Leontina Arditi -- An Actress Looks Back

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Leontina Arditi's film of growing up in a poor Sephardic familiy in Sofia takes us inside a world now lost to us.
By sharing with us her familiy pictures, and the stories that go with them, Leontina brings her impoverished -- but not unhappy --- childhood to life. Here in one of Sofia's poorest quarters, we meet Jews and non-Jews, parents and boyfriends.
For those who have wondered why Bulgarians have long been considered to be less anti-Semitic than their neighbors, Leontina gives us her opinion, and closes her story with a tribute to Bulgaria's multi-ethnic culture.

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Until 1878, Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire. Through its long history, the Empire controlled Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Egypt, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, as well as parts of Arabia and large amounts of the North African coast. Find a brief summary of Ottoman history here, or explore this site from the University of Michigan's Turkish Studies Department for more information.

As part of the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria fought with Germany and Italy in the First World War. Learn more about Bulgaria's involvement in the war here.

Between the wars, Bulgaria's political scene was turbulent, marked by coups, strikes, and takeovers. On the eve of the Second World War, Bulgaria was operating under a royal-military dictatorship led by Tsar Boris III.


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Leontina grew up in Sofia. There have been Jewish communities in Sofia since Roman times, augmented over the centuries by Jews from Hungary, Bavaria, Spain, Germany, Russia, Romania, and Galicia. Find here a history of Jewish life in Sofia, or read this account from the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture.

Much of Bulgaria's Jewish population are Sepharic, and before the 1940s Ladino was spoken widely.

Leontina participated in Hashomer Hatzair, one of the oldest Zionist youth goups in Europe. You can visit their website to learn more about their history, aims, and activities.

Leontina praises the Bulgaria's multicultural society. However after the Second World War, Bulgaria's communist leaders often tried to deny the existence of minority groups by manipulating or suppressing census data or by forcibly assimilating groups they labelled "undesirable". After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, minoritiy communities could enjoy greater freedom of expression. Flip through the PDF of this book to learn abour the suppression of minorities under Bulgarian communism (available in chapter titled "Ethnographic Characteristics").

The Joint Distribution Committee operated in Bulgaria today, assisting Jews living in poverty. Read more about their work in Bulgaria here.

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Bulgaria was part of the Axis Alliance during the Second World War, during which time it occupied areas of Greek Thrace, Macedonia, and Serbia. Learn more about Bulgaria's involvement in the war here. This page contains a summary of the Axis Alliance powers, detailing their participation in the war and overviews of their surrenders.

After 1940, Jews in Bulgaria were made to wear yellow-star badges, part of the descriminatory measures imposed in countries with anti-Semitic legislation during the war.

Unlike other Axis countries, Bulgaria's Jewish population was persecuted, but not deported to killing centres. This has a lot to do with Dimitar Peshev, who was able to prevent deportations from Bulgaria, but not Bulgarian-occupied territories. Learn about his efforts here.

Leontina's father was sent to a forced labour camp. Explore Centropa's collection of photographs of Bulgarian forced labour.

Anti-Semitic activity in Bulgarian-occupied territories was brutal. Most of Macedonia's Jewish population was deported and killed. View footage of Macedonian Jews boarding trains that would take them to Treblinka concentration camp in Poland here.

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After the war, the People's Republic of Bulgaria was established. Over forty years of communism, Bulgaria had three presidents: Georgi Dimitrov, Vâlko Chervenkov, and Todor Zhivkov.

Leontina talks about performing Mikhail Lermontov's poem The Demon as a one-woman play. An English translation of The Demon can be found here. She also mentions writers William Makepeace-Thackeray and Stefan Zweig, one an influential novelist, the other a notable modernist playwrite and journalist.

In 1989, a series of revolutions took place throughout the Soviet Union, overthrowing communist states. Find a broad overview of the 1989 revolutions here, and learn about the end of communism in Bulgaria on this page.

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