Vladimir Danovski: The Topic of the Rescue of Bulgarian Jews Got a Hold on Me Several Years Ago and Continues to Keep Me Tense

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Vladimir Danovski is a theater and opera director, son of the great theater director from Jewish origins, Boyan Danovski. He is known in Bulgaria for his productions at the National Opera House and the Opera Houses in the cities of Varna and Stara Zagora, as well as at Musical Theater. For more than 30 years he has been working as director in Germany. Danovski is the founder of the organization “EvrOpera Munich” and of the Musical Theater Workshop, Munich. From 2002 to 2006, he was artistic director of the musical “King Ludwig II» in Fuessen and Deutsche Theater, Munich. He has directed productions in Austria, Switzerland and Japan. Danovski is connected with the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Burgas through his wife –the granddaughter of writer Petko Chorbadzhiev (Petko Rosen).

Two years ago, Vladimir Danovski realized one of his projects – a production that fills one of the gaps in perceptions in Germany about Bulgaria’s role in the rescue of Jews during World War II. The play “Rescue”, written in German, focuses on specific events in Bulgarian history. The work is not purely theatrical, as in addition to the characters in it, music is also a specific actor. The fact that because of the Jewish origin of his father, the family was forced to leave Bulgaria, fled to Istanbul, and then to Cairo, was also important for the creation of the play. Relatives of Danovski, who shared their memories of that time, were among the rescued Bulgarian Jews as well.

“Rescue” is played in Germany with great success. For it, in 2011, Vladimir Danovski received the European Medal of Tolerance.

Vladimir Danovski arrived in Burgas to conduct an interesting workshop with students from the German Language High School “Goethe”, in the core of which was his play “Rescue”. He also visited the Center for Jewish-Bulgarian Cooperation “Aleph” and kindly lifted the curtain and told us in detail about himself and his creative work.

How was “Rescue” born?

The topic of the rescue of Bulgarian Jews has been exciting for me for a long time. I wrote the text with the thought that this part of Bulgarian history is little known in Germany. In Germany, the play received support from Foundation “Kondard Adenauer” and we even used its hall in Berlin. The premiere of the chamber version was on the Day of the Holocaust – January 27, 2012.

For Germany, this topic is a little touchy… How was the play received there?

This is not just a play… This is a specific, original drama form in which music has an important function. It was highly appreciated in Germany. In general, the reason to write this piece and direct it in Germany was because I work there anyway, and when I told this story to some people, acquaintances and colleagues, I found out that nobody knew about the rescue of Bulgarian Jews. This is surprising because there is huge information on the topic in general. In Germany, there is lots of talk, plenty of publications, but in this sea of information, the topic got lost somewhere. Eventually, I found a historian who knew something about the subject. All others with whom I spoke did not know anything, but immediately asked the question: “Why don’t we know that?” Just the reactions of these people motivated me. For me too, at the beginning, there was some psychological problem to do it in Germany. Because it cannot be said that the Germans have a positive role in this story… And also because a lot has been done on the subject and one can say that it has been already exhausted… I did something else – I gave lectures in different cities and people’s reactions were simply stunning; they listened breathlessly to all this. These Germans perceived the topic very emotionally and positively. Indeed, in Germany, for many years, much has been done to raise awareness of the guilt. German people are extremely self-critical. There is no other such example… To make in Berlin a whole memorial, which says “look what we have done”… This is not something small. There’s this awareness of guilt, and because of it no one really attacked me about the plot of the play. Moreover, most Holocaust stories usually end badly, and here we showed a story that ends well.

The incorporating a love intrigue in the plot is important perhaps. Is that right?

Yes, basically there’s a love story – between the Commissioner for Jewish Affairs Alexander Belev and his secretary Lilyana Panitza, who also played a major role in rescuing the Jews. And it was a crucial one because she revealed secret documents of the Jewish consistory. This, of course, is always appropriate for theater. And especially this very unusual love story, because she – the secretary Lilyana Panitza has a love affair with the murderer of Jews and also rescues them. This love was not a calculating one; it is a historical truth; she really loved him. How did it happen? This topic was very interesting. And it was a challenge to put it on stage and to see the reaction of the audience. It is interesting that young people have a lot less of a problem with such conflict than adults. In Germany, this disturbs some people. While the young… I asked these girls who played the part of Lilyana Panitza in Berlin. All said, we do not see a problem, this is how love is. For me, this story was important not only because it was conducive to a play or a movie in general; it somehow affects people emotionally, but also to show that the world is not only black and white, good and evil, and that people are contradictory. The same example is King Boris; this endless dispute is he a savior or a murderer? What if he is both? He could be to blame for the one, or for having failed, however, for the other, he has played a role… We must accept this contradiction because all of us, people, are like that – sometimes we are good, and sometimes we aren’t.

To what extend “Rescue” includes historical truth?

It has both. In the play I used plenty of documents, original documents that are shown on stage or an entire scene in fact, as is the dialogue between the Commissioner for Jewish Affairs Alexander Belev and SS guy Dannecker over the agreement on deportation of Jews from Thrace and Macedonia. It is built on the original historical document – this agreement. On the other hand side – the very fact that the play is a mixed form of dialogues and scenes with music, and of course, music scenes themselves already have another character. They have emotional impact and they cannot seek documentary basis. However, there are some things that have been made up… The dialogues between the lovers are largely invented by me. Yet, this is also on the basis of the document.

You say that you had an idea to create a music portrait of the country. How did it happen that you bet on partnership with Lyubomir Denev?

Lyubo Denev and I know each other for a long time, since I started working as director in Bulgaria. I had a production in the Musical Theater, and he was there. We did not work together, he was working on another play, but then we met and since then I know him as a musician; I have followed the things that he does and appreciate him a lot! When it came to who is to write the music, I decided that in any case it must be a Bulgarian composer. I needed to have a Bulgarian atmosphere; to have different elements telling something about Bulgaria in a musical way. This was the first reason. Secondly, I wanted to have a partnership with Lyubo Denev, because I really appreciate him as he is very versatile. He has written operas, musicals, film music… He, himself, is a very good jazzman. He has great theatrical experience. Just what I needed… Just that Denev is very much an insider and this was also a very important point. We got along perfectly and he wrote great music. First on the German text because the play is performed in German, a language he knows; he has spent one year on a scholarship in Germany. And as musician, he immediately became oriented in the voicing of German music. So it ended being great…

Do you have other common future projects?

Yes, we thought about different things. We even talked about a libretto that I was offered in Germany for a musical… However, this issue is still open. There are also projects to accomplish in Bulgaria, but currently they are only projects. I’d work with him with great pleasure.

Have you thought about film adaptation of the play?

Yes, we thought about film adaptation. I’ve even had conversations on this subject with a publishing house, which is engaged in film production as well. They offered me to write a book on the subject and I accepted with great pleasure, because a theater play, which, for example, lasts two and a half hours, cannot fit everything I gathered in preparation for the play. You could say that this topic got a hold on me. It does for several years and continues to keep me tense. And we will continue the talks about a film…

You are in Burgas for a non-traditional meeting with students from the German School. What is it?

It is very important for young people to make them involved in the lessons of history, especially recent history of Bulgaria; to learn what the actual manifestations of civil society were then and why today we are looking for such society. A workshop with students from German schools in Bulgaria was organized on the initiative of the “Konrad Adenauer” Foundation, especially on events during the Holocaust and the rescue of Bulgarian Jews. Initially this form started in Germany, now it is in Bulgaria already – in Ruse last year, and this year in two schools in Sofia and Burgas. The workshop has two parts – theoretical / lecture, where I acquaint students with the historical facts which are underlying the play “Rescue”, and a true exercise in the form of theatrical reading. Because I’m a little away from education in Bulgaria, I am doing a survey with four questions to understand to what extend students are familiar with the topic. Based on the results, I choose what to tell them. The practical task is the most interesting – I distribute to separate groups of students a few scenes from the play that are in German. Once the groups have separately “rehearsed” them for half an hour, they present to the others their reading of the scene. Some react very spontaneously and immediately try to move, to make theater… Others are shyer and just read. After that, we already discuss what they have done, but also the situation; what is it in these scenes; who these characters are; what motivates them to do one thing or another… They themselves say that when something goes through you, there is a totally different feel. This is the meaning of this workshop, which develops very interestingly. In addition, it is in German, which for them is a serious exercise; already they do some kind of theater play in German. Finally, we conclude with a video of the play, staged in Berlin. I get the impression that young people became really interested in the topic. In Sofia, we ran out of time because there was an unforeseen interruption, and I said that we have to go, but they wanted to continue. The fact that students in ninth and tenth grade want to continue says something about their interest. It was a very pleasant experience for me.

Is there a chance for “Rescue” to reach the Bulgarian audience?

I have not given up on the idea to show the play in Bulgaria, though the first attempt was not successful, I mean the attempt to finance it. I am currently considering options; talking to some people. I hope to have good news when I come to Bulgaria next time…



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