The Dressmaker

: Documentary
GENRE: Documentary
STATUS: Production


The Dressmaker follows the story of three generations from the Gatenio family from New York, Sephardic Jews with roots both in Bulgaria and Greece, as they grapple with competing narratives about their family’s complex history as told from the perspective of the 94-year-old family matriarch and a long time dressmaker Stella Gatenio.



“The Dressmaker” unfolds across three generations from the Gatenio family from New York, Sephardic Jews with roots in Bulgaria and Greece, two neighboring countries with complex history between them. During WWII the fate of the Sephardic Jews who lived there was directly affected by the long standing territorial disputes between these two countries. During the war Bulgaria became an ally to Germany, and occupied Northern Greece and Yugoslav Macedonia, territories it considered hers, and where almost 12 000 Sephardic Jews lived. This history became even more complicated when the fate of the Bulgarian, and the Northern Greek and Macedonian Jews turned out completely differently.

When in 1944 Stella Mashiah, a Bulgarian Jewish woman from Sofia met and fell in love with Carlo Gatenio, a Greek Jew from Drama their marriage brought into their daily lives the conflict that seized those two communities: under public pressure, Bulgarian authorities had saved their own country’s Jews, but deported the Jews of the occupied territories of Northern Greece and Yugoslav Macedonia. Thus the Gatenio family’s story incorporated in a unique way this drama: 11 343 Jews from Northern Greece and Macedonia perished in the death camp at Treblinka, among them the parents of Carlo Gatenio, David and Rachel, and his two sisters Stella, 14 and Beatrice, 18. Carlo survived in a labor camp in Bulgaria, while his brother Isaac escaped to Athens. While Stella’s entire family survived the war, and immigrated to Israel in 1948 as part of one of the more successful alias from Europe.

Though the Bulgarian Jews also suffered persecution: their property was taken, businesses were confiscated, Jewish schools were closed, they had to wear a yellow star and observe a curfew, and men were sent to labor camps, the level of anti-Semitism in Bulgaria proper was not as deep as in other countries allowing for the progressive voices to put enough pressure on the government resulting in change of policy, and sparing the lives of the Bulgarian Jews.

Stella and Carlo met in the fall of 1944 in Sofia. Carlo had just survived the labor camp, and Stella had just returned from the country side where her family was interned after 1943. Soon they married and returned to Drama, Greece, where they found the Jewish community there completely decimated. Only 39 Jews returned. This prompted most of the Jews to leave the town, and Stella and Carlo Gatenio immigrated to Detroit in 1951. In 1955 they settled in New York among the Greek Jewish community that was already established there.

Along their journey a constant companion was Stella’s SINGER sewing machine, which she took wherever she went.  A tool for survival through deportation, resettlement, labor camps, and immigration, it had also become a beacon of hope, and a symbol of their entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity, while Stella had became known as the little dressmaker. Whether in Bulgaria, Greece, Detroit or New York, Stella and Carlo would find a way to make life go forward and never looked back. At age 16, Stella would use her budding sewing skills to help feed her family during the war by sewing dresses in exchange for food; in Greece she would sew Greek flags, which her husband sold at his small stand; in America she would mend “seconds” from Brooklyn clothing factories to sell in the small store she and Carlo opened on Orchard street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

But along the way they always carried the drama of the Jews from Bulgaria and Greece, and the many unresolved questions as to why their families had such a different fate during the war.

For years Stella didn’t talk about her own Holocaust experiences with her children. Surrounded by Greek Jewish friends, the tragic fate of the Greek Jews was discussed often, but nothing much was said about the Bulgarian Jews and why or how they were spared. Stella and Carlo worked really hard to forget about the past and to move on with their lives, after all they immigrated to America to give a better life to their children. But Stella’s Greek friends often asked her the question: “Why are you still alive? Why did your family survive and ours didn’t?” Thought this caused her great deal of pain she chose to remain silent. When Carlo passed away, she began to talk.

Today, at 94, Stella along with her daughter Shirley and granddaughter Estee seek answers into the family’s complex, unresolved history, after 70 years of silence

In hearing her stories, Shirley and Estee visit Greece, Bulgaria, Poland and Israel to come to terms with the family’s history. One important question informs their journey: “My mother’s side of the family came from Bulgaria, and my dad’s side came from Greece. On one hand I am very grateful that Bulgaria did save its Jews and that tells my mothers side of the story, but my father's side of the story is that under Bulgaria’s occupation of Northern Greece it was responsible for his family perishing. And how do you reconcile that, and what is the story, that you could live with comfortably?”


Finding my own voice has been a long and challenging journey, one that is ongoing. Growing up in my native country of Bulgaria during the communist period, I was immersed in a culture that was all about the collective and very little about the individual. When in 1994 I immigrated to New York, I was eager to discover my individual voice. And America was a great place for that as it is all about the individual freedoms. My first years here were an exciting but challenging time. It also became clear to me that in America, which valued individual freedoms, the voices of women and minorities were not as loud and as free as I expected. Though at first I studied psychology, I found documentary filmmaking to be closer to my way of self-expression. Documentary filmmaking gave me the tools to explore the inner life of real people, and to use my imagination to discover what motivates them.
Out of these experiences my goal soon became to discover and shine light on women whose stories have been buried or silenced for a long periods of time.

In the beginning, I was still very much attached to my old identity. I made my first film, Binka: To Tell a Story About Silence, about the first woman film director in Bulgaria, Binka Zhelyazkova, and her battles with the communist censorship, which often led her work to be underappreciated and unrecognized. That was an empowering experience but the question for me remained: how do I translate my new life in America into my work. In reality my POV was that of an immigrant woman. Along the way I became a filmmaker and a mother, and that aspect added additional complexity as I was trying to build a career as a filmmaker in a new and challenging environment for women filmmakers in particular. One might think I was simply naïve but I believed that my voice is an important one and persevered. Then I came upon the amazing story of Stella Gatenio, a Bulgarian Jewish woman from New York. What attracted me to Stella--a Holocaust survivor, mother, entrepreneur, expert dressmaker, and above all, natural storyteller-- was her determination to tell her story -- and be heard. She belongs to a generation of women who in many cases were silenced by their partners.. It was her Greek husband’s decision to immigrate to America, his tragic story that dominated the family’s history. Throughout their life together, she wanted to talk about her own experiences, both as a child and a Holocaust survivor, but for many reasons she felt that she couldn’t. Often she would bury her face in a pillow and cry herself to sleep when what she really wanted to do was to scream. Stella’s story is the story of many women who silently endured war, deportations, loss, immigration, and resettlements but kept going, even though in many cases they were the ones that kept the family going.

Her relationship with her Singer sewing machine was amazing to me. Instinctively she knew that this was her survival tool, and she held onto it for dear life.
Stella not only has a compelling story to tell, she tells it with a great sense of humor and self-irony. Those qualities have helped her see the bright side to life no matter the difficulties she faced. Wherever the family went she would set up the sewing machine and start all over again.

For me Stella’s voice is one worth discovering and listening to.



Elka Nikolova - Writer/Director/Producer

Since graduating from the New School in 2000, Elka Nikolova has worked in the film and television industry in New York City. Her 2006 documentary film “Binka: to Tell a Story About Silence” premiered at the MOMA in 2007, and received the audience award at the SEEFest in LA in 2007. In 2017 Nikolova completed the documentary “Angel Wagenstein: Art is a Weapon ”, which she co-produced and edited. “The Dressmaker” is her second documentary film as a Director /Producer.

Vanyo Georgiev - Cinematographer

Since graduating from the New Bulgarian University in 2000, Vanyo Georgiev worked first in the Bulgarian film and TV industry as cameraman and DP until immigrating to the US in 2006. Since 2007 Vanyo has been working in the New York City film and television industry as a cinematographer and lighting director. “The Dressmaker” is the second film he is collaborating on with Elka Nikolova.


MIroslav Gaidoshik - Cameraman/ Editor

Since graduating from the National Film School in Sofia Bulgaria in 2001, Miroslav Gaidoshik has been working in the Bulgarian film and TV industry as a cameraman, and an editor on various television shows and documentary films.


Fernanda Rossi - Writer

Internationally renowned writer and speaker Fernanda Rossi has collaborated in more than 500 fiction scripts, documentaries, proposals and fundraising samples. Two documentaries were nominated for the Academy Award®, and another was nominated for Best Script for the Wildscreen Panda Awards. Many others screened and were awarded at festivals such as IDFA, Hot Docs, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Sundance, DOCNYC and broadcast on PBS, HBO and BBC. The treatments she has written won funding from ITVS, NYSCA and the National Film Board of Canada.

Ivanka Gezenko - Bulgarian National Archives, Specialist, Project Advisor

Angel Chorapchiev - Scholar, Yad Vashem, Project Advisor

Vasilis Ritsaleos - Scholar, Greece, Project Advisor

Vadim Altskan - USHMM, Scholar, Project Advisor


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