Arts Feature

Songs of Life Commemorates Rescue of Bulgarian Jews

By Eva Moore
Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Sitting at an Abba-themed musical might seem like a strange setting in which to have a revelation about the Holocaust, but that’s exactly what happened to Kalin Tchonev.

Tchonev, a Bulgarian-born musician and classical concert promoter who lives in Columbia, was in Berlin in 2007, watching a production of the musical Mamma Mia!. Seated near some mentally disabled patrons, and being in Germany, Tchonev began to reflect on what had happened to such marginalized people — and to six million Jews — under the Nazis.

“As you know, they had a terrible fate,” he says.

And then it hit him: Bulgarian Jews had escaped the death chambers. But no one, it seemed, knew that story. For Tchonev and his wife Sharon, it’s also a personal story. Sharon Tchonev’s Jewish grandparents were among 49,000 Bulgarian Jews saved from the fate that confronted millions.

Thinking about the story, “I was overwhelmed with gratitude that all the Bulgarian Jews were rescued — and that therefore I have my wife and son today,” Kalin says.

And he decided, as a concert organizer, to do something about it. 

The result is the Songs of Life: A Melancholy Beauty festival, which Kalin and his wife organized through their Columbia-based company Varna International, which produces large-scale choral and orchestral concerts, primarily in Europe. The first performances were in 2008 in Bulgaria and Israel. Then came performances in New York, Boston and Washington, D.C. The festival comes to the Koger Center stage on Sunday at 7 p.m.

Donald Portnoy, conductor of the USC Symphony Orchestra, will lead the performance, which opens with the National Folklore Ensemble, followed by a 20-minute film about the rescue. Also performing will be the University of Florida Chamber Choir, the Bach Festival Youth Choir, the Young Sandlapper Sings and more. The centerpiece of the concert is A Melancholy Beauty, with music by award-winning Bulgarian composer and conductor Georgi Andreev and words by Scot Cairns and Aryeh Finklestei. The work combines choral-orchestral music with traditional Bulgarian influences.

“I had a dream a long time ago to compose something based on this story of Bulgarian Jews, and thanks [to] God, now it came true,” Andreev says via email.

The story of how Bulgarian Jews escaped death at the hands of the Nazis involves cultural traditions, political calculations and personal heroism. Faced with the rising tide of the Third Reich, King Boris III decided to accede to an alliance with Germany rather than risk a Nazi invasion. But the country’s culture was not conducive to the anti-Semitism that prevailed elsewhere, and when the Nazis sent trains to take 8,000 Jews away, Bulgarians refused to go along.

“Bulgarians and Jews were always close: They celebrated each other’s holidays, the rabbis and the priests of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church exchanged religious wisdom,” Kalin says. “Not only that, they fought wars together, they bled together, they were under the same oppressors: the Turkish Ottoman Empire for 500 years, and for 200 years before that under the Byzantine Empire.”

Tipped off by a secretary to an anti-Semitic government official, Jews and others denounced the planned deportation. A prominent deputy in Parliament and the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church took up the cause, and King Boris III ultimately refused to sign extradition orders.

Soloists in A Melancholy Beauty will perform the roles of several key players in the story.

Historians still debate the actions of Boris himself, but the role of average Bulgarians in resisting deportations is gaining attention year by year.

“In the dark years of World War II …  ordinary Bulgarian citizens, people from all walks of life, placed their own lives at risk to peacefully, yet firmly stand up for their fellow Bulgarians and forge a ‘human shield’ to protect their Jewish classmates, friends and neighbors,” Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev said earlier this year.

“It came to us as a need — to tell a story of our family through a historical event, which has been concealed in history — or, rather, not known,” Kalin Tchonev says. “Even historians and Jewish studies leaders didn’t know about it. For many reasons, it has remained largely unknown, but it is the most dramatic rescue of the Holocaust.”

“To bring it in an art form is exciting for me,” Sharon says. “People perhaps will not read a book on the subject, but they will go to a concert.”

Songs of Life: A Melancholy Beauty is at the Koger Center on Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets range from $40 to $60. Call 251-2222 or visit to order.

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