A Melancholy Beauty: Interview with Founders Kalin and Sharon Tchonev

Liv Grimsby, Thanks To Scandinavia

A Melancholy Beauty, a Songs of Life Production, had its World Premiere tour last year with performances in Washington DC, Boston and New York City. A Melancholy Beauty is a commissioned oratorio which depicts the rescue of 49,000 Bulgarian Jews from Hitler’s death camps, in 1943. It was founded by Kalin and Sharon Tchonev; Georgi Andreev is the composer; Scott Cairns is the librettist; Aryeh Finklestein is the contributing author.

The story is one of thanksgiving and honoring those that stood beside them during World War II.

Three hundred musicians from the USA, Bulgaria and Israel performed at the concert which attracted many Bulgarian Jews who survived those terrible times and live today in Israel.

Below is an interview with founders Kalin and Sharon Tchonev. Kalin is a Bulgarian musician and his wife Sharon is an Israeli native and the granddaughter of two Bulgarian Jews who were rescued during WWII.

How did the idea of the Oratorio, A Melancholy Beauty, come to you?

Kalin: I am a Bulgarian by birth, upbringing, and training. The Songs of Life Festival, which includes A Melancholy Beauty, is an expression of my personal gratitude to the Bulgarian people for rescuing their Jewish brothers and sisters. It is also a demonstration of my love and gratitude for the Jewish people.
I am deeply connected to the rescue as my wife is a descendant of Bulgarian Jews. I am forever thankful to God and the Bulgarian people for rescuing all 49,000 Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust. Had it not been for this amazing rescue, I would not have my wife and son today.

I believe it worth noting that the Songs of Life Festival and the World Premiere concert tour of the Oratorio, A Melancholy Beauty, required complete sacrifice and an availing of all my family’s resources for four consecutive years. This includes our time, energy, staff, and finances, without any financial return to this day.
Commissioning and the Origin of the Songs of Life Festival

Kalin: Songs of Life is a Heavenly Commission. In October 2007, I was in Berlin on a business trip. One evening, I was sitting in a theater, watching a Broadway show in German, but my mind was not on the show. I was meditating on the events of WWII and particularly the fate of the Jewish people. A surge of deep emotion rose within me, as I was reminded of David and Lydia Varsano, Rina Paz, Sharon, my wife, and Eliav, my son—four generations of Bulgarian Jews, and hundreds of thousands of other Bulgarian Jews who are alive today because of the compassionate and heroic acts of the Bulgarian people during WWII.

I was then struck by a profound realization: had it not been for the heroic rescue of the Bulgarian Jews by the Bulgarian people, I would not have my wife and son today! I was overwhelmed by a deep sense of gratitude to God for blessing me with a wonderful wife and son. In His sovereignty, He enabled the Bulgarian people act courageously by resisting the evil authorities in 1943. Because of their courage, 49,000 Bulgarian Jews were saved!

By the end of the show, I felt a compelling desire to organize an international music festival of thanksgiving for the rescue of all 49,000 Bulgarian Jews. I knew that this festival needed to take place in the major centers of the Rescue—Sofia and Plovdiv, as well as in Israel.

That evening in that Berlin theatre, the first Songs of Life Festival was born in my mind. The Festival would be a large-scale choral-orchestral festival of thanksgiving and would take place in four major cities in Bulgaria and Israel: Sofia, Plovdiv, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. As I considered an appropriate concert work, I decided to present one of the most beloved Jewish works for choir and orchestra: Ernest Bloch’s Sacred Service. The work would be performed in a series of four concerts. During this First Songs of Life Festival in Bulgaria and Israel, we would present 49,000 flowers to the descendants of that worthy generation of Bulgarians who refused to be indifferent; rather, they despised complacency and chose to act bravely!

Kalin and Sharon: The purpose of the festival was clear to us from the very beginning. The following principles describe the fundamental, underlying purpose on which the festival is built, and the force which propels it:
To present thanksgiving to God.

To acknowledge the worthy generation of Bulgarians who chose to act with courage and compassion.

To reach and touch humanity with the message of hope, compassion, and love, and to encourage people to act similarly to the Bulgarian people in a time of intense evil.

To relate the lessons we learned from these noble Bulgarians.

After 12 months of unwavering determination, hard work, sacrifice, and commitment to overcome all obstacles and tremendous difficulties, our Songs of Life Festival was birthed during the season of Thanksgiving in November 2008. The festival was a great success: hundreds of musicians and auditors participated from USA, Canada, Bulgaria, and Israel, and thousands of people were touched through the message of Songs of Life.

One year later, in August of 2009, we set out to make plans and prepare for the Second Songs of Life Festival, which was to exceed the first one in scope and dimensions. During the period of preparation, which lasted two years, we underwent immense pressures and tremendous struggles; however, in the end, we found the answers concerning the realization of this enormous commission. The results are already a history.

The Second Songs of Life Festival featured an oratorio that depicted the story of the rescue. And so, we set out to read books and watch films and interviews of Bulgarian rescuers and Jewish survivors.

We then commissioned librettist, Scott Cairns of Missouri, and Bulgarian composer, Georgi Andreev, to write and compose the oratorio. The oratorio had its World Premiere at the Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC on June 21, 2011.

Do you believe the Bulgarian people are courageous people? What fundamental value do you think motivated the rescuers?

Kalin and Sharon: Yes, it is our opinion that during the time of WWII that worthy generation of Bulgarians showed great courage. We believe the essential motivation, which moved a great number of Bulgarians from all walks of life to act and protect the Jewish people, was compassion.

We believe there are two main aspects which contributed to the building of character and attitude of the Bulgarian people, which determined their behavior as protectors of their Jewish compatriots during the Holocaust.

Bulgarians have a long history of suffering. Since 681 AD when Asparuh established the First Bulgarian Empire, they have experienced deep, intense suffering.
Throughout history, Jews and Bulgarians have developed and maintained a deep appreciation for each other and developed true, lasting friendships. Anti-Judaic attitudes and false theological doctrines never took root in Bulgaria. Jews and Bulgarians influenced each other, fought wars shoulder to shoulder, appreciated each other’s holidays, and developed relationships that have endured the test of time. I think the beauty, strength, and wisdom of character—produced as a result of intense suffering of both nations for hundreds of years—taught them to identify with one another and created this special bond of love between them. Bulgarians lived together with the Jews and saw them as “one” with them, not as separate people.

In order for one to gain complete understanding and appreciation as to the reasons as well as the preparation of the Bulgarian people for this rescue, one must examine the behavior of the Bulgarian people within the context of a brief historical perspective.

Preparation of the Bulgarian People

For hundreds of years, while suffering under common oppressors—under the Byzantines from 1018–1185, the Ottoman empire from 1296-1878, and then while fighting shoulder to shoulder during the Balkan wars and WWI—Bulgarians and Jews developed love, friendship, and deep appreciation for one another as they bled and wept together. This bond and unique friendship between Bulgarians and Bulgarian Jews, which was developed during a period of more than millennia, enduring the test of time, could not be broken by the spell and maniacal evil forces of the Nazi racial propaganda and laws which sought to annihilate the entire Jewish population of Europe.
During WWII, Bulgaria was allied with Nazi Germany. However, this allegiance was not an expression of how the Bulgarian people felt about Hitler; rather, it was a political decision that aimed to protect the Bulgarian people from being engaged again in military actions for the causes of the Great Powers. King Boris did not send any soldiers to fight against the Russian Army, which liberated Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire dominion in 1878.

The establishment of the First Bulgarian Kingdom was in 681 AD. In 864 AD, the Bulgarian king, Boris I, accepted Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the religion of the Bulgarian people. For nearly 1150 years, this has been and continues to be the national religion of the Bulgarian people.

Bulgaria’s history is long, rich and eventful, and provides a unique perspective as to the reasons the Bulgarian people protected the Jewish people. I believe that the intense suffering Bulgarian people endured throughout history has shaped their character and ultimately prepared and determined their heroic actions as rescuers in 1943. The tremendous suffering and unjust treatment against the Bulgarian people over hundreds of years has produced resilience and firmness of character on the one hand, but also tenderness of heart and the ability to identify with those who suffer on the other.

We believe the extent to which we experience suffering, the ways we choose to deal with suffering, and the decisions we make while suffering produce this unique ingredient in our character, which will determine our subsequent actions when confronted by choices of how to behave when another human being is under distress or subjected to oppression.

From a social standpoint, history reveals that Bulgarians and Jews were closely knitted together within the Bulgarian fabric of society, and always had close, warm relationships and friendships with one another.

Another reason for the actions the Bulgarians took to protect the Jews was well-summarized, oddly enough, by the German Ambassador to Bulgaria during WWII: “Bulgarians who grew up with Gypsies, Armenians, Jews and Turks do not see any need to take a special action against their Jews.”

Was the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church helpful during the rescue of Bulgarian Jews? How do you explain it due to the fact that there has always been strong anti-Judaic sentiment in the Church?

The role of the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church was critical to the rescue! The two High Priests of the Bulgarian church, Metropolite Stephen of Sofia and Metropolite Kiril of Plovdiv, were most instrumental in the rescue. They wrote letters imploring the King of Bulgaria to show mercy to the Jews. In our libretto, we dedicated an entire movement to depict the emotional scene when Metropolite Kiril jumped the fence to the school yard where the Bulgarian Jews were held captive, awaiting to be put on the trains to Poland.

Beginning in the fourth century, false doctrines against the Jewish people infiltrated the Church in Western Europe. These poisonous teachings have persisted for more than 16 centuries and have been the leading cause of fierce persecutions and beastly atrocities against the Jewish people. These persecutions found their ultimate fruition and expression in the racial propaganda of Nazi Germany during WWII and the systematic annihilation of six million Jews during the Holocaust.

Even today, some of these false doctrines and attitudes have not been fully eradicated from certain sections of the Christian church. It is, however, important to note that many Christians worldwide have deep love, appreciation and respect for the Jews and the Land of Israel.

In Bulgaria, however, these doctrines never took root. On the contrary, Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox priests and Jewish rabbis were friends, and Bulgarians and Jews formed long-lasting relationships of mutual respect and friendship. Bulgarian Priests and Jewish rabbis had appreciation for one another and never felt threatened by each other’s spiritual understanding. Instead, they shared their wisdom with one another; for example, Bulgarian children were given Jewish names and celebrated the Passover with fellow Jews. Throughout many centuries of coexistence with the Bulgarians, the Jewish people who lived in the Bulgarian lands assimilated and appropriated much of their cultural and ethnic ways, leading them to develop a distinct lifestyle, which, in a unique way, blended features of both cultures.

The true history of the rescue seemed to have been ignored by historians and the public in the last 65 years. Why?

We have often reflected as to the reasons why the most dramatic rescue story of an entire nation of Jews during the Holocaust has been ignored for so long. We do not feel qualified to paint a comprehensive picture as the reasons are complex and require in-depth knowledge of the intricate interplay between historical and political facts, agendas, and attitudes which, to a certain degree, have remained obscure throughout history.

Source: Thanks to Scandinavia


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