A QUESTION OF SURVIVAL


TYPE
: Documentary
GENRE: Documentary
STATUS: Post-Production

LOGLINE

The controversial story of how public action saved one nation’s Jewish population during World War II. 

SYNOPSIS

A QUESTION OF SURVIVAL: Bulgarian Jews and the Holocaust

Holocaust stories have been told in dozens of films, both documentaries and features. While several have examined how Denmark rescued most of its Jews, few have touched on the incredible story of how public activism saved Bulgaria’s Jews from the Nazi death camps. In March 1943, responding to intense public pressure, the Bulgarian government, an ally to Germany, cancelled the deportation of 48,000 Jewish citizens. The so-called “Rescue” of Bulgarian Jews was a unique and unprecedented event in the history of World War II and the Holocaust.       

To this day that event complicates the conventional narrative of the Holocaust, and still puzzles survivors, historians, and the public at large. It is true that the Bulgarian government treated Jews as second class citizens during the war: they were forced to wear small yellow stars and forbidden to operate their own businesses; Jewish schools were closed, Jewish men were sent to labor camps; and  the Sofia Jews were dispersed in the provinces. And yet their treatment was far less severe than the Jews in the rest of Europe. The lack of overt antisemitism in Bulgaria made it possible for the public to pressure the government to cancel a scheduled deportation of Bulgarian Jews in March 1943. 

Most of the Bulgarian Jews later immigrated to Israel, and some made their way to America. But after the war many found it difficult to relate their experiences to those of most Holocaust survivors. As a result, many Bulgarian Jews struggle to determine where they fit in. Even though they weren’t forced into ghettos or concentration camps, what does their story add to our conception of the Holocaust? A QUESTION OF SURVIVAL tackles that issue through the perspectives of Misha Avramoff (b 1939), Robert Bakish (b. 1926) and Chaim Zemach (b. 1928), now residents of New York City, who survived WWII in Bulgaria as children.

“You are not my kind of Jew, because you didn’t experience what I experienced.”

Misha heard that often working as a community organizer with the many Polish survivors on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

A QUESTION OF SURVIVAL explores  the questions: Are Bulgarian Jews true “survivors” of the Holocaust? Can the Bulgarian story find its place within the narrative of the Holocaust? What was the role of ordinary non-Jewish Bulgarians in the open defiance of their Nazi allies?  In retelling this exceptional tale, we inspire audiences to see how, even in the darkest and most volatile moments of human history, effective resistance is possible.

ARTISTIC STATEMENT

Why am I making this film?

There are many different interpretations of who saved the Bulgarian Jews, and why. Opinions depend upon political affiliation. The story remains extremely politicized and controversial, because while the Bulgarian government saved its own country’s Jews, it handed over to Nazi Germany 11,343 Jews from Macedonia and Northern Greece, territories it occupied during the war. All those Jews were deported to the death camp of Treblinka, and all perished. And yet this same government caved under public pressure from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, members of Parliament from the ruling party and the opposition, intellectuals, and ordinary people, and spared the lives of the 48,000 Bulgarian Jews. The incongruity left both Jewish and Christian Bulgarians to struggle with conflicting feelings of pride and shame. 

I learned about this part of my country’s history  after I arrived in New York and met a few Bulgarian Jews here. Growing up in Bulgaria during the communist period, I heard very little discussion about it--maybe a paragraph or two in our history textbooks. I found the story fascinating but I was also puzzled as to why so few people knew anything about it. When I started discussing it with survivors, historians, public figures, and regular people, I was struck by the confusion of what they knew, and how they actually talked about it.

I met Misha Avramoff, Robert Bakish, and Chaim Zemach in New York, and knew that I had to capture their stories while they were still alive. I began shooting interviews with them. They had all lived through the war in Bulgaria as children aged 4-18, and immigrated to America with their families in the 1940s and 50s.  Each was affected by their unusual survival, the realization in hindsight of how close they came to death. Each has struggled to make sense of their own story.

Until 1989 Bulgaria remained closed off  behind the Iron Curtain, and access to its archives was rare and minimal. Only after the fall of the communist regime was access finally allowed, but by then the “official” narrative of the Holocaust had  already been written. Furthermore, the little-known and unusual survival of the 48,000 Bulgarian Jews sounded too unbelievable and unreal to fit comfortably into that narrative. It also posed uneasy questions, such as: What was the role of public resistance in saving the Jewish population? Why didn't similar resistance happen in other countries? How could the Bulgarian people hand off one population of Jews to be slaughtered, while protecting their own? As a result this story remains little known, its tremendous value lost in controversy and confusion. 

My documentary aims to shine light on the relevance of this chapter in history to our current political climate, where minorities are scapegoated for political gain, and where the role of public opinion in protecting them is ever so critical. An important part of this documentary is the larger immigrant story, and the refuge the families of Misha Avfamoff, Robert Bakish, Chaim Zemach, as well as myself, were able to find in America. 

KEY CREW

Elka Nikolova - Director/Producer/Editor

Elka Nikolova was born in Bulgaria and studied psychology at the University of Sofia before she moved to the United States in 1994. In 2000 she received her MA in Media Studies, with a focus on film production, at the New School in New York. She has worked in film and television in New York since 2003. Her first documentary film, "Binka: To Tell a Story About Silence," completed in 2007, premiered at MOMA in New York.  "A Question of Survival" is her second documentary film. 

Vanyo Georgiev - Cinematographer

Vanyo Georgiev was born in Bulgaria and graduated from the New Bulgarian University in Sofia with a BA in film and television production.  He worked as a cinematographer for Bulgarian Documentary Studio "Vreme" and the TV series "8 & 1/2," produced by Film Studio Boyana, before moving to New York in 2006. In New York he works as a freelance DP and Lighting Director for Bank of America Video and Broadcast, and on various documentary productions. 

Ivanka Gezenko - Republic of Bulgaria Archives State Agency, Specialist, Project Advisor

Ivanka Gezenko is an archivist specialising in the archives on the Bulgarian Jewish community, and is a curator of the website http://www.archives.bg/jews at the Republic of Bulgaria Archives State Agency. 

Vadim Altskan - USHMM, Scholar, Project Advisor

Project Director, International Archival Programs, the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Lora Myers - Writing consultant/Mentor

Lora Myers is a writer, film producer, and educator. As a producer and writer, she has worked in the USA, Italy, and Brazil on numerous award winning documentaries, public television specials, and feature film scripts. She is currently developing a song-based app for teaching English literacy.

Joseph Benatov - Historical consultant

Joseph Benatov is Lecturer in Foreign Languages in the Modern Hebrew Language Program at the University of Pennsylvania. He holds a doctorate in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory from the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation is titled “Looking in the Iron Mirror: Eastern Europe in the American Imaginary, 1958-2001."

Ben Wolf - Additional Camera

Ben Wolf’s work as a cinematographer on documentary ?lms ranges from Emmy winner “Baring It All” (Dir: Patricia Zagarella) to “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay” (Dir: Molly Bernstein & Alan Edelstein), a Kino Lorber release, as well as “Amsterdam Stories USA” (Dirs: Rob Rombout & Rogier van Eck), a 6-hour road movie of small town America. He helped develop and shoot a web series for The Indian National Congress Party entitled “Billion and One Voices," a collage of modern India.

 

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