“We have an example of the power of the common man to stop genocide,” said Jacky Comforty, director of “The Optimists,” a 2001 documentary about how Bulgaria foiled Adolf Hitler’s minions. “It’s such a unique story, we can inspire people to stand up for what is right everywhere.”
Comforty screened “The Optimists” in select American cities this spring to commemorate the 70th anniversary of rallies across Bulgaria in March 1943 that helped persuade the government to prevent the mass killing of the country’s 48,000 Jews, despite its alliance with the Third Reich. The film, which takes its name from a jazz combo founded by a Bulgarian Jew whose Christian friends prevented his deportation, was shown at the Organization of American States in Washington in March.
Born in Israel to Bulgarian Jewish parents, Comforty, 58, knew little of how the Holocaust affected his family’s native country before he began interviewing his parents in 1984. He learned that, while spared the horrors of Auschwitz and Treblinka, his father, like many Jewish men, served in a forced labor camp under armed guard within Bulgaria’s borders during the war.
“I knew where my parents came from, but I never heard any Holocaust stories,” Comforty said in an interview.
“The Optimists” includes photographs of Bulgarian forced labor camps, where young men listened to swing records and performed opera when not widening train tracks for the Nazis. “I’d heard sort of fun stories of young people in labor camps, but there was no real context,” Comforty said.
As in other parts of Europe, restrictions on Jewish movement tightened as the war went on. In early 1943, Bulgaria signed a secret accord to ship 20,000 Jews to Nazi concentration camps in occupied Poland. Deportations were to begin on March 10.
But when transport trains rolled into the country, people spoke up. Comforty interviews Bulgarian Gentiles, including a baker who hid Jews from police raids in his shop’s ovens and a bishop who, like other Christian clergymen and members of parliament, battled the Nazis.
“If we, the church, allow the Jews to be deported, we will betray our most sacred obligations,” the Rev. Boris Haralampiev, a bishop who died in 1990, says in the film. “We must help!” A withered, white-bearded man in a tall Ottoman hat, as a younger priest Haralampiev contacted Bishop Metropolitan Kiril of Plovdiv, a larger city, to coordinate resistance to the deportation order. According to some accounts, Kiril stood in front of the transport train in Plovdiv to keep it from starting its journey to the concentration camps.
“The Jews and Bulgarians lived close,” Comforty said.