How history thanked a brave Muslim family
In Nazi-occupied Sarajevo, a Bosnian family saved the lives of their Jewish neighbours. Forty years on, and the debt has been repaid. Eric Silver reports
IN FEBRUARY 1 9 9 4 , A i d a Pechanac was a newly arrived Muslim refugee in Jerusalem, married to a Christian Serb. Israeli and American Jewish charities had plucked her, with her widowed mother, husband and 10-year-old daughter, from a murderous civil war tearing apart her native Sarajevo. Fourteen years on, Aida has changed her name to Sara, undergone an Orthodox conversion and taken an executive job at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial centre. Her drama-student daughter has recently completed her national service in the Israel Air Force.
Such is the fascinating nature of her journey from Bosnian Muslim to Israeli Jew that Israel’s Channel One recently screened a television documentary about her on world Holocaust Memorial Day.
In 1994, an old debt was being repaid. Fifty-three years earlier, Sara’s parents, Mustafa and Zayneba Hardaga, had risked their lives to shelter four Jewish neighbours, the Kabilios, from the Nazi death machine. Zayneba’s father, Ahmed Sadik, had been executed in the Jasenovac concentration camp for rescuing another Jewish family.
Tova Greenberg, the last survivor of the Kabilio family, had persuaded Shimon Peres, then Foreign Minister, to cut the red tape and fly them to Israel, where they were offered citizenship and a monthly allowance.
In their first Israeli home, a fourroomed flat in the Mevaseret Tsion absorption centre, Zayneba, a gaunt 76-year-old with a paisley shawl, pen- etrating eyes and an artificial leg, exulted: “It was like coming out of hell into the Garden of Eden.”
When I asked why they had saved Jews, she reflected: “In the Second World War, as in the suffering of Sarajevo’s war today, friends helped friends. Compassion knows no fear.”
Sara, an articulate English-speaking lawyer born 17 years after the war, insisted: “My grandfather was killed because he helped Jewish people, but we never expected Jewish people to help us in return. That’s not why you do it.”
I had told their story in a book I had just published on the Righteous Gentiles ( The Book of the Just). After the Kabilio family moved to Israel in the 1950s, Yosef Kabilio testified to Yad Vashem about the Hardagas’s courage and generosity. A tree was planted there in their honour. He wrote: “The Hardagas, a respected Muslim family… received us with these words: ‘Yosef, you are our brother; Rivka, you are our sister; and the children are our children. Everything we have is yours. This is your home.’”
Zayneba Hardaga chose to come to Israel, although they were also offered a haven in America or Canada. “My mother believed in this country,” her daughter explains in her cubicle of an office in the Yad Vashem archives building, where she coordinates the translation of thousands of documents into Hebrew and English.
“She knew that we were going from one terrible situation in Sarajevo to the dangers of the Middle East. But she trusted that here there was a future for children, that eventually peace would come.”
The old lady died of a heart attack eight months after arriving in Israel. With the approval of the Orthodox rabbinate, the heroic Muslim was buried in a small Jewish cemetery just outside Jerusalem. Her daughter, now aged 51 and a recent widow, recalls: “They said if this woman was ready to give her life for us — and her father did give his life for us — we are ready to give her a plot.”
The Pechanacs were already in the process of converting. In the Jewish tra- dition, Sara was chosen as Aida’s new name, deliberately spelling it without the final “h” to remind her of her birthplace. She is Sara from Sarajevo.
For her, the choice was never a problem. With no hard evidence to back it up, she always suspected that her grandfather, Ahmed Sadik, was of Jewish origin. His roots were in Salonika, with its large pre-war Greek Jewish community. “I felt all my life that I was a Jew,” she says. Conversion was a logical next step.
Her husband, Branimir, was not so sure. “I started the process first,” she reminisces. “My husband asked me why. I told him, ‘You’re welcome to join me, but it has to be your decision. If you feel comfortable, come and see.’ He agreed, and all three of us converted together. He was circumcised at the age of 43 and took the name Moshe.”
She acknowledges no regrets at leaving Islam. The cosmopolitan ambience of her childhood Sarajevo made it easier. “Most of my mother’s friends were Jews, who had returned after the war. Our home was very open. We children were free to make our own way. For example, my sister is a Muslim, my brother is a Christian and I’m a Jew who married a Christian boy.”
At first, she adopted a strictly Orthodox lifestyle. She wore a wig and a long skirt. Now, with her hair uncovered, she says she is “traditional”. She is seeking her own middle way. She resists pigeonholing. “Judaism is a way of life,” she maintains. “It’s not rules. I think there is one Torah, one people, and you are a Jew. It’s enough that I’m a Jew, and I’m proud and very happy in my way.”
She sent her daughter, Stella, to Horev, one of Jerusalem’s top religious girls’ schools. But, like her mother, Stella made up her own mind. At 18 she joined the IDF, though like many religious girls she could have applied for exemption or volunteered in the community. She served for three years as an air-force officer. She is now studying at the Nisan Nativ drama school in Tel Aviv.
Last year, the director of the TV documentary A Woman of Sarajevo took mother and daughter back to Sarajevo. Returning to Israel after four days’ filming was a relief. “My mother is buried here,” she says. “My husband is buried here. My daughter and my future and my life are here. This is home. I didn’t come to go away, I came to stay.” The Book of the Just was published in 1992 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Zayneba Hardega’s daughter Sara Pechanac in her office at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem
Bosnian Muslim Zayneba Hardaga pictured in 1994 with Tova Greenberg, a member of the Jewish Kabilio family the Zaynebas saved from the Nazis. She is holding a photo showing the Kabilos in wartime Sarajevo