: Documentary
GENRE: Documentary
STATUS: Production


THE DRESSMAKER follows the story of three generations of women from the Gatenio family from New York, Sephardic Jews with roots both in Bulgaria and Greece, as they grapple with the family’s complex history as told from the perspective of the family's matriarch Stella Gatenio (1925-2020), a natural and colorful storyteller known to her friends and family as the dressmaker. 

 “My family is half Bulgarian and half Greek. My mother’s side of the family came from Bulgaria, and my dad’s side came from Greece. Ten years ago I became more aware of what the history between Bulgaria and Greece was during this period of time. On one hand I am very grateful that Bulgaria did save its Jews and that tells my mother's side of story, but my father's side of the story is that under Bulgaria’s occupation of Northern Greece, that was responsible for his family perishing. And how do you reconcile that, and what is the story, that you could live with comfortably.” (Shirley Gatenio)




A QUESTION OF SURVIVAL: The Dressmaker (part 2)

A film about the complex history of the Holocaust in Bulgaria and Northern Greece as seen through the POV of one Sephardic Jewish family from New York. The film examines the legacy of the Holocaust on the Balkans, and the many wounds still left open in its aftermath 70 years later.

When Stella Mashiah, a young Jewish woman from Sofia, Bulgaria met Carlo Gatenio from Drama, Greece in 1944 post war Sofia both had just survived attempted deportation, labor camps and resettlement. Carlo had lost his family to the death camp at Treblinka, and had returned from a labor camp himself, while Stella had returned from resettlement in the provinces. During the war Stella had become known among her friends as the dressmaker, because of her sewing skills and ingenuity to always find a way to make something out of nothing. Carlo, himself from a  trader’s family, had used his trading skills even in the labor camps. Their union brought into their daily lives the conflict that roiled the two Jewish communities: why had Bulgarian Jews been spared while their Greek counterparts were murdered? Stella, her daughter Shirley, and granddaughter Estee seek answers to the family’s complex, unresolved history. 

The Gatenio’s returned to Drama in 1945, and immigrated to New York in 1951, carrying with them the tensions between the two Jewish communities left behind.  Here, they became part of the Greek Jewish community. For decades Stella didn’t talk about her Holocaust experiences with her children. Surrounded by Greek Jewish friends, the fate of the Greek Jews was discussed often, but nothing much was said about the fate of the Bulgarian Jews. Stella and Carlo worked really hard to forget about the past and to move on with their lives- after all they had immigrated to America to give a better life to their children. 25 years after Carlo’s death Stella had finally decided to break her silence. 

Moved by her stories, Shirley and Estee visit Greece and Bulgaria to come to terms with the family’s history. It soon becomes evident to them that the complex history of the Balkans with its many layers of conflicts and unresolved issues adds to the drama of the Sephardic Jews there; many are still unresolved today.




How can ordinary people stand up to the wrongful actions of their governments? Can they be effective? Can America remain the safe space refugees need to rebuild their shattered lives? In light of recent events in the United States and worldwide, with the increasing deterioration of the public’s trust in government institutions, and with the rise of nationalism and antisemitism around the world, one cannot help but feel a sense of déjà vu.

As the Balkans are regarded as a far-away and unfamiliar place, the story of the Holocaust there has been rarely documented and explored. The general public knows little about the devastating effects the Shoah had on the Sephardic Jewish communities, which were relatively small compared to Europe’s Ashkenazi Jewish communities.  . The fact is that in some cases 90 -95% of the Jews in Sephardic communities were killed. The once rich Sephardic culture with its own customs, synagogues and language, Ladino, is almost non-existent in the Balkans today.

After the war the few surviving families from Drama, Greece, featured in our film, sought refuge in the United States, while most of the 48,000 Bulgarian Jews immigrated to Israel. For manyGreek Jews. America provided a haven where they were able to rebuild their community and preserve their unique culture. Each year the Greek Jewish Festival on Manhattan’s Lower East Side  is a testament to that spirit of survival. 

In our film, Stella’s strong voice warns us of the dangers of complacency, and reminds us of the 11, 343 Jews from Northern Greece and Macedonia who perished in Treblinka.  At the same time, we find a measure of hope in her personal tale of survival as one of 48 000 Bulgarian Jews whose lives were spared due to the active protest of the Bulgarian public on their behalf. Stella’s life story serves as a moral compass of what public action and inaction can look like today.


Elka Nikolova - Director/Producer/Editor

Elka Nikolova was born in Bulgaria and studied psychology at the University of Sofia before she moved to the United States in 1994. In 2000 she received her MA in Media Studies, with a focus on film production, at the New School in New York. She has worked in film and television in New York since 2003. Her first documentary film, "Binka: To Tell a Story About Silence," completed in 2007, premiered at MOMA in New York.  "A Question of Survival" is her second documentary film. 

Vanyo Georgiev - Cinematographer

Vanyo Georgiev was born in Bulgaria and graduated from the New Bulgarian University in Sofia with a BA in film and television production.  He worked as a cinematographer for Bulgarian Documentary Studio "Vreme" and the TV series "8 & 1/2," produced by Film Studio Boyana, before moving to New York in 2006. In New York he works as a freelance DP and Lighting Director for Bank of America Video and Broadcast, and on various documentary productions. 

Ivanka Gezenko - Republic of Bulgaria Archives State Agency, Specialist, Project Advisor

Ivanka Gezenko is an archivist specialising in the archives on the Bulgarian Jewish community, and is a curator of the website http://www.archives.bg/jews at the Republic of Bulgaria Archives State Agency. 

Vadim Altskan - USHMM, Scholar, Project Advisor

Project Director, International Archival Programs, the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Lora Myers - Writing consultant/Mentor

Lora Myers is a writer, film producer, and educator. As a producer and writer, she has worked in the USA, Italy, and Brazil on numerous award winning documentaries, public television specials, and feature film scripts. She is currently developing a song-based app for teaching English literacy.

Joseph Benatov - Historical consultant

Joseph Benatov is Lecturer in Foreign Languages in the Modern Hebrew Language Program at the University of Pennsylvania. He holds a doctorate in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory from the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation is titled “Looking in the Iron Mirror: Eastern Europe in the American Imaginary, 1958-2001."


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