One good turn deserves another | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 24.04.2012
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One good turn deserves another

Sara Pacanac’s mother hid a Jewish family from the Nazis in Sarajevo during World War II. 50 years later, that Jewish family helped to rescue Sarah and her mother, getting them out of Sarajevo during the siege in 1994.

Some say you should do a good deed without expecting anything in return. But Sara Pecanac could hardly expect that her mother's kindness decades earlier would help save her life - as well as that of her husband and daughter.

The story begins in the 1930s, in cosmopolitan pre-war Sarajevo. Sara's mother Zeinaba Herdaga was a young Bosnian Muslim woman living beside her Jewish neighbors, the Khavilios. Each family had two small children who were in and out of each other's homes all day.

World War II

Their daily life took a sharp turn in 1941, when the Nazis invaded the country and began arresting Jews and sending them to concentration camps.

The local headquarters of the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, was opposite the Hardagas' apartment. Still, Sara said Zeinaba did not hesitate to help. She hid the Khavilio family and their children for months at a time, as they moved from location to location around the Balkans to avoid capture by the Nazis.

"When your friends are in a very dangerous situation, it's very normal and it's very human to help if you are able to. My mom was not crazy, she was not special," said Sara Pecanac. "She was a human who saw another human being suffering, and she was in a position to help, so why not do that?"

Zeinaba continued to hide the Khavilios, even after her father had been sent to the Jasenovac concentration camp, where he was killed for protecting other Jewish families.


With the Hardagas' help, the Khavilios were among the 20 percent of Yugoslavia's Jews who survived the war. Afterwards, they moved to Jerusalem. The Hardagas remained in Sarajevo, and the two families stayed in close contact.

Sara Pacanac speaking in synagogue

In Israel, Sara Pacanac converted to Judaism

The Khavilio family went to Israel's Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, to explain how the Hardagas had helped to save them. In 1985, Yad Vashem recognised Zeinaba Hardaga with the special status of "Righteous among the Nations." She came to Jerusalem for a ceremony, where she received a medal and planted a tree.

"But best of all, she sat on the balcony with Joseph Khavilio, drinking coffee and reminiscing about life in Sarajevo before the war," Sarah Pecanac remembered.

Balkan civil war

Seven years later a new conflict began. This time it was a deadly civil war, and Sarajevo was besieged. The siege lasted 4 years and claimed more than 11,000 lives. Zeinaba was now in her seventies, and in poor health. On top of that, her Muslim daughter Sara was married to a Serbian Christian man, and they were living on the front line between the two warring areas of Sarajevo. Relentless bombing forced the family underground for six months.

"You don't need a clock, you don't need a calendar, the year means nothing, it's as if time has stopped as you wait every day for 6 months, for someone to come to kill you. It could be a Serbian coming to kill me, or a Muslim coming to kill my husband. And the most terrible thing was that this was happening at the end of the 20th century in the heart of Europe," said Sara Pecanac.

Tables turned

Yad Vashem main hall

Yad Vashem, the Jewish people's living memorial to the Holocaust

In Jerusalem, the Khavilio family watched the events in Sarajevo on the TV news. They saw a direct hit on Zeinaba Hardaga's building and called Yad Vashem to try to organize a safe passage for her out of Sarajevo. The Jewish community was putting together a convoy to leave the besieged city, and supporters negotiated for months with Bosnian and Serb leaders so that Zeinaba and her family would be part of the convoy.

"My mother always said to me, 'Everything that happens to other people - look in their eyes because it can always happen to you,' and it's so correct because 50 years later, the same family, Jewish, now from Jerusalem, helped a Muslim family. It was the same place, same two families, but on opposite sides," said Sara Pacanac.


In February 1994, the family were on the last Jewish convoy out of Sarajevo. When they arrived in Israel, politicians, media and crowds of well-wishers were at the airport - including, of course, the Khavilio family.

Sara Pecanac felt like she was coming home, and she ultimately converted to Judaism. A year later she began working at Yad Vashem, where there were memorials to her mother and her grandfather. Every day, she visited the tree her mother planted in 1985.

"Today, it's a big tree, with strong roots, and it's beautiful and tall, like my daughter, and the young people all around the world. I've learned something very important working at Yad Vashem. I've learned that you are not dead because you have passed away - you are dead if the people forget you."

Joseph Khavilio and Zeinaba Hardaga have both passed away, but they are not forgotten. Now it is their children who sit on the balcony and drink coffee together. They remember their parents' acts of courage and goodness - two entwined families who rescued each other.

Author: Irris Makler / db
Editor: Greg Wiser

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