“The Optimists” is a simple film, as much family memoir as documentary. But the story it tells is as significant as it is little known: how the people of Bulgaria rose up in 1943 and saved the country’s Jews from deportation to the death camps of World War II.
Completed several years ago, “The Optimists” (named after a jazz band of the period with Jewish members) is playing in Los Angeles now because of an exhibition at UCLA’s Hillel Center titled “Bulgaria and the Holocaust: The Fragility of Goodness.” Whatever the reason, this is a tale well worth telling.
Directed by Jacky Comforty, whose family was among those saved, “The Optimists” reveals the sequence of events that kept all 49,000 of Bulgaria’s Jews out of the camps. The heart of the reason is that for generations Bulgarian Jews, Muslims and Christians lived together in the kind of multicultural amity that is often talked about but rarely achieved. As Bishop Boris of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church says with feeling, “it is criminal to impose religious beliefs on your fellow man.”
Once World War II began, Bulgaria’s rulers signed an alliance with Germany, which meant among other things that Jews were conscripted into forced labor camps inside the country and were forced to wear yellow stars.
But when word leaked out that 8,500 Jews had been rounded up early on the morning of March 10, 1943, and placed on trains destined for the concentration camp Treblinka, their non-Jewish fellow countrymen made their voices heard. Dimitar Peshev, the deputy speaker of the National Assembly, risked his career and his life by organizing a letter signed by 43 deputies denouncing the deportations and insisted to the country’s interior minister that they be stopped.
Similarly, Patriarch Cyril, head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, said he would be deported along with the Jews if the order stood. By the end of the day, amazingly, all the Jews who’d been rounded up were released.
“The Optimists” is filled with first-person testimony from Jews who were saved and non-Jews who saved them, people like Rubin Dimitrov, a baker who hid Jews in his ovens and says simply, “a true human being is obliged to help.” As a rescued Jew says with emotion at the film’s conclusion, “to be a Bulgarian is to be a mensch.”
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills and Town Center 5, Encino