Smallest of chances

January 20, 1994|By Edward Serotta

IN 1985 Zeyneba Hardaga became the first Muslim to receive a Righteous Gentile Award from the state of Israel. The award is given to people who risked their own lives in order to aid the victims of Nazi terror.

The righteous are brought to Israel, where they are asked to plant a tree at the Museum of the Holocaust in Jerusalem. Israel promises them that they will never be forgotten.

In 1941, Mrs. Hardaga's father, a Bosnian Muslim, hid a Jewish man in the family home during the Nazi occupation of the former Yugoslavia. Her father had announced that he would not abandon his friends. His courage cost him his life.

The Israeli government recently vowed to fulfill its promise never to forget by offering to bring his 77-year-old daughter to Israel to live.

Yet for some reason Israeli authorities have not approved the immigration of Mrs. Hardaga's family. And she refuses to leave her 36-year-old daughter, Aida, her son-in-law, Branumir, and her 10-year-old granddaughter, Stella, behind in Sarajevo.

I first met Aida, the daughter, on the street one morning during a December snow storm. In this dying city with no running water and precious little gas or electricity, Aida was dragging a wagon of plastic jerry cans filled with water, wheeling it around a mortar crater where five neighbors had been killed the previous week.

She used to work in an office. Now she was lugging two heavy jugs up seven flights of stairs in her pitch-black building. She rested a moment, then went back down to haul up the rest.

"I have to get wood now," she said, glancing at her watch. Then she headed downstairs again. Two hours later, after dragging up a 30-pound sack of chips, boards and branches, she went out for the third time to pick up a package of food from the Jewish community center down the street.

Because her mother had been awarded Israel's Righteous Gentile title, the family has been adopted by the Jewish community in Sarajevo. Aid convoys of food and medicine from the American Joint Distribution Committee, much of it bankrolled by the Baltimore Jewish Federation, have been instrumental in

keeping the community alive.

The AJDC's president, Milton Wolf, had first heard of Mrs. Hardaga while serving as U.S. ambassador to Austria. He now radios into the Sarajevo Jewish community weekly to inquire about how she and her family are getting along.

By 2 p.m. Aida had returned again and was starting to prepare lunch. These days she uses her kitchen only during daylight hours because Serb snipers have twice targeted its windows after dark. The bullets ricocheting off the kitchen walls interrupted her cooking and chased her screaming from the kitchen.

While the snow swirled outside,Aida's mother, who has lost a leg, sat in the unheated living room as Srdjan Gornjakovic, the Jewish community's doctor, checked her blood pressure.

Stella, the 10-year-old, looked on. Stella has a crush on the tall, shy

doctor. Aida's husband, Branumir, has multiple sclerosis and could only manage a weak smile.

After the fire was ready in the oven, Aida placed a bread-cake in it to bake. As she stirred a rice and potato dish at the stove, she explained the family's desperate situation.

"We have been asking to leave for months," she said. "But my mother will not go without us, and she shouldn't have to."

She turned away from the stove and faced me.

"Look, I'm used to working," she said. "I love to work and I will do anything, anything at all. The only thing I insist on is that I keep my family together. I'm sorry. I don't think that's so much to ask."

Aida's lower lip started to tremble and she turned away to stir the pot of pasta boiling on the range. Looking down, she said softly, "I'm just asking for the smallest of chances.

Do you know of anyone who might help us?"

Stella came in with Dr. Gornjakovic and Aida fixed a bright smile on her face. "I'm baking a bread cake, your favorite," she told her daughter, and kissed her on the forehead.

"Mrs. Hardaga will die if she remains in Sarajevo," Ambassador Wolf said this month. Dr. Gornjakovic told me that her blood pressure, the cold of winter and fear of the shelling are quickly wearing her down.

"I wonder if anyone has thought of the obvious," Mr. Wolf said. "While it's nice to commemorate a hero, the problem is she is alive now, and the woman who would not abandon the Jews should not be expected to abandon her family. Not in Sarajevo."

Edward Serotta is a documentary photographer based in Berlin.

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