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

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features -

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

PHOTO: ESTE­BAN AL­TER­MAN

Zayneba Hardega’s daugh­ter Sara Pechanac in her of­fice at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem

PHOTO: RICKI ROSEN

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

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