'Optimists' documentary tells another side of the Holocaust

| Friday, March 15, 2013, 5:26 a.m.

For 81 minutes on Thursday night, visitors to the Bulgarian-Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center saw a story many do not know about the Holocaust.

The documentary “The Optimists” points out that although Bulgaria's government collaborated with Nazi Germany, ordinary Bulgarians helped save the country's Jewish population. Leaders of the Orthodox Church and the country's parliament, thwarted efforts to subject 50,000 Jews — including Israeli filmmaker Jacky Comforty's parents — to concentration camps and even death.

“I was very close to my parents,” Comforty said before showing the film. “They said, ‘You know, there is a movie you must tell, of how they were saved.'”

The title of the film refers to a jazz band whose members told their stories.

“My mother grew up listening to the Optisaid.

One member, clarinetist Niko Nissimov, was rescued because two Bulgarian Christian friends managed to get “transit orders” that pulled Nissimov and 10 others from a train headed from Bulgarian-occupied Thrace to a death camp.

That movie and an exhibit, “The Power of Civil Society: The Fate of Jews in Bulgaria,” were on display at the West Homestead center.

The exhibit was assembled by Bulgaria's modern government, which has a strategic partnership with the United States.

Comforty and his wife Lisa Vogel Comforty spent four months in 1990 filming in Bulgaria, Israel and Spain.

“Our ancestors were expelled from Spain 500 years ago,” Jacky Comforty said during the film.

The couple gathered 500 hours of video and 10,000 photographs, then over the next decade cobbled the film together. Comforty said it is not a finished project, as he has continued gathering material since the film premiered and was shown for 13 weeks in 2001 in Chicago.

The film was exhibited in New York in 2005, Florida in 2006 and three months ago in Los Angeles.

“Everyone is entitled to their own faith,” said Bishop Boris Kharalampiev, who intervened on behalf of the Jews in his city of Pazardjik, Bulgaria, and whose story is among the 160 hours of interviews conducted for “The Optimists.”

“No one should violate the intimate, spiritual life of another,” Kharalampiev said. “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.”

Bulgarian ambassador H. E. Elena Poptodorova said the alliance between her government and the United States has included international security, the fight against terror and organized crime and a defense cooperation agreement that allows for four joint U.S.-Bulgarian military bases in her country.

On the economic front, she said, “We have major U.S. investments in Bulgaria and we are looking for more.”

She said Bulgaria provides an outreach for U.S. companies wishing to reach the Middle East and the former Soviet republics.

Sadly, as was pointed out both in the film and the exhibit, in territories Bulgaria obtained from other countries in its alliance with Nazi Germany — Yugoslav Macedonia and Greek Thrace — agents of King Boris III did not have the interference from “civil society” and were able to ship 11,000 Jews to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps.

Still, as Bulgarian center president Kenneth Service said, what happened in Bulgaria itself “gives you hope for the human condition.”

“It is one of the most amazing miracles of the Second World War,” said center executive director Walter Kolar.

At least one person in the audience could agree — because as a teenager he lived it.

Albert Farhy rose after the film was shown and displayed a star that Bulgaria's rulers ordered him and other Jews to wear.

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or pcloonan@tribweb.com.

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