Muslim Rescuers in Sarajevo
In April 1941 when the Germans invaded Yugoslavia, Sarajevo was bombed from the air. The home of the Kavilio family was destroyed. They had fled to the hills when the bombing began, and were now without a home. As they were walking to the family factory, they met Mustafa Hardaga, a Muslim friend who was the owner of the factory building. He immediately offered them to stay at his house.
The Hardagas were observant Muslims. The household included Mustafa and his wife Zejneba, and his brother Izet and wife Bachriya. According to their Muslim tradition, the women were supposed to wear a veil and cover their faces in front of strangers. Having a strange man sleep at their home was a most unusual step. However, as Zejneba described many years later, their husbands welcomed the Kavilios and told them that they would now be part of the family. “Our home is your home”, they said, and to demonstrate this point, the women were not obliged to cover their faces in the presence of Josef Kavilio, since he was now a member of the family.
The Kavilio family stayed with the Hardagas for a short while until Josef Kavilio was able to move his wife and children to Mostar, in an area under Italian control, where Jews were relatively safe. Kavilio himself stayed behind to liquidate his business. Eventually he was arrested and imprisoned by the Ustasa. Because of the heavy snow, the prisoners could not be transferred from Sarajevo to the infamous Jasenovac camp near Zagreb, where the Croatians systematically killed Serbs, Jews and Roma. Instead the prisoners were taken, with their legs chained, to clear the roads from snow. This is where Zejneba saw Kvilio. Kavilio later testified that he saw her standing at the street corner, her face traditionally veiled, watching the plight of their family friend with tears in her eyes. Undisturbed by the danger, she began to bring food to the prisoners.
Josef Kavilio eventually managed to escape and returned to the Hardaga home. The family welcomed him warmly and nursed him back to health. The Gestapo headquarters were nearby, and the danger was immense. In his testimony Josef described the notices on the walls threatening those who would hide Serbs and Jews with the death penalty. Not wanting to endanger the Hardagas life, Josef decided to flee to Mostar and join his family.
After September 1943, when the Italian areas came under German occupation, the Kavilio family had to move yet again. They fled to the mountains and joined the partisans. After the war they returned to Sarajevo. Again they stayed with the Hardagas until they could find a place of their own. The Hardagas also returned the jewelry that the Kavilio family had left with them for safekeeping.
It was then that they learned that Zejneba’s father, Ahmed Sadik, had been hiding a Jewish by the name of Papo in his home. He did not survive the war. He was caught, arrested and killed in Jasenovac.
The Kavilio family immigrated to Israel. In 1984 they asked Yad Vashem to recognize the Hardaga family and Ahmed Sadik as Righteous Among the Nations. A year later, Zejneba Hardaga came to Israel to plant a tree in her family’s name.
Fifty years after the Holocaust, when in 1994 Sarajevo was under the attack of Serb forces, Zejneba and her family were in great distress. With the help of the Joint Distribution Committee, Yad Vashem appealed to the President of Bosnia to permit Zejneba to come to Israel. In February 1994 Zejneba, her daughter her husband and child arrived in Israel and were welcomed by government officials, representatives of Yad Vashem and the Kavilios. The Hardagas had sheltered a Jewish family during the darkest period in Jewish history. It was now the State of Israel that paid back the debt and helped the Hardagas in their time of distress.
It was probably this deep bond that prompted Zejneba’s daughter – Sarah Pecanac – and her family to convert to Judaism. “It is only natural that I should want to become Jewish. It is an honor for me to belong to these people”, she explained. She closed yet another circle, when she began working for Yad Vashem, where the story of her family is exhibited in the museum, where the file about the family is kept in the archive of the Righteous Among the Nations, and where a tree was planted by her mother in honor of her family’s courage and humanity.
On January 29, 1984, Yad Vashem recognized Mustafa and Zejneba Hardaga, Izet and Bachriya Hardaga and Ahmed Sadik as Righteous Among the Nations.