For this issue of our quarterly e-newsletter, we interviewed Davor Bakovic who has provided us with two special aspects of the Balkan arena in the Holocaust and its aftermath. His mother, Mira, was saved during the Holocaust by a Righteous Gentile in Bosnia and shortly after she passed away in 1998, some fifty years later, there was an unexpected development involving the children of the savior and the saved.
The interview thus highlights aspects of the Jewish tragedy in the Balkans during the Holocaust, growing up in communist Yugoslavia after the war and concludes with a surprising encounter between second-generation members of the two families that were intimately connected during war.
Can you tell us a bit about your family history?
If I remember well, in 1941 my mother left Sarajevo. She was 19 years old, she left to join the partisans and that was because at that time Jews who were organized in Jewish movements – she belonged to HaShomer HaTzair – were meant to go to Israel but with the outbreak of war they could not leave Yugoslavia so they joined the partisans. My mama always said that HaShomer HaTzair youth was the most progressive and that is why the Communists would usually always look for HaShomer HaTzair young people to recruit into the partisans.
In the summer and winter of 1942, and Bosnian winters are very harsh winters, all the Jews, the whole battalion was collected and the Jews of the battalion were told to give their rifles back and leave for the city of Sarajevo. The forests were full of German soldiers and Serbian fascists called Czekniks, and it was very clear that it was a death sentence for most of them because Nazis were walking about with dogs and trying to catch people hiding in the forest. My mother walked through the forest for a couple of days and in the end she got to Sarajevo. She knew that there was nobody left and nowhere for her to go. The house was closed with planks, she saw that there was nothing she could do, and she was really scared and not knowing what to do she went to the park and fell asleep on one of the benches. Early in the morning someone was passing by, saw her there, woke her up, and asked, “Aren’t you the daughter of Solomon?” Mother said, “Yes I am.” This was a person who had been working with her father in the Ministry of Finance as a janitor and he recognized my mother and she told him what was happening, that she had no where to go. So he told her, “Wait for me here. I’ll find a place for you to go.”
Some time later there came another man who was well-dressed and very elegant and had a Turkish fez on his head which was the usual clothing of a Muslim person in Sarajevo, and this man told her, “Come with me.” On the way he told her that he is the director of the Muslim museum of Sarajevo. He had a young wife that had just given birth and he will hide her in his home. She will work and the one thing she had to do was not to speak. He would present her as somebody from the village, that he has brought to help his wife, but she had to pretend that she was mute. And my mama took the job for some months, I’m not very sure, 3, 4, maybe a bit more. She really helped this young woman. They had a small baby. And what was very difficult especially in that situation was that this man was a very prominent person in Sarajevo and he often had Muslims and German officers as guests at concerts that were held in his home. This man, Dervis Korkut, took care of my mother until she managed to leave his home and find her way back to the forest.
And then she found her way back to the forest, to the partisans?
Yes, she was looking for a connection to the Jews in Sarajevo who were also hiding. They were connected with the partisans and one day they managed to help her get back to the forest. My mother was a partisan veteran.
Davor, can we take you forward in time? You were born in 1948.
December 1948. My mother too. We were born on the same day.
And you grew up in what city?
Well, that is a question that has more than one answer. My mother was an officer in the Yugoslav army. And Yugoslav officers moved from city to city every couple of years so we moved about five times. In the beginning we lived in Sarajevo and then we moved to Split and then we moved to Zadar and at the end most of my life I lived in Rirka. From first grade until university I lived in Reirka, which is a city near the Italian border on the coast.
How old were you when you found out the story of your mother?
Very late. I was already living in Israel. One day, when my mother was already living in Israel she phoned and said she had found out something fantastic. And I said, “What is it about?”
She said that something happened in her life that she never talked about and then she told us the story about being saved by Dervis Korkut. The bigger part of the story is that in 1946 Dervis Korkut was caught by the Communist government and was going to be charged for his complicity to Nazis in Sarajevo. This came with the risk of the death penalty. Tito’s government, seeking to convict fascists, was conducting show trials of people who had been so-called working with the Nazis during World War II. Dervis Korkut was one of them. My mother was walking in Sarajevo in 1946 and suddenly a woman came up to her and fell on her boots and starts begging her for help. My mother lifted up this woman and realized that this was the young woman that she had been working for during the war. She was called Servet Korkut.
The wife of Dervis?
Yes, and she told my mother that her husband was going to be tried and she was sure that he was going to be killed – hanged or whatever. And my mother promised that she would do everything she could to not permit that. But when my mother went home and told my father, he told her not to attend the trial because the government would go after her next. So she did not go to the trial and this heavily weighed on my mother’s conscience.
And then in the 1980s, my mother was here in Israel living in Jerusalem. She somehow got hold of a Jewish newspaper from Sarajevo and she read that Dervis Korkut died around 1976 or 1979. And suddenly my mother realized that he had not been killed. So she frantically started asking about him, and found out through someone at Yad Vashem that Korkut did not only save Jews but he also saved the Sarajevo Haggadah. And because of this, people had came and testified for him in court and he was not hanged, but he went to prison for 7 or 8 years. My mama decided to tell her story to Yad Vashem and work for Dervis Korkut to be recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations. It was then that my mother stopped feeling responsible for someone’s death, and I saw a change in her. But then the story about him disappeared from our lives.
It disappeared from your life until 1999.
Right, until 1999 when suddenly while I was sleeping one night, Galei Tzahal [the Israeli army’s radio station] phoned and said, “Aren’t you going to the airport tomorrow?”
“Why would I go to the airport tomorrow?”
“What? You don’t know about this story? Do you know who Lamija Korkut is?”
“I don’t know that name.”
“Do you know Dervis Korkut?”
“Yes, I know that name.”
“His daughter is coming tomorrow with a group of 100 Bosnian people and we would like you to be there.”
So I got up quickly because though I did not remember the details of the story, I did remember what it meant for my mother, who had died a year earlier.
My mother was able to attain Righteous Among the Nations status for Mr. Korkut posthumously, but she wanted to find a family member to give it to. Korkut’s son, the one that she had taken care of during the war, was living in France. He helped her reconnect with Servet Korkut, whom she apologized to for not coming to the trial all those years ago.
So I knew this and I knew how important it was for my mother. But I hadn’t realized that there was a young girl who was born much later. My mother didn’t know about her either. But I drove to the airport so that someone from the Bakovic family would be waiting for them.
How long did they stay in Israel?
They stayed in Israel almost 4 years, and became citizens. But their daughter wanted to study in Canada so they all moved there.
You keep contact with the second generation?
Yes I do. Actually they phoned me up a couple of days ago to tell me that the girl in Canada is getting married.
And how often do you see them?
Well I haven’t seen Lamija for about 2 years. But we speak on Skype.
Is there a sense of a joint fate between you and Lamija?
Oh yes, very much so, definitely. The very moment I met her I felt no strangeness. There was just something very open, very pure, very loving, very trusting.
How much of that has passed down to the third generation? Your children and her children?
Avigail, my daughter, loves Lamija because she is a very warm person, but generally I would say that there is already a gap between the generations. When they were in Israel Avigail had very good relations with them but it’s also a matter of cultural difference. But yes I think that I am a sort of bridge for them with the future generation.
When I read the story in the New Yorker I was very struck by the fact that in 1999, over ten years ago, you were able to create a relationship with Lamija, the daughter of a Righteous Gentile who had, 60 years after the Holocaust, become a political refugee and whose life was in danger.
I understand what you’re saying. Lamija told me what was happening in Kosovo. The Serbs were oppressing the local people and in 1999, they were pushed out of Prishkina. Everything was run by Serbs. And then one day an armed soldier knocked on the door of the first apartment in their building and told them that everyone must leave the building and head for the train station. They were each allowed two suitcases. In the rush, Lamija’s husband thought to fold up the certificate from Yad Vashem and put it in his jacket pocket. Lamija remembers watching lines of people leave their homes and she said that the feeling of powerlessness left a very deep mark and that reminded me of everything that happened to the Jews. The way they were leaving their homes with sounds of boots and guns in the background, frantically collecting things to take with them.
I understood the whole situation very intuitively. I understood the greatness of what her father did and I think she did too. She suddenly realized that there was something special between us.
He took with him the document from Yad Vashem?
Yes. He took it intuitively knowing nothing but he felt that this is something important. He put it in his jacket and they left for the train, which took them to Macedonia. When they got off the train there were representatives from different countries offering safety. One of the tents was from Israel and the representatives were asking if they wanted to go there. Lazis went in and then while talking to them said, “I have this paper which I know comes from Israel.” And they opened the big piece of paper and saw that it was from Yad Vashem...
I really feel that they saved my mother and if they hadn’t saved my mother one never knows what would have happened. And I think that Dervis Korkut was a person of integrity and if not for his braveness Lamija wouldn’t have been who she is and I found two really beautiful people, really simple, well educated but simple, in their needs and treatment life, treatment of people.
The incredible part of the story is that what happened in 1942-1943 in Sarajevo is repeated in reverse nearly 60 years later, when the Righteous Gentile, the Korkuts and the person that he saved, your mother, aren’t alive anymore, and totally by chance the second generation is making the connections.
In some way it’s like a time shield because it is the same situation with different actors.
Why do you think your mother and their parents didn’t speak about this for so long?
Well, we know that my mama felt guilty for not having testified for Dervis. She told me that this was something she could not forget or forgive herself for for a very long time.
But the same question about him. Why didn’t he tell his children?
I don’t know. Lamija said that her father believed that life was something to survive and this is how he behaved. Not making a big deal of things.
When did you make aliyah [immigration to Israel]?
I came in 1970. Also I did not know that I was Jewish until I was 14. My mother was a Communist and she was an army officer. At that time in Yugoslavia, religion was not to be taken seriously or expressed, certainly not in my home. My mother was in HaShomer HaTzair so Jewish traditions did not mean anything to her. I never felt any antisemitism. It’s not that it was hidden to us. I knew that we were Jews but it was not something we spoke about. But when I was 14 my mama took my brother and me to a house that had a high wall in front, a simple gate, and behind it was a simple looking building. She opened the gate and brought us into a room full of people and full of candles. It was a Hanukkah party and there was singing and noise and we were flabbergasted. “What is this?” But within minutes we felt very much at home. Little by little we learned about Shabbat [The Jewish Sabbath day], about this and that, very gentle and slow paced. And then there was a person who told us about Israel, and in 1967 there was the Six-Day War and that was when we suddenly finally felt pride. That was a sort of climax of our connection to Israel. But I hadn’t ever thought of moving there.
But slowly my mother grew estranged to Yugoslav. She felt more and more Jewish and little by little she said that Communism was not what it should have been. I think she was very upset for many reasons; part of them surrounding what happened to my father who died because he wasn’t taken care of properly. My mother came to Israel in 1972 and died in 1998. In the beginning it was difficult. Obviously, a new immigrant, she came at 50 years old. She started in Afula and spent some time on a kibbutz. It was hard for her. But mama had many friends here, people who managed to leave Yugoslavia very early, even in 1946. She went through so much in her life and was very happy at the end of her life.