Muslims helped save Jewish family during World War II… debt repaid during Yugoslav war in 1990s
TORONTO — Sara Pechanac lives a film script that could be titled “The rescuers became the rescued.” She’s fine with that. Indeed, she smiles broadly and her eyes dance when she recounts her family’s story.
“I find that today, in the 21st century, I need to share my story with people because it’s a very important time we are living in,” said the 56-year-old Pechanac, who was brought to Canada by JFC-UIA and her Toronto tour was organized by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). “I think people need to hear this story.”
It’s an irresistible one.
It begins in April 1941, when the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia. Pechanac’s family lived in Sarajevo, now the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, then part of Croatian territory. The city was bombed relentlessly from the air.
The clan was Muslim, and their sole concession to observance was to eschew pork. Sara’s mother, Zejneba Hardaga-Susic, wore a face veil, but only in public. They lived across the street from a synagogue and had many Jewish friends and acquaintances.
Among them was Josef Kavilio, who owned a factory near the Hardaga home. Bombed out of their house and marked for deportation, Kavilio, his wife and two children were taken in and offered haven by the Hardaga family, comprised of Musafa, his wife Zejneba, Mustafa’s brother, Izet, and Izet’s wife, Bachriya.
Following a short stay, the Kavilios fled to Mostar, in an area of Croatia under Italian control where Jews were relatively safe. Kavilio himself stayed behind to liquidate his business, but was caught and imprisoned by the Ustase, Croatia’s fascist, anti-Semitic movement.
Heavy snow prevented the transfer of Kavilio and other prisoners from Sarajevo to the infamous Jasenovac concentration camp near Zagreb, where the Ustase systematically killed Serbs, Jews and Roma.
“Instead, the prisoners were taken, with their legs chained, to clear the roads from snow,” states the website of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum. “This is where Zejneba saw Kavilio. 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 managed to escape and make his way back to the Hardaga home. The family welcomed him and nursed him back to health. Gestapo headquarters were nearby and the danger was immense. In his testimony to Yad Vashem, Kavilio described the notices on walls threatening those who hid Serbs and Jews with death. Not wanting to further endanger the Hardagas, he again fled to Mostar to rejoin his family.
By this time, the Hardagas had learned a family secret: Zejneba’s father, Ahmed Sadik, had been hiding a Jewish family named Papo in his home. Sadik was caught and shipped to the Jasenovac camp near Zagreb, where he was murdered.
“My mother tried to do everything to save her father,” Pechanac said.
Meantime, the Kavilios all survived, and at war’s end, they revisited the Hardagas, who returned the jewelry that Josef had left with them for safekeeping.
The Kavilios immigrated to Israel, where they began a campaign to have the four Hardagas recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. In 1985, the family, as well as Ahmed Sadik, became the first Muslims to be so honoured, in a ceremony attended by Pechanac’s mother and the Kavilio descendants.
Fast forward to the early 1990s. The civil war in Yugoslavia was raging, with Sarajevo in the crosshairs. “When my mother saved the Jews,” Pechanac said with a sigh, “she never thought that a half-century after that, we would find ourselves in the same place – but now, we needed help. You could not arrange things like that.”
Shimon Peres, now Israel’s president, wrote the nascent Bosnian government inviting Pechanac, her mother, husband and daughter to the Jewish state. In February 1994, they arrived “with one suitcase and no money,” Pechanac recalled. It didn’t matter; Israel had repaid a debt.
As if to acknowledge that, a year later, Pechanac, her husband and their daughter all converted to Judaism. Pechanac said that for her, it was natural.
“I grew up near the Jewish community. I had Jewish friends. I didn’t think it was bad to be a Muslim, [but] all my life I knew that I wanted to become a Jew.” Avoiding pork, she added, “helped me really to feel like a Jew.”
Pechanac, who was born in Sarajevo, said her mother did not speak of the family’s heroic exploits, and that Pechanac herself did not discover them until she was an adult.
“My mother didn’t find it was necessary to talk about that. My mother was a special woman. She never spoke too much. She’d done so much in her life.
“She educated us: ‘If you want to do something, do it.’ But not for this”–Pechanac slapped her chest to indicate self-satisfaction. “You do it because you believe in God.”
Her sole regret is not pressing her mother for more details. Zejneba Hardaga-Susic died eight months after arriving in Israel. Pechanac’s husband also died there. Pechanac has a sister, a Muslim, in Sarajevo, and a brother, who’s Christian, living in Mexico City.
“Three children, three religions, from the same mother,” Pechanac noted. Her daughter, now 30, was an officer in the Israel Air Force.
Another kicker: Pechanac works in the archives department of Yad Vashem.
Asked what messages she brings to Toronto, she replied, “Many… You need to do only good things in life. Always put yourself in the situation of others. Bad things can happen to you, too. Follow your feelings and try to do the best you can.”