From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

Salvation in Sarajevo

I call heaven and earth to witness that whether one be Jew or gentile, man or woman, only according to their good deeds does the Divine Spirit rest upon them.


In the autumn of 1941, most of the Jews of Sarajevo were herded onto trains and sent to concentration camps. Some managed to flee; others joined the Partisans. Josef Kabilio, a Jewish artisan, was a close family friend of Mustafa Hardaga, a wealthy Muslim merchant. Not long after the Germans occupied Sarajevo, Mustafa Hardaga went to inspect one of his properties and found Josef Kabilio hiding there. Mustafa Hardaga now faced an excruciating moral dilemma.

If he turned Josef Kabilio over to the authorities, it would be condemning him to death. Yet, if he were caught sheltering a Jew, it would mean certain death for both of them. But this was his friend for many years; what was he to do? His high principles prevailed. He took Kabilio into his home and hid him there. Kabilio made two attempts to flee Sarajevo, and both times he was caught and jailed. On both occasions, he managed to escape from jail and again Hardaga, his Muslim friend, sheltered him in his home.

Zeyneba Hardaga, the merchant’s wife, also had a close relationship with Kabilio. On one occasion she spotted him in a labor brigade and risked her life by bringing food to Kabilio and his fellow prisoners. At a later date, she explained her actions. “When Josef left us for the third time, all we could do was pray and hope. Later, when my children asked why I did this, I always answered what my husband said, ‘You do not abandon your friends.’”

Miraculously, Kabilio survived the war and returned to Sarajevo in 1945. Finding his home plundered, the Hardagas took him in. In 1948, he left for Israel, promising to write often, as did the Hardagas. Very soon the first letter arrived from Israel to Sarajevo, and they continued like a paper chain for decades.

Over the course of those years, Josef Kabilio married, had children and grandchildren, and became a widower. Similarly, Zeneyba Hardaga in Sarajevo became a widow and then remarried, becoming a mother and grandmother. However, with the passage of the years, in addition to losing her second husband, she also lost all her property and a good deal of her health. Ultimately, a leg had to be amputated, and she could no longer walk. Despite all these woes, she never informed her good friend and correspondent, Josef Kabilio, of her troubles.

All the while, and unbeknownst to her, Kabilio was hard at work in Jerusalem to have her recognized by Yad Vashem, Israel’s National Holocaust Museum, as a Righteous Gentile, a non-Jew who went to extraordinary lengths during the Second World War to save Jewish lives. He went many times to the museum to speak to the office in charge of this award and learned that the necessary process of substantiation was exceptionally arduous, and furthermore, this award had never been given to a Muslim.

Kabilio persisted in the face of many obstacles, and when he turned eighty-eight, Zeyneba Hardaga received a letter from Yad Vashem. They informed her of her award and told her that she would be flown to Jerusalem to receive it. Seven months later, Josef Kabilio had the privilege of watching his old friend helped off the plane at Ben Gurion airport. He was shocked to see that she could not walk. His first words were, “You never told me!” With a smile, she scolded him, “You never told me what you were up to, either.”

Kabilio died just four years later and never knew how valuable his work would ultimately become in having Zeyneba recognized by Yad Vashem. The war broke out in Sarajevo in 1992. In February 1994, Mrs. Hardaga and her family were given special preference to escape the horrors of war by leaving the city on a convoy of 294 Muslims, Jews, Serbs and Croats, organized by the Joint Jewish Distribution Committee. This Muslim family had their lives saved by a Jewish organization.

Furthermore, Kabilio’s family in Israel went to the Israeli authorities and arranged for an El Al plane (Israel’s national airline) to be sent to the Sarajevo area to bring Zeyneba Hardaga, her daughter and her family, to Israel. All these miraculous events occurred in large measure because of Josef Kabilio’s efforts to properly recognize his friend’s heroism during the war. What beautiful symmetry. The Muslim Hardagas saved Kabilio when his life was threatened, and the Jew Kabilio was instrumental in having the Hardagas saved when their lives were in danger.

Isn’t this the way the world should always be?

Rabbi Richard Plavin

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