‘songs of life’

70 years later, a story of Jewish rescue in Bulgaria told in music

cclick@thestate.comOctober 31, 2013 

Holocaust Street Honor

Bulgarian policemen overseeing the deportation in Skopje, Yugoslavia, of Macedonian Jews to the German death camps in March 1943 in Bulgarian occupied Skopje.


  • If You Go “Songs of Life Festival: A Melancholy Beauty” will tell the story of the rescue of Bulgarian Jews during World War II.

    When: Nov. 3, 7 p.m.

    Where: Koger Center for the Arts

    Tickets: $30-$60 (803) 251-2222

A concert is set Sunday at the Koger Center for the Arts to commemorate one of history’s redeeming moments, the rescue during World War II of 49,000 Bulgarian Jews from Hitler’s death camps.

The Songs of Life Festival presentation, which includes as its centerpiece the oratorio “A Melancholy Beauty,” by Bulgarian composer Georgi Andreev, will bring together 200 musicians from South Carolina and around the world. The music is in honor of the 70th anniversary of the saving of the Jews, a mission undertaken by religious and political leaders to thwart Hitler’s planned deportments to his concentration camps.

It will be presented in Charleston Saturday at the Charleston Music Hall before coming to Columbia the following evening.

The concert is a labor of love and the brainchild of Kalin Tchonev, a Bulgarian native, and his wife ,Sharon Tchonev, whose Bulgarian grandparents were saved during the rescue. The couple founded the South Carolina music production company Varna International 15 years ago as a vehicle for music festival presentations throughout Europe.

That family connection “is really the main reason for doing this,” Sharon Tchonev said Friday. “This is a personal story and we felt it is a message for people today to learn what happened 70 years ago in Europe.”

Like other European Jews, her grandparents were required to submit to restrictive laws limiting their place in society and forced to wear the yellow Star of David, which marked them for potential violence and slurs. But despite Hitler’s demands that the Bulgarian Jews be deported to his concentration camps, ordinary Bulgarians joined with the country’s political and religious leaders to prevent the trains from running.

“Three times the deportments were canceled,” Sharon Tchonev said. Although Bulgaria was allied with Nazi Germany, she said King Boris III, who is featured in the oratorio, “played his cards closely” to defy Hitler’s orders.

The Eastern Orthodox Christian church was most powerful in its opposition, expressing outrage and pressuring the king and government officials, particularly after Jews in Bulgarian-annexed lands of Macedonia and Thrace were deported to Auschwitz and Treblinka. The story is told of one priest who scaled a wall where Jews were being held in one city and said he would go wherever they went.

Her grandparents never talked of their rescue and in the 1950s emigrated to Israel, where her grandfather, now 90, still lives.

“I think because my grandparents never wanted to talk about it, it never came to full knowledge to me until I met my Bulgarian husband in South Carolina,” Sharon Tchonev said.

She said her husband was in Berlin watching a German production of “Mama Mia!” where nearby a group of mentally disabled people were also watching the show.

His mind wandered to the events of World War II and Hitler’s Final Solution to exterminate millions of Jews along with the physically and mentally handicapped. He realized if the Nazis had won the war, “he wouldn’t have his own wife and son today,” she said.

“He thought it was a story he should bring to a concert,” Sharon Tchonev said. “This brings the message loud and clear to people in an art form.”

The couple commissioned composer Andreev, chief conductor of the State Folklore Ensemble, and librettists Scot Cairns and Aryeh Finklestein to create the work. Cairns is a well-known poet and Finklestein, cantor at Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Massachusetts, has written the libretti for three oratorios.

Among those performing: The University of South Carolina Symphony Orchestra augmented by Bulgarian folk instruments, the Philip Kutev National Folklore Ensemble of Bulgaria, University of Florida Chamber Choir, the Bach Festival Youth Choir, Young Sandlapper Singers, the Limestone College and Community Chorus and several professional soloists.

“A Melancholy Beauty,” which has seven movements, had its world premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington and has been performed at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York and the Wang Center in Boston. The performance in South Carolina will be conducted by Donald Portnoy, music director of the USC Symphony Orchestra and other orchestras and theatres.

The South Carolina productions will open with a performance by the National Folklore Ensemble and a screening of the 20-minute film “The Optimists” which tells the story of the rescue. The movie won the top prize at the Jerusalem International Film Festival for Documenting the Jewish Experience.

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