Varna International’s ‘Songs of Life:’ Bulgaria rescues Jews from Holocaust

During the cavernous darkness of evil, Bulgaria’s people rose up in an astonishing undertaking in 1943. Their national heroism was mostly hidden for decades. After World War II, Soviets had taken over Bulgaria. When the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989, a remarkable but not well-known story began to emerge. The world would discover that Bulgaria’s 49,000 Jews were engraved in a book of life.

In World War II though, Bulgaria’s King Boris III had joined the Axis on March 1, 1941 to align with Nazi Germany. On February 22, 1943 an agreement then took place between Nazi representative Theodore Dannecker in Sofia and the Bulgarian Commissar for Jewish Questions, Alexander Belev. Their signatures set into motion a secret plan to deport 20,000 Jews to Poland; the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia, who didn’t have Bulgarian citizenship and 8,000 Jews from her own territory, who were full-fledged Bulgarian citizens.

Germany had already split Macedonia from Yugoslavia and Thrace from Greece and put them under Bulgarian government administration. These were the first horrific salvos in a stage set to deport and murder Bulgaria’s 49,000 Jews. Arrested quickly in the middle of the night with no warning, Bulgarian police took 11, 343 Thracian and Macedonian Jews to the border turning them over to the Germans for the horrific journey to the death camps. All 11,343 Jews were the first victims, and perished in Treblinka.

Parliament had passed laws against its Jewish minority, similar to the oppressive Nuremberg laws. Bulgaria’s King Boris III allowed the law as a way to circumvent the Nazis as best he could. Highly placed religious leaders in the Bulgarian Church fought hard against the laws. They protested, they petitioned against the passage of dangerous laws directed toward harming the Jewish population.

Events were moving fast after the first deportations. As word of the arrests spread, a fire of determined resistance lit Bulgarian hearts at all levels of society. They went into overdrive. Four Bulgarian activists from the small town of Kyustendil showed up in Sofia at the capital, determined to prevent the next deportation of their Jewish citizens. They managed to convince Dimiter Peshev, Deputy President of the National Assembly, to join them to stop the impending carnage. Several in Parliament rushed to King Boris’ palace to plead with him. More trains and more arrests were scheduled only three days away.

Dimitar Peshev and the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox church’s Archbishop Stefan of Sofia had propelled the population to act. Earlier, Peshev had voted for the Law for the Protection of the Nations and later changed his mind realizing the horror of 11,343 deported and perishing in Treblinka. Although he lost his political career, Peshev successfully mobilized one-third of Parliament to stop further deportations.

Afterwards, Hitler ordered King Boris to his “Eagle’s Nest.” There, Foreign Minister Ribbentrop demanded that the King at once deport the Jews. In the confrontation, the king refused saying he “needed the Jews to build Bulgaria’s roads and railroads.” He left and died in mysterious circumstances. Yet, King Boris III never signed deportation papers since he decided not to oppose the massive outcry from his citizens. On March 9, just a few hours before the trains were scheduled to leave for a destiny of death, the government canceled the deportation.

Bulgaria had risen up to their motto, “Unity Makes Strength” symbolizing their history of diversity, harmony, and resilience. In Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, four religious institutions stand together, just one block from each other; Europe’s largest Sephardi synagogue, an historic Eastern Orthodox Christian church, a stately Catholic cathedral, and an elaborate, domed mosque. Bulgaria’s religious heritage would bear the fruit of freedom for its Jewish population along with Bulgarian politicians, educators, and ordinary citizens.

The citizenry decided to prevent it even if it cost their lives. The several dramatic days to fight more deportations showed that Bulgarian bravery abounded. Vera Kocheva, a teacher, wore a yellow star in public standing up for her Jewish friends. When the government shut down a Jewish school, another educator, Principal Penka Kassabova admitted Jewish students to her school. A baker, Rubin Dimitrov, hid Jews in his bakery oven.

Bishop Kiril and three hundred of his church members defied Nazis by standing in front of one of the trains in Plovdiv, their hometown. The Bishop, who later became the Bulgarian Patriarch, pledged that he would “stay with them no matter what would happen in the future.” Before the sun came up, kind but unnamed Bulgarians washed away hateful antiSemitic slogans painted on buildings by Nazis in the night.

Three deportation attempts were made. All three failed. The trains left empty. Bulgaria saved its 49,000 Jewish citizens in the largest rescue in occupied Europe.

Bulgaria’s brave citizens of 1943 remind us to set aside apathy and denial to express our commitment to the Jewish state and Jews worldwide. For Jewish and Christian communities, who want to actively prevent antisemitism from growing, a kaleidoscope of choices are available. Among them, cultural and artistic renditions of Holocaust-era stories that inspire us to act today.

I first learned about Bulgaria’s heroic history in 2019 when South Carolina’s Liaison for Violins of Hope, Ellen Benik Thompson, invited me to join her board for events taking place in South Carolina in Spring of 2022. The state’s Christian and Jewish leaders will work together to host two renowned international organizations, Varna International and Violins of Hope, performing together-for the first time-in South Carolina. Ellen introduced me to Sharon and Kalin Tchonev the founders Varna International’s “Songs of Life.” In a future blog I will highlight the founders of Violins of Hope, luthiers Amnon and Avishai Weinstein in Tel Aviv.

“Songs of Life, A Melancholy Beauty” features the story of Bulgaria’s heroic rescue of its Jewish citizens. I was deeply moved by Sharon and Kalin’s personal stories, two wonderful, unusually gifted people now my close friends. The 1943 Bulgarian story shines a light not only on their native countries, Israel and Bulgaria but on the meeting and marriage of Sharon Paz and Kalin Tchonev, a blend of two remarkable legacies.

Kalin and Sharon Tchonev
Photo Credit: Varna International
Kalin grew up in Varna, Bulgaria on the Black Sea. He was a young prodigy beginning piano at age five and influenced by his famous father, a conductor, professor, and musician. His professional career is replete with conducting, choral singing, and piano performance. Kalin’s resume demonstrates his rich musical background where he comments, “Let us create beauty in excellence. Let us move cities together. Let us speak music to the world.”      Sharon, born in Israel, growing up near Tel Aviv, served in the IDF, moved with her family to South Africa where she earned her law degree at the University of the Orange Free State and the University of South Africa. With a strong background in public relations, speaking, and logistics she is an expert as Communications and Operations Director for Varna International. Of special note, she is a descendant of Bulgarian grandparents who were miraculously saved.

Kalin and Sharon met in the United States after both moved and settled in Columbia, South Carolina. Their own exceptionally personal stories are a backdrop for their passion which has created unforgettable international concerts and festivals.

“Through a grassroots movement organized by Kalin and Sharon Tchonev of Columbia, South Carolina, the American-Bulgarian partnership continues to strengthen…I wish to commend Kalin and Sharon Tchonev for their hard work in strengthening the partnership between the United States and Bulgaria.” Rep. Joe Wilson, U.S. House of Representatives

Kalin explains with inspiring words how Songs of Life blossomed into one of Varna International’s most powerful events: “The burden for the Songs of Life event comes out of the realization that had it not been for the miraculous rescues in 1943, I would not have my wife and son today. Sharon’s maternal grandparents are among the 49,000 Bulgarian Jews that were rescued during the Holocaust. In 2008 when we decided to debut the Songs of Life in four Bulgarian cities and Israel commemorating the rescue, we viewed it as a heavenly mission.”

The concerts feature “Sacred Service,” by Ernest Bloch, drawing audiences of thousands. The 2008 concerts premiered in Sofia for the 65th anniversary of the rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews. During the festival, they handed out 49,000 carnations to people in the streets of Bulgaria. It was a token of thanks to the ordinary citizens who demanded in words and actions that Bulgaria’s Jews be saved from Nazi extermination.

The premier was emotional and joyful for both Sharon and Kalin when they saw their concept come to life. The musical notes of Bulgaria’s profound story have now sounded throughout the world.

While Kalin and Sharon were dating, he visited his parents in Varna, Bulgaria. When he shared that he was dating a Bulgarian Israeli Jewish girl, the first question his mom asked was, “Have you told her the Bulgarians rescued our Jewish people?” When he returned, Kalin wrote a new chapter in Sharon’s life telling her the amazing part of her family history. Sharon knew that her ancestors escaped the Spanish inquisition and settled in Bulgaria, and lived through the Ottoman Empire, World War I, and then the Nazi era. Like many Jewish families though, they didn’t retell their frightening experiences during World War II. Kalin’s revelation created wonderful conversations and gratitude within her Israeli family.

One family story involved great bravery. Sharon’s grandfather, Dr. David Varsano and her great grandfather Calderon were both forced into a Bulgarian labor camp. Her grandmother, Lydia shared a story about Sharon’s great grandfather Calderon. “An officer threatened to kill them saying they didn’t work hard enough. He shouted, “The Russians may be coming but you will not see them.” Her great grandfather stepped forward saying, “Young man, you can kill us all now, but you will not get away. There will be trials and you will be judged. But if you let us go, someone will stand up and speak for you.” The soldier laid down his gun and all the lives were saved. After the war, he went on trial, was imprisoned, but a Jewish prisoner who saw the incident stood up for him.”

Rina, Sharon’s Mom, filled in more stories about her parents. Dr. David and Lydia [Calderon] Versano made Aliyah from Bulgaria to Israel in 1950. Rina was only two years old. They traveled by land to Milan, Italy and boarded a ship for Israel. Sharon relates a story about their family’s Schindler Original piano. “My grandfather took apart some wooden cabinets and built a crate so they could bring it from Sofia to load on the ship. When my two-year old Mom became restless, my grandmother allowed her to play with her wedding ring on the deck of the ship, but the ring fell into the sea. When they arrived in Israel my grandfather went to a jeweler. He asked him to slice his wedding band in two and gave half to my grandmother.” The wood from the piano crate also served as a help for the family in their first dwelling in Israel!

When they founded Varna International 21 years ago the Tchonevs had no idea their company would bloom into the globally recognized festival organization that it is today. Varna International specializes in large-scale, artistically rich, and customized choral-orchestral concerts, performance tours, and music training academies for conductors, choral singers, vocalists, and instrumentalists.

“Varna International’s production, ‘Songs of Life, A Melancholy Beauty,’ combine elements of classical choral style and folk music to tell the story of almost 50,000 Bulgarian Jews during World War II.” The New York Times, June 23, 2011

Their exquisite concerts, to date now numbering in the hundreds, have taken them throughout Europe, Israel, and the United States at venues such as Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, Musikverein, Vienna, Austria, Mozarteum, Salzburg, Austria, Smetana Hall and the Rodulfinum Theater, Prague, Czech Republic, Gerard Bechar Performing Arts Center, Jerusalem, Bath Abbey, United Kingdom, Lincoln Center, New York City, and Wang Center in Boston.

About Songs of Life and its many international appearances Kalin remarks, “This performance is more than a commemoration of the past. It’s a call of action for the future. The purpose of Songs of Life is to unite people in thanksgiving through a message of compassion and hope. It’s the story of ordinary people who rejected complacency and arose to defy evil. It’s a ray of light sharing how ordinary people did something extraordinary during one of the darkest hours of human history-the Holocaust. This is our personal story and we truly from the bottom of our hearts celebrate the beautiful gift of life. Each one of us has the power to do something extraordinary and make a difference in someone’s life through acts of kindness.”

“Musically the composer has masterfully combined folk song with full symphonic music into a dramatic oratorio. Elements of gypsy music and Hebrew dance bend blend seamlessly with popular song and large full symphonic forces of almost 300 in the finale. It is hair raising at times, poignant at others, dance-like in a folk manner in places.” The Jewish Daily Forward June 29, 2011

Photo Credit: Varna International
“Songs of Life, A Melancholy Beauty”
Koger Center, South Carolina

Another dark chapter of antisemitism has taken hold against Jewish individuals, institutions, and the singular Jewish state. Varna International is a counterpoint, a call to action, expressed in a valiant, exquisite elevation of memories, hope, and honor. Its inspiration inspires audiences with valor to resist today’s re-invented yet painfully familiar anti-Semitism.

Indeed, it is said that when Bulgarian Jews were saved so was the soul of Bulgaria. In an era of hypocrisy, hatred, and hysteria, those words are a profound reminder for all of us.

Former Bulgarian President Plevneliev put it this way: “We Bulgarians made it clear that it is within the power of the civil society and ordinary people to change history; that through unwavering determination and resolute resistance even the worst of evils may be averted…the Bulgarian society saved not just its Jewish population, it also saved itself.” 2013 ADL Gala, Washington, D.C.

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