Amid the dark clouds of the Holocaust, there was a remarkable silver lining. Not a single Jewish citizen of Bulgaria, an ally of Nazi Germany, was murdered. Indeed, all 49,000 Bulgarian Jews survived this unfathomable ordeal.
Jacky and Lisa Comforty, whose ancestors hail from Bulgaria, explore this asterisk in the annals of the Holocaust. Their uplifting and inspirational documentary, The Optimists, is now available for viewing on the ChaiFlicks streaming platform, which specializes in Jewish and Israeli topics.
The title of the film is derived from a jazz band assembled by Niko Nissimov, a Bulgarian Jew from Sofia, during this period. He and his fellow Jews in this Balkan nation owe their survival to the courage and decency of a substantial number of Bulgarians who opposed their persecution and marginalization.
What is abundantly clear is that the pro-German Bulgarian government collaborated with the Nazis and oppressed its Jewish citizens. But due to the opposition of Bulgarians from all walks of life, the regime did not take the final step and deport Bulgarian Jews to Nazi extermination camps in Poland.
Comforty’s family, in 1943, was on the cusp of being deported to Treblinka, but the planned deportation was halted by popular demand.
Rightly or wrongly, Bulgarian Jews believe they were saved because they were regarded by most Christians as an integral component of Bulgarian society. Jews and Bulgarians coexisted in “relative peace,” says the narrator. There were no “real differences” between Jews and Christians,” one Jewish woman claims. “Jews were our friends, our brothers, our soul mates,” says Vera Kocheva, a Christian who has vivid memories of that terrible era.
Yet, as the film correctly points out, there was no shortage of Bulgarian fascists who despised Jews and were willing to murder them.
With the rise of a Nazi regime in Germany, Bulgaria allied itself with the Germans. King Boris III, the supreme ruler, hoped that Bulgaria’s close relationship with Germany would enable him to annex adjacent territories in Greece, Yugoslavia and Romania.
During this interregnum, Bulgarian fascist youth organizations sprang up. Yoram Aharoni, a Bulgarian Jew, recalls that hostile Bulgarian gangs invaded his neighborhood in Sofia with increasing frequency after 1939.
In 1940, Bogdan Filov, an antisemite, was appointed prime minister. He filled his cabinet with like-minded bigots, and in short order, Jews were subjected to antisemitic laws. The official in charge of persecuting Jews was Alexander Belev.
Jews were dismissed from their jobs and forbidden to own radios. The Jewish school in Sofia was closed. Able-bodied Jewish men between the ages of 18-60 were drafted into forced labor battalions.
Two hundred Jews or so who tried to escape to Palestine by boat drowned when their vessel capsized. One of the victims was Comforty’s cousin.
Despite the darkness that enveloped them, Jews with Christian friends did not feel isolated, a Jewish woman claims. Yet, as another Jewish person observes, “Fascism hit us hard.”
Rena Shashua-Hasson’s grandfather was compelled to transfer his share of their business to his Christian partner. But after World War II, his associate returned it to “the last penny.”
The worst moment for Jews occurred in March of 1943, when Bulgaria agreed to deport 8,500 Bulgarian Jews and some 11,000 Jews from Bulgarian-occupied Thrace and Macedonia. They were herded into warehouses at various points around the country in preparation for their deportation to Nazi death camps.
Dimiter Peshev, the vice-president of Bulgaria’s parliament, protested and demanded an end to all deportations. Cyril, the patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, issued a protest as well.
Bulgarian Jewish citizens were spared, but 11,636 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia were deported to Poland and all but 12 were murdered.
With Bulgaria’s liberation on September 9, 1944, the new pro-Soviet Bulgarian government declared war on Germany and abolished the antisemitic edicts.
Nonetheless, the vast majority of Jews immigrated to Israel, depleting the Jewish community. Many Jews, including Comforty’s family, settled in Jaffa, restarting their lives as new citizens of the Jewish state.
The Optimists tells this story skillfully.