As a child in Tel Aviv a few decades after the end of World War II, Sharon Tchonev knew that her mother’s parents, natives of Bulgaria, had survived the war in their homeland and eventually made aliyah. But she never learned the unique story of how Bulgarian Jewry had emerged from Nazi Europe virtually intact.
The country, a wartime ally of Germany, had 48,000 Jews before the start of the war, 49,000 afterwards. Bulgarians refused to turn in their Jewish neighbors – although the government did not resist the deportation of the Jews to their deaths from annexed Thrace and Macedonia. Bulgaria and much-smaller Albania were the only Nazi-occupied or Nazi-allied countries to emerge from the Holocaust with larger Jewish populations.
“I never heard about it,” Tchonev says. Her grandparents, who owed their lives to the rescue effort in which church and government officials and the general population took part, never talked about their wartime experiences.
She finally heard the details, years later, from her Bulgarian-born husband Kalin. The couple, now residents of Columbia, S.C., wanted to honor Bulgaria. They are founders and directors of Varna International, a producer of music festivals and workshops, which this month is premiering “Songs of Life,” a musical salute to the rescue effort.
The program, featuring the world premiere of “A Melancholy Beauty,” a choral-orchestral work by Bulgarian composer Georgi Andreev, will be staged Sunday, June 26, 3 p.m., at Avery Fisher Hall in Manhattan. The performance here, which also includes the premiere of the choral composition “Whoever Saves a Single Life,” follows performances last week in Boston and Washington.
The concerts (songsoflife.org), Tchonev says, are a way to tell the story of the Bulgarians’ action, which remains largely a secret two decades after Bulgaria became a free country. “A lot of people don’t know about the rescue,” largely because of the Bulgarians’ modesty, she says in a telephone interview.
Bulgaria, under German pressure, did adopt discriminatory Nuremberg-style laws in 1940, imposing the Jewish star in 1942 and establishing labor camps and concentration camps in the countryside, where thousands of Bulgarian Jews were deported. But treatment at the hands of Bulgarian officers was usually benign, according to many accounts, and not a single Jew in Bulgaria proper was killed because he or she was Jewish.
More than a dozen Bulgarians have been honored as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem.
Sunday’s concert will reenact the rescue, and includes a libretto by Scott Cairns and Aryeh Finkelstein, 300 musicians, dancers, a mixed choir and children’s choir, symphony orchestra, soloists, narrator, folk vocal ensemble and indigenous folk instruments. The seven-movement oratorio-concert is an expansion of the more-modest concert the Tchonevs presented in 2008, including the distribution of a symbolic 49,000 carnations on the streets of Bulgaria. This one, she says, “took two years” to produce.
The music will feature “Jewish rhythms … Bulgarian rhythms,” Tchonev says.
The concert is another belated sign of recognition for Bulgaria’s rescue effort.
A newly published book, “A Guide to Jewish Bulgaria” (Vagabond Media, 168 pps – vagabond.bg/jewishbulgaria), the first-such history-travel reference work in English about the country’s Jewish community, features extensive background about what happened to Bulgaria’s Jews during WWII, in addition to the standard information about Jewish sites and resources.
The guide’s authors are archaeologist-journalist Dimana Trankova and writer-photographer Anthony Georgieff.
The post-communist opening of the country’s archives, and the availability of information on the Internet, have helped make the story of the rescue effort accessible, says Daniel Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, which in 2005 arranged for the English-language publication of “The Power of Civil Society in a Time of Genocide,” documenting the role of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in saving Jews.
Bulgaria’s estimated Jewish population today is 3,000, most of them Sephardic and living in Sofia, the capital.
Most Bulgarian Jews left for Israel in the years after the war, when emigration was permitted, because of their long-standing Zionist feelings. Tchonev said many were sad to leave the country where Jews had lived for two millennia. “They just felt they needed to go to a Jewish state.
“They left crying,” she says, “but they left.”