There really isn’t such a thing as a happy Holocaust story but I think this is probably could be seen as a ‘happy’ story.
It doesn’t only portray extreme bravery but also that deep down good people are the same, regardless of what religious differences they have. Especially in the present time where there are so many negative stories about Muslims and to a lesser extend of Jews it is important that a story like the one of these 2 families gets told.
The story spans approximately 50 years and is about the Hardaga and Kabiljo(aka Kavilio) families
During the Second World War, the Germans invaded Yugoslavia. After they seized Sarajevo in 1941, the Gestapo opened an office across the street from the home of Mustafa Hardaga, a local furniture salesman.
The Nazi occupation was vicious. The city’s old synagogue was looted, 400-year-old Torah scrolls were burned.
At night, the Hardagas could hear the screams of prisoners being tortured in Gestapo jail cells.
Amid the brutality, Hardaga and his wife Zejneba agreed to take in Hardaga’s friend and business partner Yosef Kabiljo(Kavilio), whose own home had been destroyed during a Nazi bombing raid. Kabiljo, his wife and daughter were Jewish. They hid behind clothes in the back of a walk-in closet when the Gestapo came to the Hardaga home to check documents.
“We were only 10 metres away from the Germans and hiding the Kabiljo s right under their noses,” said Salih Hardaga, Sara’s brother, who was born a year before the Germans invaded Yugoslavia.
The Hardagas were conservative Muslims, with the women covering their faces with a veil in the presence of strangers.
“Never before had a strange man stayed with them,” Yosef Kabiljo testified later to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial authority. “They welcomed us with the words: ‘Josef, you are our brother, and your children are like our children. Feel at home and whatever we own is yours.’”
The Hardaga women never again wore veils in front of Kabiljo.
“When I was growing up, my mother Zejneba always said, ‘You can’t control how rich you will be, or how smart or successful you will be,’” Pecanac said. “But she said you can control how good you will be.”
The Kabiljos stayed with the Hardagas until Josef Kavilio was able to move his wife and children to Mostar, a Bosnian city that was under Italian rule.
Kabiljo stayed behind to liquidate his business but he could not escape detection forever. 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.
Their saviours paid a steep price for helping Jews. Mustafa Hardaga’s Father in Law, Ahmed Sadik, was executed by the Nazis because he helped to forge documents with Christian names for Jewish families like the Kavilios and had hid a Jewish family in his house.
Half a century later, the Hardagas were themselves saved by the Kavilios during the Bosnian Civil War.
Threatened by the continuous shelling of Sarajevo, the Kavilio family appealed to the President of Bosnia to permit their erstwhile saviours to travel to Israel.
In 1992, shattered Bosnia was on fire. The phone lines to Sarajevo were down, leaving friends and family worried about their loved ones. Salih Hardaga, who had moved to Mexico in 1974, watched TV news programs, hoping for a glimpse of his sister or mother in Sarajevo.
In Jerusalem, too, the Kabiljos tuned in to the evening newscasts, unsure whether the Hardagas were still alive. While Mustafa Hardaga had died during the 1960s, the Kabiljos had stayed in touch with Zejneba and Pecanac, who was born in 1957.
They contacted an Israeli journalist who was heading to cover the war. The journalist passed on a message to a local community organization in Sarajevo that the Kabiljo family was searching for Zejneba.
A message was sent back to Israel that Zejneba, then 76, and her youngest daughter Sara were still in Sarajevo.
“There was no talk about leaving Sarajevo because there was no time,” Pecanac said. “One day things were OK. The next, soldiers were surrounding the city, the city was split into sections, and there were UN troops and snipers and bombings.
Pecanac was stunned to hear the Kabiljos were trying to help.
She had heard the full family story only in 1984, when the Kabiljo family asked Yad Vashem to recognize the Hardagas and Ahmed Sadik as Righteous Among the Nations, an honour given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Zejneba at the Hall of Remembrance, Yad Vashem 1985, courtesy of Yad Vashem
“My dad had died and my mother didn’t talk about it very much,” Pecanac said of the family’s heroism.
After learning that Zejneba was still alive, the Kabiljos again contacted Yad Vashem and officials agreed to help organize a rescue.
In early 1994, Pecanac, Branimir, Sacha and Zejneba joined 300 other refugees on a convoy of six buses that streaked through the shattered streets of Sarajevo.
“I remember we passed 34 checkpoints, and all the soldiers at the checkpoints wanted were U.S. dollars,” Pecanac said. “But without the help of the Kabiljos, we would not have been on the bus. When Yad Vashem wrote a letter to the president of Bosnia, asking that we be allowed to leave, he said no. It only happened after the Kabiljos managed to get the case all the way to (Israeli Prime Minister) Yitzhak Rabin.
The Hardaga family was given its choice of destinations. Pecanac and her mother picked Jerusalem.
The rescue was extraordinary — one family saving another from genocide, only to see the favour returned half a century later.
“Imagine that you are in such a state and need help and you get it from the same family your family saved 50 years earlier,” said Pecanac, who converted to Judaism and now works for Yad Vashem. “It is an amazing story.”
A few months after Zejneba and her family arrived in Jerusalem, they were asked to meet Rabin.
“We went in and talked for a bit and my mother turned to Rabin and said, ‘Can I offer you some advice?’” Pecanac said. “The whole place went quiet. Who was this old woman to give advice to the prime minister of Israel?
“He said OK, and she said, ‘Please, try to make peace in the Middle East. Don’t let Jerusalem become Sarajevo.’”