‘The Optimists’: How the Bulgarians saved their Jews

Even though decades have passed, we still don’t know the full story of the Holocaust and with every passing day, we lose memories and witnesses. “The Optimists” gives us a view of what it was like for Jews in Bulgaria. This movie isn’t even listed on the IMDb.com website, but it worth seeking out. It won’t come to Pasadena, but you can demand it the old-fashioned way: Send a request to have a showing.

The movie takes its name from a Bulgarian jazz band. Four of the ten musicians were Jewish. The musicians were among those saved. Drummer David Eskin was imprisoned in a forced labor camp. Niko Nissimov, the clarinetist, was originally deported with other Greek Jews, but on the train to Treblinka, he was rescued by Christian friends.

Treblinka was in German-occupied Poland and little more than a death factory. The gas chambers used exhaust from diesel engines. The people died of suffocation and carbon monoxide poisoning. There were mass cremation pits.

How many more Jews could have been saved from Treblinka if more friends had come forward? The documentary was produced by Jacky and Lisa Comforty, Jack Comforty’s grandmother , Rachelle, was from (Plovdiv) Bulgaria but lived her last 40 years in Jaffa, Israel. After her death, the Comfortys went to sort through her apartment, nearly three years after her death and found nearly 2,000 photos about his grandmother’s life in Bulgaria. One photo showed Comforty’s grandfather , Rachamim, wearing a yellow Jewish star in 1943.

Rachamim and Rachel were supposed to go to Treblinka. They packed their suitcases but after waiting all day, they were simply sent home. How was this possible?

Bulgaria was initially neutral at the outbreak of World War II in 1939. In March of 1941, Bulgaria joined the Axis Powers. At the time, the German troops were preparing to invade Greece and Yugoslavia (now Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and Slovenia) which was to the west of Bulgaria. Greece is to the South of both Bulgaria and what was then Yugoslavia.

By December of 1941, Bulgaria declared war against the U.K. and the United States. In 1942, the decree for Jews to wear a yellow star was in place. The King Boris allowed 11,000 Jews from Macedonia and Greek Thrace to be deported by the Nazis in 1943. When the Soviet Union approached the Balkans in the summer of 1944, Romania left the Axis Powers and declared war against Germany. By September of 1944, the Bulgarians also switched sides, joining the Soviet Union.

If the Bulgarian government was less than committed to Germany’s cause and , so were the people. The Comfortys find witnesses to those days who explained how they felt, what they did and did not do. Rabbi Avraham Bachar tells the Comfortys, “The Nazis used to write on Jewish homs and synagogues: ‘Jude.’ By morning, people had already cleaned it. They risked their lives to do this. They risked death! They–the Christians! Not us. We were imprisoned in our homes. In secret, they brought us rice, potatoes, meat. Where can you find such people?”

When the plan to deport Bulgarian Jews was set into motion, the Orthodox Church was quick to react. The leader of the church in Sofia, Bishop Stefan, went to see King Boris in protest, telling him, “If the persecution against the Jews continues, I shall open the doors of all Bulgarian churches to them and then we shall see who can drive them out.”

In the movie, Bishop Boris Kharalampiev plainly states, I was the bishop in the town of  Pazardjick. Among the Jews I had many friends. There were no disagreements between Bulgarians and Jews.   The Jews had a school, a large synagogue. No one disturbed them in the practice of their beliefs. Because it is criminal to impose your spiritual beliefs on your fellow man. It’s criminal!

The bishop explains that one important factor was the insistence and very public efforts of Bishop Kyril of Plovdiv. Kyril threatened to lie down on the railroad tracks and to take up arms against the government. He scaled a fence and went to address the frightened Jews who were gathered at the Jewish school.

The Bulgarian Jews were the only Jewish population that actually increased within the Nazi sphere of influence. Their pre-war population in Bulgaria was 48,000 and after the war, had increased to 49,000. As an ally of Germany, the Bulgaria was not under German occupation.

The sentiment was also displayed by the ordinary people like teacher Vera Kocheva, who commented, “I suffered from our government’s attitude toward the Jews. So, I started going with them to protest meetings. I went to the synagogue. I even wore the yellow star when I was with Jews–out of solidarity, out of sorrow at seeing our dearest friends being insulted.”

Then there was the baker, Rubin Dimitrov, who declared, “During the riots of May 24, I saw Jews running from the police. One couldn’t sit idly by, arms crossed, doing nothing. A true human being is obliged to help. I had an idea that I could hide this group 5 or 6 people. So, I opened the door of my baker oven to hide these people. And what were these people guilty of? Their only guilt was that they were Jews, nothing else.”

Of the Jews who were taken from Macedonia, Thrace and Pirot and sent to Poland, only 12 people were known to have survived.

The movie literature assures us that it was not only Christians, but Muslims as well. I don’t recall hearing their voices, but perhaps it’s because the Bishop Kharalampiev is so charismatic. He explains it all: “You can take everything away from a human being. You can take away his property. You can take away his life. You can take away his pride. His faith, you cannot take away. For 500 years, we were oppressed by the Turks. They killed. They robbed. They assaulted the Bulgarian people. Our faith, they did not take. And this faith saved us. Everyone is entitled to his own faith. No one should violate the intimate, spiritual life of another. That’s how I think now, that’s how I have thought in the past, and if I live any longer, that’s how I’ll think then.”

The stories told in this documentary both confirm and deeply contrast the fictionalized account of the Jews in Paris in the French movie “La Rafle.”

“The Optimists” is a rare mix of personal history and broader historic implications, at once intimate and far-reaching, successfully balancing the two perspectives. From Bulgaria, the Comfortys bring us an amazing lesson on what it means to be both religious and a good neighbor. “The Optimists” opened Friday, 16 November 2012 at the Laemmle Music  Hall in Beverly Hills and Town Center 5 in Encino. In Bulgarian, English and Hebrew with English subtitles.

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