Published January 4, 2007
A baker hid Jews in his ovens. A teacher wore a Jewish star out of solidarity with her Jewish friends. A group of men went to parliament to protest planned Nazi deportations. The deputy parliament speaker ruined his political career but successfully mobilized other politicians to stop them. And then there was the Orthodox bishop who pledged to board the train to Treblinka along with the Jews if they were deported.
Director Jacky Comforty and his wife, Lisa, capture these and other stories of heroic acts of Bulgarian citizens that saved the lives of the country’s entire 50,000 Jews in the 2001 film, “The Optimists.” Together they co-produced and wrote the film, presented through Comforty Media Concepts and the Chambon Foundation, a nonprofit educational foundation named in honor of the French village where 5,000 Jews were sheltered. They filmed it in Bulgaria, Spain and Israel, and collected 200 hours of interviews and documenting of communities and other scenes, plus 5,000 photos of pre-war and wartime Jewish life. The filmmakers believe that the story offers valuable insight into what conditions encourage the protection of human rights, civil liberties and tolerant relations between people of different religions and cultures, and that it’s a universal story of common decency and uncommon courage. The United Nations last year designated Jan. 27 as international Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The documentary, which received several awards including first prize for “documenting the Jewish Experience” at the Jerusalem International Film Festival, was screened Nov. 9 at Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta as part of the Holy Land in the Heartland Film Festival held Nov. 7-11. That night was exactly 68 years after the infamous Night of Broken Glass of 1938 in Germany where the government incited mobs who destroyed over 100 synagogues and thousands of Jewish businesses and arrested thousands who were sent to concentration camps, as Hitler gauged the world’s reaction.
Transfiguration Church in Marietta served as a host site for the festival, and its pastor, Msgr. Pat Bishop, and senior Rabbi Steven Lebow of Temple Kol Emeth, held a discussion after “The Optimists.” These two local faith communities have a history of working together. Event supporters included the Regional Council of Churches, Temple Etz Chaim, The Breman Museum, Israeli Consulate to the Southeast, the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem, and The America-Israel Friendship League.
Msgr. Bishop commented on the film’s acute witness to the power of the individual to choose good over even the most unrelenting evil.
“The ultimate power in this universe I believe to be God and I believe there is an opposite power nowhere near as strong as He is but very, very real, and that evil I believe is personified,” he said. “There is a power within our choice to choose whether we are going to be a vessel of light in a darkened world or be succumbed by that awful, abnormal, inhumane sickening, grimy, greasy evil, that too often we see in our own lives. I was struck by the goodness … but also frightened by the images of evil that I’m afraid are not just locked in history but are very much alive and threatening us even now.”
The festival was a new initiative sponsored by Dragoman Films, a North American distribution company for Israeli films founded by Ravit Turjeman. She and her husband, David Dorfman, conceived Holy Land in the Heartland, Inc. as a way to show Israeli society and culture to Americans beyond the eastern and western seaboard cities to promote solidarity and understanding. They plan to make the film festival an annual Atlanta event.
“Besides our main mission to bring Israeli culture where it doesn’t go all the time, our other main mission is to give an interfaith platform to allow all faiths to come together and share Israeli culture, which we think is significant not only for Christians and Jews but for all faiths in America,” said Dorfman. “This film in particular is really special because it really exemplified that message.”
He said the Comfortys spent 10 years making the documentary and at the end tracked down the 97-year-old Orthodox clergyman, Bishop Boris Kharalampiev of Pazardjick, interviewing him a week before he passed away.
“He met this guy right at the end of filming. It was really fate that he found him and was able to capture all this, his message and what he had done, on film.”
The film centers on Jacky Comforty’s family in Bulgaria before and while the nation formed an alliance with Nazi Germany. The family first realized the imminent danger and cried when they learned that Paris in 1940 fell to the Nazis, and then experienced increasing restrictions on their daily lives. Then the police arrived at Jacky’s grandparents’ home on March 9, 1943, as they and some 8,500 other Bulgarian Jews were targeted for extermination. At gunpoint Jacky’s grandparents, aunt, uncle all marched to the deportation center set up at a Jewish school. Just a few days earlier 11,343 Jews from neighboring Greece and Macedonia had gone to their deaths, as the territory was given to Bulgaria by Germany under the terms of the alliance pact between the two countries. Although the Bulgarian Jews waited all day for deportation, by evening they were simply sent home.
Another person interviewed for the film was Niko Nissimov, a pharmacist who had played in a band composed of both Jews and non-Jews called “The Optimists,” which lifted spirits of the beleaguered community. His friend, Judge Anton Kirilov, recalled how he went to the health department and got a transfer to rescue him along with 10 other health professionals caught up in a transport of Greek Jews traveling by train through Bulgaria.
The film showed how in 1943 activists organized a protest march and many were arrested. And then there was Penka Kassabova, director of a degree program for kindergarten teachers, who refused to follow a policy to deny admission to Jews and also admitted Comforty’s mother. She states in an interview: “Our school has always been democratic: Should we give into the Hitler madness?”
In the film Bishop Kharalampiev states how the Turks of the Ottoman Empire oppressed Bulgaria for 500 years. But “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’ve thought in the past.”
Bulgarian Jews, Christians and Muslims have lived together harmoniously for millennia. The bishop recalled how they had good relations with the Jews and even participated in their holidays in friendship. He stated in the film that if the church allowed Jews to be deported, it would betray its most sacred obligation.
And the baker Rubin Dimitrov said in an interview, “I saw Jews running from police. … One couldn’t sit idly by, arms crossed, doing nothing. A true human being is obligated to help.”
After the showing, Dr. Liliane Kshensky Baxter of The Breman Jewish Heritage Museum moderated the discussion between the priest and rabbi in the synagogue’s sanctuary, amid stained glass windows of Noah’s ark, the Torah and other images, and before the Ark of the Covenant, which contains a 200-year-old Torah scroll. The scroll, which includes the first five books of the Bible, was taken from a synagogue in Lostiche, Czechoslovakia, just before Hitler’s troops burned it to the ground. That town’s entire Jewish community was murdered. Above the altar is the “ner tamid” or eternal light, which is never extinguished and symbolizes God’s eternal presence.
Rabbi Lebow affirmed that people of faith must work together in the fight and answer the highest call of their religion. He noted that not too long ago it was “almost … unheard of” for a priest to enter a synagogue or vice versa, as they were “estranged” brothers and sisters with no dialogue for a thousand years. Before the Holocaust there were 18 million Jews and now there are roughly 12 million so “it’s affected every single Jew who is sitting here today.”
Furthermore 5 to 6 million non-Jews were killed in the death camps in addition to the 6 million Jews, including thousands of priests and nuns killed in Auschwitz, “so each one of us has suffered a loss and each one of us has the challenge in the 2000s to reach out together so that things like this will never occur again.”
The senior rabbi reminded them how just since World War II genocide has occurred in Rwanda, Cambodia and today in Darfur where hundreds of thousands have been killed.
“Both Christians and Jews have a responsibility to stand against genocide wherever they see it.”
He noted the Jewish phrase “never again” refers to how Jews vow to never again allow another holocaust, but “that saying it is meaningless if you mean it’s not going to happen to the Jews. Of course it’s not going to happen—we’re not going to allow it—but it will be done to other people over and over again unless we stand up for them in our own way.”
The challenge is for people to “live their faith seriously and never use their faith to justify hatred but use their faith to reach out to love, to kindness and understanding—and yes, that is the greatest of all work.”
Rabbi Lebow said he was fascinated by the stories of “radical goodness” in the film. “In many ways it was … just local people, just kind and decent average people. … They simply did not share in the hatred and were able to overcome it.”
Msgr. Bishop affirmed that everyone suffers, whether physically, emotionally or spiritually, and that the challenge is to find meaning in it and channel that pain to become more compassionate and understanding of the suffering, oppression and injustices that others face, instead of becoming angry and hateful.
He noted how it’s easy in the rush of modern life to isolate oneself even from one’s own community, or to only spend time with those who think like oneself and don’t challenge one’s preconceived notions. But he believes it’s important to be open to those with disparate beliefs.
In the question-and-answer session, one woman asked how much they confront Muslim leaders about the need to condemn terrorists who profess Islam. The priest believes one need is to simply build stronger relations with Muslim leaders, and he recalled an “incredible” interfaith Thanksgiving service that Transfiguration and Kol Emeth participated in for the first time in 2005. He recalled a moving moment where one man said, “I am thankful I am a Muslim and am in a Jewish temple celebrating God’s goodness with Christian ministers and a Jewish rabbi.”
He again stressed the importance of dialogue with those who think differently.
“If you listen to FOX, you need to listen to CNN. If you listen to CNN, you need to listen to FOX—and we’re not doing it.”
One attendee questioned whether the Catholic Church historically promoted anti-Semitism that led many to embrace Nazi propaganda. The priest responded that Italy had one of the lowest death rates of Jews during the war as the church hid many and made fake baptismal certificates. He stated that the church never officially taught anti-Semitism or sanctioned it and that Catholics’ attitudes were likely very similar to those of other Christians of the time period. Some were prejudiced anyway, blaming Jews instead of the sins of humanity for Jesus’ death, he continued, and noted how Pope John Paul II apologized for the sins of individual Catholics against Jews and affirmed their special status as elder brothers in faith. Furthermore, Pope John Paul II affirmed that the Jewish people aren’t responsible for deicide, and that there is no supercession of Judaism by Christianity but an ongoing covenant between God and the Jewish people.
It’s easy to point fingers at another religion for failing, but they must also examine their own consciences and how they, in their daily lives, work to fight evil.
“Humankind has never taken responsibility for genocide anywhere. It’s always the Nazis; it’s always the evil people. … We all contribute to that kind of evil when we let darkness and evil thrive in ourselves,” he averred. “Evil preys on our worst fears and worst prejudices.”
But witnessing evil or seeing it in oneself can also stir one to repent and grow in love. And while the church is made up of sinners, “organized religion gives us a community so that we don’t have to stand up alone but together as a people and say, ‘this is not right,’ exactly as they did in the film.”
Attendee Lindsay Moss, a Christian who wore a pendant with a Jewish Star of David with a cross in it, stood up before the gathering and affirmed that one must rely on God’s strength to fight evil and not succumb to it. “The bottom line is it has to do with faith and how strong we are in what we believe is the essence of God, for us the Trinity, for them the Old Testament. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was very strong in his Christian faith, and he gave his own life for the cause of saving his fellow brothers. So it has to do really with how much time do we spend on our knees. How much time do we stand in front of God and have Him give us the gifts of being able to stand strong and stand firm in our faith?”
She later said she believes that one must always seek truth and strive to follow Christ actively. “If there’s evil in the world someone is in charge of evil; it’s not just some nebulous evil. I believe there is a sovereign God. People choose to ignore the truth rather than to deal with it.”
Moss, who is married to a secular Jew, has a great love of Judaism and considers Jews her family in faith. She got “holy goose bumps” when making a pilgrimage through Israel and studying the Bible there.
“All of the New Testament writers except one were of Jewish origin,” she noted. “We are the adopted children of Abraham.”
Baxter wrapped up the discussion affirming her belief that Rabbi Lebow and Msgr. Bishop would act like the bishop in the film who said he must be deported too if Jews were taken. They are “two who would say the same thing too.”
Kol Emeth member Gary Landaw, who had many ancestors killed in the Holocaust, was uplifted to hear about so many Bulgarians standing against evil, as he’s heard many more stories about individuals acting alone. “With all the movies and books I’ve read on the Holocaust this is a story I wasn’t aware of,” said Landaw, who sings in the Kol Emeth choir.
“You very rarely, especially in Eastern Europe, hear this. It was good to hear that there was some humanity in that time.”