While growing up in Israel, Jacky Comforty occasionally heard stories about World War II from his parents. He knew that they and most of their fellow Bulgarian Jews had somehow managed to survive the Nazi occupation of Europe. But it wasn’t until 1984, when Comforty interviewed them for a possible documentary on their lives, that he learned how.
In March 1943 Comforty’s grandparents and his aunt and uncle, who lived in the city of Plovdiv, were rounded up and brought to a school yard. They were among a group of 8,500 Jews headed for Treblinka and almost certain death. But instead of boarding trains that night, the whole group was set free by an act of the Bulgarian parliament.
As Comforty spoke to more Bulgarian Jews who lived through the war, he began to understand why this amazing story wasn’t better known. For many years the sheer enormity and horror of the suffering during the Holocaust dwarfed the stories of survival.
“The pain of the victims was always in the forefront, and then the Bulgarians accepted it and stopped thinking about it,” says Comforty.
After Comforty’s grandmother died in Israel in 1988, he and his wife, Lisa, documentary filmmakers who work out of their Evanston home, found plastic bags and shoe boxes full of photos among her things. The 1,500 photographs showed scenes of Jewish life in Bulgaria before and during World War II–everything from a 1926 family gathering to his father taking a lunch break with friends at the forced labor camp where he spent two years.
“Not many people have tons of photos from that time period,” says Lisa, a former lawyer who grew up in Chicago. “Anyone who did have them didn’t have many. But Jacky’s grandfathers were photo buffs. They took pictures of everyday life, which was also unusual. It’s astonishing that they survived, because when the Jews emigrated from Bulgaria to Israel, they stayed in refugee camps. They couldn’t easily cart around photos.”
“We went to the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv and asked them how many photos they had of Bulgarian Jews,” says Jacky. “They said they had ten.” The collection at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem had 82. “They had really made an effort to gather photos, and here we were with 1,500.”
“It was a sign that we should start the project,” says Lisa.
In 1990 the pair spent three months recording hours of oral histories, starting with the people Jacky knew from the Bulgarian community in Israel as well as people in Bulgaria, the U.S., and Spain. That was just the beginning of the exhaustive research that went into their two-hour film, The Optimists. The fall of the eastern bloc enabled them to obtain footage and photos from previously unforthcoming sources, such as the Bulgarian police.
“We did not know how much material we would find,” says Jacky. It took five years just to scan and digitally archive the 5,000 photos they eventually gathered; 54 hours of their oral histories and interviews are now part of the collection at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
The Optimists, narrated by Jacky, weaves the Comforty story in with that of the entire Jewish population of Bulgaria, all 50,000 members of which were protected from being deported. (The title of the film refers to a Bulgarian group that played American big band standards during the 1930s and ’40s.) The Comfortys explain that unlike in other European countries, the Jewish population in Bulgaria–primarily descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain during the Inquisition–was never confined to ghettos but integrated into society. “Traditionally there was a good relationship, and it did not stop with the war,” says Jacky. “In Bulgaria, anti-Semitism was more foreign than the Jews.”
In 1941, just before the Bulgarian government aligned itself with Germany, it began to hand down anti-Jewish laws, such as a 9 PM curfew. Then Jews were forced to wear Star of David badges in public. The laws were “basically Bulgaria’s entry ticket to the club,” says Jacky. Soon Jews lost their jobs and were taxed heavily; Comforty’s grandfather was compelled to sell his only asset–an apartment building–to pay taxes. But the new rules didn’t sit well with the country’s Christian and Muslim population. When fascists painted anti-Jewish graffiti at night, it would often be cleaned up–by non-Jews–before daybreak.
“The Germans kept trying to get the Bulgarian government to deport the Jews,” says Lisa. “The church protested loudly. So did labor unions and intellectuals. Everyday people also helped–people from all echelons were against it. There were still anti-Semites and fascists, but the government was so afraid of losing popular sentiment, they staved it off.”
In The Optimists a Christian woman talks about wearing a Star of David badge when she went out with her Jewish friends, and a baker recalls concealing a group of Jews in his oven to hide them from the police. A 92-year-old Bulgarian Orthodox Church elder tells how a higher-up threatened to go with the Jews to the camps if the deportation wasn’t stopped.
“So many individuals risked their lives to protect their friends and neighbors,” says Jacky. “There was no popular support for the anti-Jewish policies of the government….There is story after story of people taking action–who couldn’t stand seeing something bad happen to their neighbor.”
Jews from nearby Macedonia and Thrace were not so lucky. Those countries’ entire Jewish populations, about 11,500 people, were deported just a few days before the first group of Bulgarian Jews were rounded up. Their trains went through Bulgaria on their way to Treblinka and Auschwitz. “The story started leaking and resistance mounted,” says Jacky. Ultimately 43 members of the parliament, bowing to public sentiment, defied the Germans and put through an act forbidding any deportations of Bulgarian Jews.
The thing to remember, says Jacky, is that people ignored their differences and pulled together. “We have so few examples of goodness,” he says. “That’s the important thing about this story.”
The Comfortys will premiere an hour-long version of The Optimists Thursday, March 9, 57 years to the day after Jacky Comforty’s grandparents were rounded up for deportation and then let go. It’s at 7 at the Chicago Historical Society, Clark at North (312-642-4600) and will be followed by a question-and-answer session. Admission is free.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.