The Hardaga family of Bosnia

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Since I wasn’t on my own schedule any of the three times I visited Yad Vashem, I unfortunately didn’t have the luxury of seeing everything and spending as much time as I wanted in the museum, the Valley of the Destroyed Communities, or the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations. However, I did find some interesting names under the trees, like this plaque for the Hardaga family. Seriously, how many people know anything about the Shoah or WWII in Bosnia, or would even think of Bosnians as heroic rescuers?

In April 1941, the Nazis invaded the former Yugoslavia and bombed Sarajevo. This most dastardly act left Josef Kavilio’s family homeless. When Josef was walking to his pipe factory after the bombing, he ran across his friend Mustafa Hardaga, the factory’s owner. Without even hesitating, Mustafa offered the Kavilios a safe place at his house.

Mustafa lived with his wife Zejneba, his brother Izet, and his sister-in-law Bachriya. Though they were observant Muslims, Mustafa and Izet told their wives to consider the Kavilios family and not feel obliged to cover their faces before Josef.

Sarajevo Synagogue, circa 1914

Eventually, Josef moved his wife and children to Mostar, an area under Italian control and thus relatively safe. However, Josef was arrested and imprisoned by the Ustashis because he’d stayed to liquidate his business. Since the snow was too heavy to move the prisoners to the infamous Jasenovac, they were ordered to clear the snow with their legs chained. Zejneba saw this through her veil, and began bringing food to the prisoners.

Josef escaped and once again was sheltered by the Hardagas, who nursed him back to health. Gestapo headquarters were nearby, and the danger was intense. There were regular notices threatening the death penalty to those hiding Jews and Serbs. So as not to keep risking the Hardagas’ lives, Josef joined his family in Mostar.

The Italian-controlled areas came under German control after September 1943, and the Kavilios fled to the partisans in the mountains. After the liberation, they returned to Sarajevo and once again stayed with the Hardagas until they found their own home. The Hardagas returned the jewelry which had been left with them for safekeeping.

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Zejneba with her children in Sarajevo, Copyright http://www.yadvashem.org/

Around this time, they got the sad news that Zejneba’s father, Ahmed Sadik (the last name on the plaque), had been caught hiding a Jewish man named Papo and forging documents with false Christian names. Ahmed was arrested and murdered in Jasenovac. The Kavilios made aliyah (moved to Israel), and in 1984, asked the Hardagas to be honored as Righteous Among the Nations. They were the first Muslims to be so honored.

Since all events are linked together in this best of all possible worlds, in 1994, during the Siege of Sarajevo, the Joint Distribution Committee and Yad Vashem successfully petitioned the president of Bosnia to let Zejneba, her youngest daughter Sara, her son-in-law Branimir, and their daughter Sasha come to Israel. They were warmly welcomed by the Kavilios, government officials, and Yad Vashem representatives.

Even more extraordinarily, Zejneba’s daughter, Sara Pecanac, and her family were moved to convert to Judaism. Sara said it was an honor to join the tribe. Later on, she also began working for Yad Vashem’s archives.