Looking Anew at Bulgaria’s Jews

By Masha Leon

Published November 04, 2005, issue of November 04, 2005.
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A must-see documentary, “The Optimists: The Story of the Rescue of the Bulgarian Jews From the Holocaust,” by filmmakers Jacky and Lisa Comforty, premiered October 10 at the Center for Jewish History. It is the most recent cinematic tribute to the Bulgarians for their heroic efforts on behalf of their fellow (Jewish) Bulgarians.

The first documentary to detail the saving of Bulgaria’s 50,000 Jews from deportation was 1986’s “Transports of Death.” In that film, which was produced by Bulgaria’s then state-run movie agency, the communists take center stage as leaders in the armed resistance. But according to his October 17, 1993, letter to The New York Times, Yehuda Bauer, professor of Holocaust studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, clarified that it was “an unlikely alliance of King Boris III, the Eastern Orthodox Church, members of the fascist establishment [as well as] communists and socialists who managed to save the Jews… from death camps.” (Still, 11,343 Jews from Bulgaria’s newly occupied territories in Yugoslavia’s Macedonia and Greek Thrace were sent to their death.)

At an American Friends of Migdal Ohr dinner in 1998, I met honoree Princess Maria Louisa. Her father, King Boris III, had helped save Bulgaria’s mostly Sephardic Jewish community. In 1943, King Boris was summoned to Berlin by Hitler and ordered to begin deportations of Bulgaria’s Jews. He refused. Three days later, he died mysteriously. According to the princess: “The people, the church, the intellectuals… all helped save our entire Jewish population…. In 1944, the Soviets imposed a totalitarian regime… the Communists eradicated every memory of the monarchy…. My mother’s sister perished in Buchenwald.” In January 2001, the documentary “Beyond Hitler’s Grasp,” based on Bulgarian-born Emory University professor and former Knesset member Michael Bar-Zohar’s 1998 book of the same name, set out the chronology leading to the survival of Bulgaria’s Jews. At its 2001 screening at the Center for Jewish History, Philip Dimitrov, Bulgaria’s ambassador to the United States, told me: “Jews lived [in Bulgaria] since the fall of the Second Temple…. We even had a Jewish queen. Like Queen Esther, our King John Alexander [in the 14th century] fell in love with Sara, who became Theodora II.”

What makes “The Optimists” so memorable are the personal histories and revelations of the widespread interfaith connections between Jews, Muslims and Christians. Jews celebrated Jewish holidays with their non-Jewish friends and neighbors — and the reverse. Non-Jewish friends donned Stars of David when visiting their Jewish home-imprisoned friends. A baker recalls figuring he could hide five or six Jews in one of his ovens. “What are they guilty of? Only of being Jewish!” And elderly Boris Kharalampiev, an Eastern Orthodox bishop, recalls his role in stopping the deportations of Jews in 1943 from his city, Pazardjik. His wisdom resonates with immediacy: “Everyone is entitled to his own faith. No one should violate the intimate, spiritual life of another.”

Is anyone out there listening?

* * *

Kitty Carlisle Hart (chair emeritus of the New York State Council on the Arts) presented the Kitty Carlisle Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Arts to Mikhail Baryshnikov at the October 11 Americans for the Arts National Arts Awards gala. “Generations in the future will be mesmerized by Misha’s work,” Hart told the black-tie crowd at Cipriani 42nd Street. Baryshnikov joshed: “I was going to talk about Iraq, the avian flu, education in Russia… Karl Rove. But I was told I had one minute. What a bummer! What do you say in a minute? [I’m told] you can have an extraordinary sexual experience in a minute.”

Founders of American Ballroom Theater, Pierre Dulaine and Yvonne Marceau, received the Arts Education Award. Their outreach program, Dancing Classrooms, which annually teaches ballroom dancing to 8,000 New York City elementary school children, is the subject of the current hit documentary film “Mad Hot Ballroom.” Eli Broad, founder and chairman of two Fortune 500 companies — KB Home and SunAmerica — received the Frederick R. Weisman Award for Philanthropy in the Arts. A board member of several museums, including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, Broad was appointed to the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institute in 2004 by the American Congress and the president. He and his wife, Edythe, have made a major gift to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where The Broad Contemporary Art Museum is scheduled to open in 2007. (Americans for the Arts is the nation’s leading nonprofit organization for the advancement of the arts. Past honorees include Leonard Bernstein, Isaac Stern, Joseph Papp, Beverly Sills, Itzhak Perlman and Wendy Wasserstein.)

* * *

The Beaux-Arts rooms of New York’s Polish Consulate last month were packed with French-Polish-English-speaking fans of Claude Challe, whose press notices read: “World traveler, DJ, fashion and nightlife entrepreneur who has sold 1.6 million records worldwide…. He claims to have been molded by ‘a mix of Arabic sounds, Jewish mysticism and French Culture.’” The event was a kickoff of his new CD, “The Best of Claude Challe” by MSI Music (a leading importer of music and foreign films). I was intrigued by Challe’s provenance: Born in 1945 in Tunisia, son of a rabbi, he attended a yeshiva as a young man. Between music cuts, he told me: “My original name is Shalom. In 1948, my father left for Israel; my mother and I went to Marseilles, finally Paris. I respect my Jewish tradition. I am proud to be profoundly Jewish. When you are born Jewish, you die Jewish.” His curriculum vitae lists DJ-ing at Celine Dion’s wedding and promoting the Dalai Lama’s Parisian appearances. Not bad for a former yeshiva bokher. As for his latest CD — I keep playing it.






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