One hero links 2 eras, 2 wars

Refugees in Israel recall brave act for Europe's Jews in '40s

War In Yugoslavia

April 14, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MA'AGAN MIKHAEL, Israel -- Growing up in Sarajevo, Llamia Jaha knew little of her father's efforts to save the Jews of Yugoslavia during World War II. He rarely spoke of it.

But, more than 50 years later, a document proclaiming Jaha's father a "righteous Gentile" was the key to this Muslim woman's escape from the onslaught in Kosovo.

Yesterday, Jaha, 44, and her husband Vlaznim, 51, were safe in an Israeli nature reserve camp.

The Jahas and 108 other Kosovar refugees who had been airlifted here Monday stood in a moment of silence as a siren marked Israel's annual Day of Remembrance for the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust.

Later, sitting on a shaded deck at their temporary home, Llamia Jaha pulled from her purse a copy of the document, which she showed to Jewish officials in Macedonia. That piece of paper led to her arrival in the Jewish state.

"See this?" Vlaznim Jaha said of the "Certificate of Honor" awarded to his in-laws, Dervis and Servet Korkut. "It is the key to our life."

Along the edge of the Feb. 23, 1995, certificate are words declaring that when a person saves one life, it is "as though he had saved the entire world."

Initially, the Israeli government reluctantly supported the NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia, because the Serbs fought the Nazis during World War II. But after public criticism of the government's stance, the Jewish Agency and Israeli citizens made a push to help the ethnic Albanians who are being treated something like Europe's Jews during World War II.

The country is now in the forefront of relief efforts. The Israeli army is running a 100-bed field hospital in Macedonia. The Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental immigration and development agency, sent eight planeloads of food, supplies and equipment, worth about $2 million, to Albania and Macedonia. It raised about $750,000, including $50,000 from a concert and rally in Tel Aviv.

The Jewish Agency brought the 110 ethnic Albanians here. Another group of refugees, 40 Jews who fled Belgrade for Hungary, were due in Israel last night.

Children of survivors

"We are children of Holocaust survivors," said Chaim Chesler, chairman of the Jewish Agency's immigration committee. "We cannot stay aside. We shouldn't stay aside."

Llamia Jaha, an economist, and her engineer husband fled Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, on the fifth day of the NATO airstrikes. The couple had sent their 20-year-old daughter Pitora and 16-year-old son Payus to Budapest, Hungary, for safety.

Husband and wife went by train to the Macedonian border. She is part-Bosnian Muslim, part-Albanian. He is an ethnic Albanian from Kosovo.

Along the way, they lost their luggage. Their documents, unlike those of many other Kosovar refugees, were not seized by the Serbs. Llamia guarded her purse, which contained their passports and the "Certificate of Honor."

After an exhausting seven hours, they arrived in Blace, where scores of thousands of refugees were trapped for days, and then headed to Skopje. They wanted to go to Sweden, where Vlaznim's brother lives. But the consulate told them to go to the United Nations relief agency. "The doors were closed," said Llamia.

Help in Skopje

The couple then turned to the Jewish community in Skopje. Llamia showed officials the certificate awarded to her father. "They said they shall do everything they can," recalled Llamia.

Three days later, they received word that they could join an airlift sponsored by the Jewish Agency. "The Jews helped us for what my parents did for Jewish families," she said. "And they say, `Don't forget.' So we are here for that."

The others in the group were brought here because they expressed a desire to go to Israel.

Dervis Korkut, Llamia's father, died in Sarajevo in 1969. But his efforts to save Yugoslav Jews and a sacred, 14th-century Jewish text are recorded in the archives of Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum. Korkut, a well-known Bosnian Muslim in Sarajevo during the 1940s, was the treasurer of the Sarajevo Museum.

"During World War II, Dervis hid Sarajevo's Haggada [a text used in the Jewish Passover Seder] by convincing the Germans that it had been lost. At the end of the war, Dervis returned the Haggada to its rightful place in the Sarajevo Museum," said the Yad Vashem testament supporting his status as a "righteous Gentile."

The Sarajevo Haggada, an illuminated manuscript from Spain, is considered one of the most important Jewish books in the world.

"But that is not the only reason he deserves a certificate," the petition said, "as Dervis also saved Jews."

`Amina's' story

Among them was Mira Bakovic, a Sarajevo Jew and partisan fighter. In 1942, she and other Jews were expelled from the partisan units fighting the Nazis. A friend of her father led her to the Sarajevo Museum, where "a well-dressed Muslim man" invited her inside. The man was Dervis Korkut.

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