Imagine a continent that stood by or actively helped or actively campaigned for the mass murder of six million of its people; then imagine that one of the countries on that continent – hardly the most powerful – stood up to stop the sending of 48 000 people to the slaughter.
That is the story that, on Bulgarian National Television on March 21 2013, the makers of Недадените (“The Ungiven”) started trying to tell. It is a story, to choose among many voices, that Bulgaria’s former foreign minister Nikolai Mladenov said proved that the Holocaust was not inevitable. Mladenov’s bold idea is that should sufficient people have stood up, as sufficient Bulgarians did, Hitler’s profoundly evil genocide of six million Jews could have been stopped.
A bold idea, and a bold venture to try to capture on the small screen the story of the prevention by Bulgarians of the deportation to death camps of their Jewish compatriots.
This year, after all, marks the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the prevention of the deportations. It is a commemoration being marked jointly by Bulgaria and the State of Israel. It is story that is moving, and complicated, and disputed. Who gets the credit? Who may deal objectively with the fact of the other mass murders, those in the northern Greece and parts of Yugoslavia at the time? What role do we grant the king, what role do we concede to the people, what lines do we write for those who were Jews but also, at their patriotic insistence, also were Bulgarians?
In short, in the context of all these thousands of years of history, that begin with the Book of Genesis, that are commemorated in the high and holy days, in the days of mourning, the days of celebration, how do we reflect that episode in this small part of the world called Bulgaria? Yes, that Bulgaria, allied with Hitler’s Nazi Germany, that Bulgaria, which has Gentiles honoured among the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem.
It is a daunting task, and Ungiven, going by that first episode out of 12, ventures into it with mixed results.
We begin in the opening moments with Bulgaria’s pride at the recovery to its territory of southern Dobroudza, otherwise under Romanian management. Quickly, we are in Sofia Synagogue, at a Jewish wedding. If I forget thee, O Jerusalem is recited, as the glass is broken underfoot, as tradition requires. It is not the only broken glass we will see.
Because the next broken glass is that of a window, as a group of what today we would call ultra-nationalists hurl stones at a Jewish window. The perpetrators hurl slogans of a kind not entirely unfamiliar in 2013: “Bulgaria for Bulgarians!”. As if their compatriots, inheritors to the laws of Moses and Abraham, recorded at the instance of the Divine word, but speaking the language derived from the work of Cyril and Methodius, are not.
We meet the cast of characters, Boris III, navigating as best he can the tides of history, a polyglot in German, Italian and Bulgarian, subtly forceful and yet captive to greater forces; we meet one of the truly bad guys, the truly anti-Semitic believer, Alexander Belev; and the man who would be granted by history one of the greatest leading roles, Dimitar Peshev. In the first episode, we are left waiting for the men of moral courage of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church but we see a great deal of Petar Dounev, of the White Brotherhood cult. Judgment is reserved.
The dialogue is not unstilted. When a character refers to Petar Gabrovski, another (helpfully for the uninformed viewer) interjects: “the interior minister”. It lends a feel of docudrama. But then, is it not a story deserving of being told to those who do not know it well?
The production, going by only the first episode, has its strengths and shortcomings, the latter especially on the anachronism front. At one moment, a scene is accompanied by the tune to A Few of My Favourite Things, not due to be written until 1959. This is not the only musical anomaly, but the most striking. While in the first less than an hour some actor’s performances were convincing, others were not, but most were let down by their make-up crew who, among other things, make Boris III in his appearance, not quite as convincing as the actor playing him.
Sometimes we are in sepia (this is history, right, when the world was sepia-tinted), sometimes in the light of days (where most of us live) sometimes the screen is the rain-scratched of much-shown celluloid.
Perhaps none of this matters. Finally, Bulgaria has brought to the screen the remarkable if deeply controversial story of a people who had the conviction that they should stand up against what they believed to be deeply wrong, and the narrative so far does not omit those dramatis personae who emit sentiments that would not be out of place in the mouth of today’s ultra-nationalists.
Whatever the points of dispute, it deserves – like the story as a whole – to be considered in its entirety – and thus judgment will be reserved until the 11 episodes remaining have been shown. As someone who annually never has enough tears for the millions murdered, and who stands in respect for those few who had the courage to stop the murders of thousands, this reviewer will be watching.