When he was sitting there in a Berlin theater in 2007 watching a production of the musical “Mamma Mia” in German, Kalin Tchonev’s mind started to wander. He began to think about the Holocaust.
“While I was meditating on the history of Germany and the war, and the fate of the Jewish people, suddenly I was gripped with the realization of the fate of the Bulgarian Jews.”
The Jews of Bulgaria, who numbered about 49,000 at the onset of World War II, were not deported to the concentration camps. Jewish men were not lined up along the edges of mass graves they were forced to dig for themselves, then machine-gunned by the Einsatzgruppen, or Nazi mobile killing units.
The Jews of Bulgaria were not corralled in local prisons or work camps. They were not stripped of their meager belongings or forced to abandon their property.
The Bulgarian people, following the broad imperatives of the virulently anti-Nazi church, would allow none of it.
As a result, nearly all of the Jews in Bulgaria survived the war, presenting historians with an anomaly and Tchonev, ultimately, with a family.
“It struck like a lightning bolt,” he said, “that if not for this amazing miraculous rescue, I would not have my wife today.”
So the Tchonevs decided to produce a big concert the following year, featuring Ernest Bloch’s “Sacred Service” and paying tribute to the Bulgarian people. Presented by their company, Varna International, in Bulgaria and Israel, it was a huge success, Tchonev said.
“On the streets of Bulgaria one Sunday, we distributed, in five cities simultaneously, 49,000 flowers,” he said.
That led to another, even bolder project: the commissioning of a new oratorio, “A Melancholy Beauty,” by the young Bulgarian composer Georgi Andreev, and the organization of a multiperformance “Songs of Life Festival,” which premiered in 2011 with concerts at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City, the Wang Theatre in Boston and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Now the oratorio will be presented to South Carolina audiences: at the Charleston Music Hall on Nov. 2 and the Koger Center for the Arts in Columbia on Nov. 3.
“A Melancholy Beauty” runs about 70 minutes and consists of seven movements. It’s scored for a narrator, vocal soloists, large chorus, children’s chorus, Bulgarian folk singers and a mix of classical and folk instruments.
Donald Portnoy, professor of conducting at the University of South Carolina, will conduct the USC Symphony Orchestra, Philip Kutev National Folklore Ensemble, University of Florida Concert Choir and other vocal groups.
A balancing act
The concerts mark the 70th anniversary of the Nazis’ first attempt to deport Bulgaria’s Jews, an attempt that failed after activists, along with Deputy Speaker of the Parliament Dimiter Peshev and a few other politicians refused to load the cargo trains with their fellow citizens.
Two more deportation attempts were stymied. And King Boris III, an ally of Germany who had imposed anti-Jewish laws and helped to facilitate the removal of Jews from neighboring territories temporarily under Bulgarian control, was forced to make excuses to Hitler.
But why? What made Bulgaria such an outlier?
Holocaust historian Ted Rosengarten, who teaches at the College of Charleston, said the fate of the country’s Jews was determined by several factors, both deliberate and coincidental.
The population of Jews was small, less than 1 percent of the country’s six million. And Jews were very poor, getting by, like many of their countrymen, on the essentials. They were free to practice their religion.
“Anti-Semitism was never a powerful force,” Rosengarten said. “It’s very, very hard to say why not.”
Part of the reason probably was political. Though the Bulgarian government was formally aligned with Hitler, the country was close in many ways to the Soviet Union. Boris was afraid the Soviets might win the war, and he was afraid of the possible repercussions, Rosengarten said.
Jews were generally considered “Bolsheviks” (except by Russians themselves), or at least sympathetic to the communist cause in contrast to the fascist one.
So the Bulgarian government was careful in its treatment of the Jews and the Russians. It worked out a deal with Germany that exempted Bulgaria from sending troops to fight the Soviets.
Furthermore, Jews were essential to the functioning of the Bulgarian economy. They were traders in livestock in an agrarian society, working closely with the peasantry. And they were not very sophisticated religiously or culturally, so didn’t engender much resentment or prejudice, Rosengarten said.
“It was difficult for society to imagine who would take their place,” he said.
But perhaps the biggest reason the Jews were saved had to do with the Bulgarian church, which was “absolutely anti-Nazi,” and stood up for the Jews, he said. Boris was afraid of the leaders of the church.
Because the church refused to cooperate with the Nazis, so did lower churchmen, Rosengarten said.
It is still a potent question for historians why the Bulgarian Church protected the Jews while the Greek and Hungarian (and Italian and French, etc.) churches did not. But the fact remains that religious leaders played a significant role in influencing the common people and preventing genocide.
“It’s the one country where we can credit the church,” Rosengarten said.
Ray of light
The Tchonevs, motivated for both personal and professional reasons, threw their efforts (and finances) behind the Songs of Life Festival.
“It was the honorable thing to do,” Kalin Tchonev said, adding that there was another motivating factor. “Songs of Life does not originate with us,” he said. “Songs of Life has heavenly origins. Our faith stands very clearly as a testimony.”
So, for them, the concert is an expression of faith, thanksgiving to God and personal testimony, he said.
Martin Perlmutter, director of the Jewish Studies Program at the College of Charleston, said he welcomed the chance to recognize the Bulgarian wartime experience.
“Nov. 9th commemorates the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a time of mankind’s most awful inhumanity and the onset of the Holocaust, which absolutely obliterated European Jewry,” Perlmutter said. “The Bulgarian story provides a small ray of light, a sign that there is righteousness and goodness even in the most hopeless times. I am happy that that story is being presented to the South Carolina community.”
Tchonev, who is a trained musician, said music was a perfect vehicle for expressing profound ideas and emotions, and for paying tribute to this lesser-known aspect of 20th century history.
“As a concert organizer, as a lover of music, as a professional musician, it is obligation,” he said.
And it has been made possible not only through dedication and faith, but thanks to good fortune.
In 2011, Varna International’s business suddenly tripled, allowing the Tchonevs to invest much of the proceeds into the Songs of Life Festival — without debt or sponsorship.
“It required a miracle, and we got a miracle,” he said.
But the important thing is that the oratorio delivers a message of hope.
“Ordinary citizens can do something kind. It doesn’t have to be big, dramatic,” he said. “A small gesture can turn someone’s life around sometimes.”
If you go
WHAT: Songs of Life Festival: “A Melancholy Beauty”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2
WHERE: Charleston Music Hall, 37 John St.
MORE INFO: For more information, visit http://songsoflife.org; for tickets call 800-514-3849 or go to http://charlestonmusichall.com/events. A second performance is set for 7:30 p.m. Nov. 3 at the Koger Center in Columbia.