In April 1941, the Germans marched into Yugoslavia. The invasion was swift and decisive. The Yugoslavian forces crumbled nearly immediately under heavy German artillery bombardments and hostile air raids, attacks that didn't restrain themselves to military targets, but specifically hammered city centres an population dense urban areas. During this ruthless blitz, the city of Sarajevo was put directly in the crosshairs. Bombing runs destroyed buildings, businesses, and homes.
Including the home of the Kavilio family.
The Kavilios were a Jewish family living in Sarajevo that, thanks to the bombings, suddenly found themselves destitute, homeless, and stuck on foot during a Nazi invasion. Ground forces were already quickly spreading throughout the country, capturing cities, taking over the local offices of power, and imposing the Fuehrer's twisted will. Their situation could not have possibly been more fraught.
Not knowing what to do, Joseph, the father of the family, gathered his wife and children and set off towards the factory he owned for shelter. This was a desperate plan. As a piece of industrial infrastructure, there was a good chance the factory could be targeted by further bombing runs (he'd essentially be taking his family from one disaster to another), and as a business registered under a Jewish name, the Nazis would be pounding on its doors as soon as they took the city (which the Kavilio's knew would only be a matter of time). Joseph knew that taking his family to the factory would only delay the inevitable, one way or the other, but had no other alternatives.
Thankfully, Mustafa Hardaga came along.
Mustafa was the head of the Hardaga family. Well-to-do and traditionally Muslim, the Nazi invasion was threatening to them, but did not immediately spell doom as it did for the Kavilios. Mustafa knew Joseph, he owned the larger building complex the Kavilio's factory was located in, and by sheer, miraculous, chance he stumbled upon the family as they were walking to take shelter. He asked Joseph why he was walking with his entire family, why they were carrying what seemed to be a mishmash of luggage and belongings. When Joseph told him what had happened and what they planned to do, Mustafa immediately put his foot down.
The Kavilios would not take shelter in the factory, in a building he owned. No way. Not a chance. Instead, they would stay with his family.
Without hesitation, without flinching, Mustafa, a Muslim, took the Kavilios into his home. More than that, he took them into his heart. For observant Muslims there are many rules about modesty and appearance, for women in particular. Respectful women are supposed to wear a veil and cover themselves in the presence of strangers, which of course could pose a problem when all of a sudden an entire family of strangers has come to live with you.
For Mustafa though, this wasn't an obstacle. He simply declared the Kavilios part of his own family. Problem solved.
These were not empty words either, they truly were embraced as family. The Kavilio's stayed with the Hardagas as the German invasion tore through Yugoslavia. They were sheltered from both Nazi soldiers and local sympathizers, but the situation was still precarious. When an opportunity presented itself, Joseph sent his family to Mostar, which was under Italian control at the time. It wasn't "safe” exactly, but it was far better than being in the jaws of the tiger. Joseph on the other hand stayed behind. He had to sell the business to ensure his family had some resources to draw on and tie up a few other loose ends. This proved to be a nearly fatal mistake.
Before being able to join his family in Mostar, Joseph was captured by the Nazis. And just as the Hardagas protected him, he protected them, never revealing the identity of those who sheltered him for so long.
As an illegal Jew living in Sarajevo, Joseph's fate was clear, he was scheduled to be transferred to Jasenovac, the so-called "Croatian Auschwitz” which would have been the last anyone had ever heard of him. But God had other plans. Around the time of his capture and sentencing, Sarajevo was hit with a massive winter storm. Heavy snowfall and bitter cold prevented the widespread transport of prisoners. Instead, Joseph was pressed into a chain gang along with other Jews, Serbs, and Roma who had been rounded up, forced to clear the roads in preparation for their transport.
This was cruel, inhumane work. Joseph and his fellow prisoners worked in sub-zero temperatures in crude clogs and thin coats, totally unsuitable for the conditions. It was slave labour, with gruelling days of hard heavy work rewarded with nothing but starvation rations designed to wear the prisoners out and break their spirits. Joseph's fortune to post-pone a trip to Jasenovac could have been seen as a twisted mercy.
Think about where this left the Hardagas. They defied the law, endangered themselves, and successfully helped smuggle a Jewish family out from under the Germans. Joseph was caught, but miraculously was able to withstand interrogation and never uttered their names. They came so close to being caught and were able to do so much good. Anyone else would have walked away with a clear conscious, they had done their part.
Not the Hardagas. Zejneba, Mustafa's wife, couldn't let it go. She couldn't stand the thought of Joseph and his fellow captives suffering like they did. She knew injustice when she saw it, and she knew that men and women taken away in chains just for the blood that ran in their veins was the height of inhumanity. So she took another risk. Zejneba, despite all warnings to the contrary, despite the death sentence the Nazis promised for those who would aid enemies of the state, would brave the snow, the guards, and the guns to smuggle food out to the workers on the chain gang. She chose justice.
Joseph's story took more strange turns. After being caught trying to escape, Joseph was punished with an even harsher work load repairing water and sewage lines in the freezing cold in a place called Pale. However, a few weeks into this sentence, a guard, one Captain Reichman, quietly informed the prisoners that he would be leaving the hut door open that night. Everyone understood, he was giving them a chance to escape – and Joseph took it. He ran into the night, travelled miles to get back home, and the Hardaga's took him back in again.
Joseph stayed with the Hardaga's for some time before eventually joining his own family in Mostar. When the war ended and they returned to Sarajevo, the Hardaga's were waiting with open arms, welcoming them into their home until they could get their feet under them. They were as close as families could be.
After many years, the Kavilio's felt the call to return to Israel. They petitioned Yad Vashem to recognize the Hardaga's bravery and add them to the righteous among the nations. They were added, and in 1085, Zejneba came to Israel to plant a symbolic tree for her family in Israeli soil.
In any other story, this would be the end. Good people recognized for their actions, happy decades at peace, grandchildren grown and healthy. But this isn't any other story, and the ending could have been tragic.
Fifty years after the inhumanity of the Holocaust, Sarajevo found itself gripped in another vice of hatred and murder. The Serbian army laid siege to the city, cutting it off from all resources, turning the streets into a deadly killing field of artillery bombardment and sniper fire. Zejneba and her youngest daughter Pecanac were stuck in the middle of it. This time, it was Muslims who were the target of racially based hatred, and with an iron ring tightening around the city with every passing day, the Hardagas seemed doomed.
And they would have been without the intervention of the Kavilios and the Israeli government. Coming full circle, the Kavilios worked with Israeli authorities to secure the entire Hardagas family safe passage out of the line of fire. They were taken out of the city and eventually flown to Israel where they resettled. The Kavilio's finally repaid the debt they owed for more than half a century. Two families, divided by faith but united by shared compassion and empathy were able to save each other in a world full of hate.
When asked about what she thought of her family's story, Pecanac said, "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, but she said you can control how good you will be.” A lesson we can all stand to learn.