greater Christian community.


Before I came here I heard Kustendil referred to by the foreigners in Sofia as a Jew nest. The Spanish Jews are perhaps better represented here than in any other town of Bulgaria. But the Jewish quarter is interesting to see; it is picturesque, because it is old, and the people live in it exactly as they lived centuries back. It is unexpectedly clean, for the hot sulphur waters gushing out from the bowels of the cliff wash through yards and streets, carrying refuse down to the river, and leaving behind a wholesome, if not a pleasant, smell.




At first the streets are confusing, because they seem mere chance crevices between high walls of unbaked bricks, topped with red tiles. In the walls are huge wooden gates. In daytime they are open, and you walk inside the walls and find they are large quadrangles, enclosing groups of four or five houses each, all facing a central yard or garden, usually planted with fruit trees. In the middle is a wooden trough in the ground, into which pours the hot sulphur water, overflowing into a small rivulet which twists its way out under the walls of the stockade somewhere to join the main stream in the street. In the trough the housewife does her Friday morning's washing. At all sorts of unexpected moments a puff of hot sulphur steam sleeps up into your face from holes in the ground, indicating more rivulets covered by flat stones. Above rises the gray, rugged face of Hizzarluk, splotched here and there by vivid green.


Usually the verandas in front of the houses, the yards, and the streets are swarming with brown-limbed, noisy children, interspersed with knots of bare-armed, gossiping women. On Saturdays they sit on benches outside the gates, their hair done up in high knots, profusely decorated with cheap, massive jewelry, so weighed down by dress that they can hardly walk. Toward evening the men become visible, the old men in last century's costumes, baggy trousers, sandals, some in long cloaks trimmed with sheep's skin or furs, some in red fezes, some in fur caps, long-bearded and shaggy-browed all. Some are of fiery red complexion, their red ringlets hanging down over greasy coat collars. They are usually taller and more robust of build than the Jews beyond the Danube, for since Torquemada drove them out of Spain four centuries ago, they have lived on fairly good terms with their environment, too good, perhaps, for their intellectual development.


The younger men dress much like the Bulgarians, in semi-European clothes, and the inevitable sheep's-skin cap. The old men are still of the time of the Turks, the young men are imbibing from the new atmosphere of freedom a desire to be more like their neighbors. They speak Bulgarian more fluently, they read Bulgarian papers, and, by reading the signs above their shops, you can see that some have even Bulgarized their names; Abrahamoff, Israeloff, and there is Jesus Davidoff. In features it is easy to distinguish them from the Bulgarians, although the prominent nose is rare. They are even of a different type from the Russian or German Jews; more delicate of features and ruddier. Occasionally, you see a face among them, especially among the boys, that is strikingly beautiful in mould and delicate coloring.




From the first I heard of an old man, who had the reputation of being the wisest among them. It was even hinted that he was somewhat of a heretic. He had a son who wrote books in Spanish, but gained a substantial livelihood by making and repairing shoes. I made the son's acquaintance by having him mend my shoes one day while I waited, after which he presented me with an autograph copy of one of his books, a pamphlet really, which as far as I can make out, for it is printed in Hebraic characters, goes to prove that every Spanish Jew in the Balkan peninsula is the worst kind of an idiot. I gathered this from extracts he read to me.


The result of this acquaintance was an invitation from his father to visit him, which I gladly accepted. I found an old man, a fez on his venerable gray head, seated cross-legged on a cushioned bench, so old that he could no longer walk, but mentally bright and active. Without the usual inquiries into my past he took me off at once; first, into a discussion on the Spanish language, then into theology and finally brought up into philosophy. That has been our subject, or his rather, ever since. It is his own particular system, too, and differs from any other that ever existed. From the pinnacle of his philosophy he looks down with contempt on Jews and Christians alike, they being as so many idiots, to him, He is rather disposed in favor of the Protestants, although he points out symptoms of mild imbecility among them, too.


I visit him often and we have become good friends. He considers me quite rational; why, I don't know, for I have never expressed an opinion to him. But outside his own family I am his only visitor, for he is as intolerant of persons as he is of orthodox religions. He is lonely, for when I come I can see how he brightens up with pleasant anticipation of the discussion he is going to have with me. His bookcase is beside him, and he reaches out his hand for his volumes, many of them in manuscript written by himself. From them he reads me extracts, smiling and winking humorously when he has driven a point home. Then comes the final test of all, when he reaches out for an old red leather-bound volume of yellow, thumbed pages; his invincible authority, the words of Rabbi Moshe Moimonit Arambam, who lived and wrote before the exodus from Spain. It is like a voice from across the centuries, the old archaic Spanish as you find it in Lope de Vega and Calderon. At times he stops to interpret meanings, but it does not seem so, really, for he speaks as they spoke there. And every time comes over me the powerful impression that it is Arambam himself reading to me. Fancy Shakspere, bent and withered, seated before you, reading Hamlet, and explaining between lines what he meant.


Partly through my acquaintance with the old man and his son, and more especially through my friend the beggar student, who is a Jew, I have again reestablished myself in the good opinion of the ghetto. I call him the beggar student because he rather glories in it, and there are many like him. He has never had a square meal in his life, never had a new suit of clothes, never been beyond three days' walk from Kustendil, and still he is the most brilliant student in the college. It seems that it is only the very poorest boys of the ghetto who rise in scholarship, and the Jewish commune helps them with five francs a month, which it pays them in centime pieces a few at a time, and usually this pension is in arrears. Later the Bulgarian Government helps a few of the brightest to take a few years abroad in a university.


It has been through icy young friend that I have seen as much of the ghetto as I have. He has taken me to the synagogue several times, on the pretext of showing me the customs of his people, but in truth for no other purpose than to have some one with him to whom he can relieve his feelings in sharp, cynical criticism of all that is going on. Were he to absent himself from services, they would cut off the five francs, so he takes his satisfaction in sarcastic wit.


In the town of Dubnitza, a day's tramp from here, he has an uncle comparatively well oft, who also helps him with a few francs a month. During the vacations he sometimes pays his uncle short visits, partly to show his appreciation, and also because it means a few days' physical comfort compared to home. I accompanied him on one of these visits last autumn, from Friday till Sunday, and thus had an opportunity of observing the customs of the "Shabat."




We reached Dubnitza just as the evening. services in the synagogue were over and met the family coming home. The ghetto of Dubnitza is much like that here. We came through a big gateway into a central yard formed by a circle of low-roofed houses. The old man, my friend's uncle, went into one of the doorways, then turned, end with a salaam invited us in with the Hebrew blessing, "Shabat Shalom."


The houses within the walls of the quadrangle formed a community of which my friend's uncle was the elder, so it was in his house that all gathered for the supper of the Sabbath eve. There were four tables in the large front room, one for each family. About the walls ran a low cloth-covered bench upon which the men seated themselves crosslegged shortly after we had all entered. In all, counting women and children, there were near thirty persons present. From the centre of the ceiling hung a rack in which was placed a huge, flat, glass vessel of oil, full of floating, burning wicks. These, and the lamps, had previously been lighted by a Musselman who went the rounds to do this duty for all the families of the ghetto, for, the Shabat once begun, no Jew may touch a light.


Meanwhile, the women had gone into the kitchen to cook. The men now rose to their feet, and, the old man leading, began to chant some prayers, all swaying from side to side with closed eyes. A woman came in with a glass of wine, which she gave to the elder. Still chanting, he sipped of the wine, and passed it along, the last man-giving it back to the woman, who also torched her lips to the glass, and then passed it on to the women and children who had come in for a moment to observe this ceremony.


Another woman then brought in a basin of water into which each man dipped his hands, as she held it before him, and as they dried their hands on towels a second woman gave them, they spoke a certain formula of prayers or grace.


When they finally paused a woman drew off the cloth which covered the tables, and we all walked up beside them. Along the edges had been laid small, round loaves of bread. The old man took up one of these, broke off a piece, and from this piece tore off smaller bits, which he passed around to all of us; each man dipped his bit of bread in the salt-cellar, and ate it. Then we all seated ourselves about the tables, on benches. One of the girls brought the old man a book of prayers, and he began preaching, in a sing-song, droning sort of voice, while the rest listened. The prayers had been in Hebrew, which they repeated without understanding, but now the old man read in Spanish.


The reading over, a girl brought a bottle of "slivi" (plum-brandy), a small glass, and a dish of hard-boiled eggs. The old man first poured out a brandy for himself, which he drank with the toast, "The Lord's blessings upon all Jews, and upon us specially." All the men drank after him, one by one, each offering a similar toast. Then we all broke and ate an egg.


About ten minutes of general conversation followed on commonplace topics, till the women brought in the supper. First came a huge meat pie to each table, and after the father of the family had cut it, they began eating from the one dish, with their bare fingers. A half-lamb, the fore part, stuffed with rice, came next. Later followed bread and fried pumpkin.


Supper finished, grace was said, the hands washed as before, the women cleaned the tables, and conversation followed. My friend had introduced me as a Jewish student in the Sofia University, from Salonica; so I excited no curiosity. The talk was mostly of the latest news from the war, and they discussed Oyama's recent victory with much satisfaction.


Later some hymns were sung, and then we all retired, the other families to their own houses. The big gate had been closed and heavily barred.


The men all slept in one room, on the door. As we rolled ourselves up in blankets, the lamps were still burning, and I heard the old man grumbling that so much oil had been put in them, for they must burn until exhausted. No Jew could extinguish them.


The day's tramp gave me a sound night's sleep. The splashing of water awoke me in the morning. As I opened my eyes, the old man was sitting up, while his wife held before him a basin of water. Into this he dipped each hand three times, then, drying them; got up, dressed, and began his morning prayers, and these were parts of his prayers:


"Thank Thee, Great God, Adonie, that Thou did'st return me my soul after the night, and did'st hold it safe for me while I slept.


"Thank Thee that Thou did'st make of me a Jew, and not a 'goy' (Gentile).


"Thank Thee, Great God, that Thou did'st make me a man, and not a woman, but did'st fashion me to Thy will."


As he droned out these prayers, he yawned, rolled a cigarette, and kicked the cat out of his way.


Prayers over, we drank a cup of Turkish coffee, then, all the community together, started for the morning services in the synagogue.


"All this I endure," growled the beggar student, "all for an occasional five-franc piece. Bah! Fanatics!"


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