Bulgaria’s Jewish community is a fascinating one and a new database on SephardicGen.com will help researchers of this mostly Sephardi community.
If your families of interest lived in Bulgaria at one time, search the Dictionary of Jewish Bulgarian Surnames at Jeff Malka’s site, which offers extensive resources for Sephardi genealogists looking for information on family that lived in many countries.
With nearly 800 surnames – most found all over the Balkans – the details include the surname, its variants, its etymology (and original language), meaning and a reference to historical background in medieval Spain.
The notes on name origin are fascinating and offer a different perspective. Even if your family doesn’t come from Bulgaria, the notes will help when looking at any list of Jewish Sephardi surnames.
Search with only the first letter of a name, unless you know the exact spelling; that’s the simplest method. For example, enter “A,” check “begins with,” receive a list of all names beginning with A.
Unfortunately, only 10 at a time are shown and you’ll have to keep hitting “next 10” to see the rest. I found that mildly annoying and wished for a way to choose how many names to display for each search. But the benefits of this database far outweigh the slight annoyance with having to click on succeeding screens.
Mathilde Tagger of Jerusalem wrote the introduction to the database at the link above. It includes the history of Jewish surnames in the former Ottoman Empire, information on various alphabets and spelling curiosities, in addition to a large bibliography for more information.
She writes that these surnames have been detailed in only three publications, which Tagger analyzes. They include Asher Moissi’s booklet on Greek Jewish names, Baruch Pinto’s Sephardic Onomasticon (mostly on Turkish Jews), and Isaac Moskona’s 1967 article.
Moskona’s list of 509 surnames was based on three sources (1895-1967), but gave meanings for fewer than half. Current research covers 798 surnames, and additional ones were found in the passports of Bulgarian Jews when they immigrated to Israel (1948-49). The passports are on microfilm in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (Jerusalem).
Where do Bulgarian Jewish surnames come from?
Take a look at this chronology of immigration into Bulgaria:
2nd century BCE: Romaniote Jews are recorded arriving after the destruction of the Second Temple. Their names are Hebrew or Greek.
1376: Hungarian Jews, without surnames, are expelled; some reach Bulgaria. They receive mostly Turkish nicknames.
1394: Some Jews are expelled from France and reach Bulgaria via the Danube River. Their names reflect places from where they came. (NOTE: Some may have been Jewish refugees from the 1391 riots across Spain who fled by going north into southern France.)
1470: Bavarian Jews are expelled by King Ludwig X, many settle in Bulgarian localities along the Danube and in Sofia, the capital. Few have surnames and receive mostly Turkish nicknames.
1492: Expelled Sephardim from Spain find safety in the Ottoman Empire and reach Bulgaria after 1494, settling in towns where Jews already lived. They soon became the majority and leaders of the community. Spanish Jewish surnames had Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish and Portuguese origins.
1493: Expelled Sicilian Jews reach the Ottoman Empire with Spanish and Italian names. (NOTE: Many Sicilian Jews are originally from Catalunya in Spain, who come to the Catalan-speaking island after the 1492 Expulsion. They thought they would be safe in Sicily, and they were – but only for one year and were expelled again in 1493. Most cross the Straits of Messina into Calabria.
1566-1574: Jewish immigrants from Calabria (southern Italy) arrived; many are descendants of Spanish Sephardim who went to Sicily following the 1492 Expulsion. They had Italian and Hebrew surnames.
Over the next 200 years: all Jews regardless of their origin (including the descendants of the Hungarian and German Jews) meld into the Sephardi community, with Ladino as their common language.
Late 19th-early 20th century: Ashkenazi Jews arrived from Ukraine, Romania and Russia, but the SephardicGen Bulgarian dictionary only includes Sephardi surnames.
Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire 1378-1878, so Turkish was a major influence on the Jewish community.
The introduction includes the quirky transliteration rules of Cyrillic, concerning the non-existent H (which became G in Russia and KH in Bulgaria), as well as letters with the sounds of SH, J, K