Nazi and Commie junk mix at Sofia's open-air antique market
Issue 17, February 2008
by Gabriel Hershman; photography by Antony Georgieff
Are you a Hitler aﬁcionado hoping to impress your fellow travellers with some authentic neo-Nazi decorations? Or are you nostalgic for the Iron Curtain era when Brezhnev and other ageing cronies ran the show from the Kremlin? Then you'll like Soﬁa's antique market.
OK, so we at Vagabond hope you're not really a Nazi or a Communist. We'd prefer our readers to embrace civilised post-totalitarian values. But many of us – let's not deny it – have an irresistible fascination with the dark periods in German and East bloc history. And in front of the Aleksandr Nevskiy church is a daily open-air market that has enough authentic medals to decorate a couple of battalions of Hitler's and Stalin's troops.
Before we get to the juicy part we should tell you that vendors also offer the usual array of tourist bric-a-brac: fridge magnets and crystal paperweights featuring designs of Bulgaria's most prominent sites, chess sets, backgammon and dominoes in wooden boxes, hand-woven tablemats and elaborately decorated eggs.
There are also Russian-style dolls, candlesticks, plates, vases, fruit bowls and cigarette holders, all emblazoned with traditional colours.
More unusual items include wooden palamarki, tools used for harvesting, engraved with holy icons and lopatari, bells used by farmers to ensure that their ﬂocks do not stray. The matryoshka, wooden Russian dolls of decreasing size stacked inside each other, are particularly popular with tourists. One such doll of President George Bush features his four predecessors: Clinton, Bush Senior, Reagan and Carter.
I expected to see a sick joke at Bush's expense – a series of progressively tiny brains or idiotic postures – but was disappointed. You can buy a 1,000 leva Bulgarian banknote dating back to 1943 featuring King Boris. It may sound like a lot of money but it won't make you rich – these days it's yours for just 10 leva. Another banknote features Prince Simeon, the short-lived wartime prince regent who would go on to become prime minister from 2001 to 2005.
There are also 19th Century souvenirs, including traditional Bulgarian buckles and a big Russian brass samovar from 1870. Most of the exhibits, perhaps not surprisingly, are from the Communist era. These include the routine – traditional winter hats – and also more interesting items such as Soviet-era medals, drinking ﬂ asks, lighters and cameras as well as innumerable busts of Lenin and Stalin. You could certainly build up a formidable collection.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers