By Dr. Joanna Sliwa
Mustafa and Zejneba (Zayneba) Hardaga lived in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. They were a religious Muslim family.
About 78,000 Jews lived in Yugoslavia, including 14,000 in Bosnia. Among them were Josef Kabilio (Kavilio), his wife Rivka, and their children, Benjamin and Tova (later Greenberg). The Kabilios founded a pipe factory on the property that belonged to the Hardagas and which bordered on their home in Sarajevo. The Hardagas and Kabilios forged friendly relations. The Hardagas would be crucial in the survival of the Kabilios, who were four out of about 2,000 Bosnian Jews who survived the Holocaust.
The German army and their allies invaded Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941, and on April 14 the German soldiers reached Sarajevo. Many people sought shelter in the surrounding forests during the bombardment of the city. The Kabilios suffered a major loss – their house was destroyed. The Hardagas invited the Kabilios into their home even though they themselves had limited space. Mustafa and Zejneba Hadraga lived with Mustafa’s brother Izet and his wife Bachriya.
The arrival of the members of the Jewish family who were not related to the Hardagas posed a religious dilemma for the two Muslim women. According to their religion, they had to remain veiled in front of strangers. However, both Zejneba and Bachriya concluded that Josef Kabilio was like family to them. Their husbands agreed. During a ceremony in Israel to recognize the Hardagas as Righteous Among the Nations, Zejneba recalled that Mustafa and Izet stated: “our home is your home; feel at home. Our women will not hide their faces in your presence, because you are like family members to us. Now that your life is in danger, we will not leave you.”
There was another dilemma that the Hardaga family faced. The German authorities posted notices warning the non-Jewish population against sheltering Jews and threatening them with a death penalty. Josef Kabilio did not want to endanger his hosts. He decided that his wife and children would flee to Mostar, which was under Italian control. With the help of a friend, Josef hid in a military hospital by posing as an injured soldier.
In winter 1942, after two months in hiding, Josef was denounced, imprisoned, and drafted into forced labor. The Hardaga women found out where the men from the prison, including Josef, were taken for labor in the city and brought him and the other men food. When Josef was transferred to perform labor in Pale, some 18 miles from Sarajevo, the Hardagas continued to support him by sending him food parcels. These saved his life, because Josef suffered from starvation, forced to eat whatever he could find, such as grass and snails.
Josef managed to escape with the help of a non-Jewish military officer and reached the Hardagas, the only non-Jews he could rely on. He hid in their house for two months. The deportation of Jews from Sarajevo began in August 1941 and continued into 1942. Nearly all Jews were rounded up and brought to camps: Jasenovac, Lobograd, and Djakovo. The Hardagas helped Josef to flee to Mostar where he reunited with his loved ones. The area came under German control in September 1943. The Kabilios were on the run again. They joined the partisans and survived with them in the forests until liberation.
The Hardagas protected the lives of the Kabilios, but also their property. The Kabilios entrusted to them for safekeeping a box with jewelry, which the Hardagas returned to them after the war.
The Hardagas continued to assist the Kabilios after the war. They provided the Jewish family with a place to live upon their return to Sarajevo. The Kabilio family immigrated to Israel in 1950.
In spring 1992, Serb forces surrounded Sarajevo and unleashed an attack against the population. Zejneba Hardaga (by then Sušic) and her family were in grave danger. Representatives of Yad Vashem and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) were key in facilitating the family’s flight from war-torn Yugoslavia. At first, Zejneba refused to leave without her daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter. In 1994, the Israeli government granted the family permission to come to Israel. They arrived in February. Zejneba passed away in Israel eight months later. Zejneba’s daughter, Aida Pećanac, her husband, and their daughter converted to Judaism. Aida, who changed her name to Sarah, has worked in the archives at Yad Vashem. She explained her decision, “it is only natural that I should want to become Jewish. It is an honor for me to belong to this people.”