New Light on Bosnian Jews During World War II

The fate of Bosnian Jews during the Holocaust has attracted significant attention from historians and other commentators. According to a standard work, Bosnia: A Short History, published in 1994 by the distinguished British scholar Noel Malcolm, 12,000 out of 14,000 Jews living in Bosnia-Herzegovina before the German invasion of 1941 were liquidated by the Germans and their local allies, mainly the Croatian ultra-nationalist Ustaša movement.

Bosnian Muslims have been drawn into discussion of the mass murder of the Bosnian Jews mostly because of the interference in the country, during the German occupation, of Haj Amin Al-Husseini, an enthusiast of Hitler who hoped to rally the Muslims of the world to the side of Berlin.

That fantasy was destined for failure, but Al-Husseini's intrigue in Sarajevo, where he called for Bosnian Muslims to join the German armed forces (Waffen-SS), continues to stain the reputation of the Bosnians, whose Islam is provably moderate and whose relations with Jews have been generally good. Sephardic, Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Jews came to Bosnia in the 16th century CE, following their expulsion from the Iberian peninsula. They flourished throughout the mountainous Balkan environment.

There is more to learn about the Bosnian Jews and their Muslim neighbors during World War II. In 2010, Eli Tauber, a Sarajevan whose mother was Sephardic and father was Ashkenazi, published a book titled When Neighbors Were Real Human Beings. Issued by the University of Sarajevo with the authorization of the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, the volume exists in English and Bosnian language editions and describes the actions of "Righteous Among the Nations" - Bosnians who rescued Jews during the war.

Such individuals are memorialized at Yad Vashem. As described by Tauber, they included a number of Bosnian Muslims. His chronicle enumerates 47 Bosnians who saved Jews, of which 23 bear identifiably Muslim names.

For example, a Muslim family, the Fazlinovićes, lived alongside Jews in Sarajevo. Sulejman Fazlinović was a railroad worker. He and his wife Hasija protected four Jewish children, by taking them around "Greater Croatia" (which included Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war) disguised as their own offspring. The Fazlinovićes were honored by Yad Vashem in 1980.

A perhaps more remarkable story is that of the Hardaga family: Mustafa and his brother Izet, Mustafa's wife Zeineba and Izet's spouse Bahrija. Mustafa Hardaga rented property to a Sephard, Joseph Kabilio, who used it to launch a pipe factory.

The Muslim and Jewish families respected each other's traditions, as recorded by Eli Tauber. The Hardagas were careful not to disturb the Jewish Sabbath by cleaning or dusting carpets and the Kabilios did not engage in festivities during the day in the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Often the two family patriarchs sat and drank coffee, noting the similarity of their religions: both circumcised their sons, both refused to eat pork, both believe in one God, among other parallels.

When the Germans arrived in Sarajevo in 1941 many residents fled into the nearby forests. As people began returning to the city, Zeineba Hardaga searched for Joseph Kabilio and his wife Rivka, finding them in the streets with their children Benjamin and Tova. The Jews were taken into the Muslim home, and Rifka was presented in public as a Muslim woman. Zeineba Hardaga recalled, "This was the first time that [an unrelated] man had slept in our house... But Joseph was like a brother to us - if not before then, certainly from the day he entered our home." After the war, Joseph Kabilio emigrated to Israel.

Zeineba Hardaga's father Ahmed Sadiq-Saralop, for helping Jews, was deported to a concentration camp, where he perished. He and the Hardagas were recognized by Yad Vashem in 1984. In 1994, during the Bosnian War, Zeineba Hardaga was invited to go to Israel by that country's government and passed away there.

One of the most notable, and better known, among Bosnian Muslims who saved Jews was Derviš Korkut, librarian of a local museum in Sarajevo. The museum housed, with other treasures, the beautiful illuminated Sarajevo Haggadah, a text for reading during the Jewish holiday of Passover. The Sarajevo Haggadah dates from pre-expulsion Catalonia or Aragon. (Passover for the Hebrew year 5776 begins on Friday evening, March 22, 2016.)

The German takeover of Sarajevo in 1941 led to an attempt by the occupiers to get their hands on the Sarajevo Haggadah, but Derviš Korkut told a German officer who came and demanded it that it had been given earlier to another German. Korkut held the Sarajevo Haggadah in safekeeping and returned it to the museum after the war.

Derviš and Serveta Korkut, like the Hardagas, protected a Jewish woman, Donkica Papo, by introducing her as a Muslim believer. Further, the Korkuts shielded two other Jewish families. Yad Vashem recognized the Korkut couple as Righteous Among the Nations in 1994.

Eli Tauber has published, additionally, a significant monograph in Bosnian on the Jewish press in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1900 to 2011, and edited a volume on the Judeo-Spanish idiom of the Bosnian Sephardim, also in Bosnian, which came out in 2010. In 2014, he produced an authoritative survey of the Holocaust of the Jews in Bosnia-Herzegovina. A similar volume in Bosnian and English, After the Traces of Our Neighbors: Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Holocaust, was compiled by two Bosnian Muslim historians, Anisa Hasanhodžić and Rifet Rustemović, and issued by the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna in 2015.

The history of the Bosnian Jews is tragic. Today they count no more than 1,000. But it is an inspiring example of survival and solidarity. All these new volumes - in which Bosnians speak for themselves - deserve wide readership, including translation into English.