Muslims and Jews Saving Each Other
10 true instances when Jews and Muslims – at times risking everything – saved each other’s lives.
With increased tensions between Jews and Muslims, perhaps it is a good time to recall the following ten true instances when Jews and Muslims – at times risking everything – saved each other’s lives.
Saving Albania’s Jews
Albania, a small mountainous nation on the Balkan peninsula, is the only Muslim-majority country in Europe – and is also the only European nation that emerged from World War II with more Jews than before the war.
After Hitler came to power in 1933, Albania’s pre-war Jewish population of about 200 was soon swollen with hundreds of Jewish refugees from elsewhere in Europe, who hoped to travel on from Albania to Israel or other countries. Many stayed, and by the time German forces occupied Albania in 1943, up to 1,700 Jews lived in Albania.
When German officials ordered Albanians to round up and deport the Jews living in their country, they point blank refused. Incredibly, Albanian governmental agencies even provided Jews with fake documents, allowing them to escape detection. The desire to help Jews permeated Albanian society. Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum notes that Albanians “competed with each other for the privilege of saving Jews”. By the end of World War II, one Jewish family in Albania had been murdered by Nazi forces: almost all other Jews in Albania had been saved, protected by government officials and private citizens alike.
Senior authorities in Turkey also intervened a number of times to save Jews during the Holocaust. Some historians estimate Turkish officials saved the lives of 15,000 Jews with Turkish connections.
Behic Erkin, Turkey’s Ambassador to France, provided proof of citizenship to thousands of Turkish Jews – including many with only tenuous connections to Turkey – and evacuated them from France to Turkey. Selahattin Ulkumen, Turkey’s Consul General on the Greek island of Rhodes, also rescued Turkish Jews, and put himself in personal danger to do so. Hearing that the Jews of Rhodes were being herded onto cattle cars to be sent to Auschwitz, Ulkumen boarded the train and refused to leave until 50 Jews – who were either Turkish citizens or had other connections to Turkey – were released. Ulkumen was eventually named a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
In 1943, another Turkish Consul General – Necdet Kent, who was Turkey’s Consul General in Marseilles at the time – also boarded a train bound for a death camp, demanding the release of eighty Turkish Jews on the train. When German authorities asked those on the train who was Turkish, everyone answered they were. Soon, all the passengers on the train were released. “I cannot forget those embraces around our necks and hands…. The inner peace I felt when I reached my bed towards morning that day is one that I have not savored much since then” Kent recalled in an interview seventy years after that day.
The Iranian Schindler
Abdol-Hossein Sardari was a wealthy Iranian diplomat and lawyer who used his position as a senior official in Iran’s wartime Paris embassy to save thousands of Jews. He wrote missives to the German authorities arguing that Iranian Jews were ethnically “Aryan”. His pseudo-arguments so confused German officials that Adolf Eichmann was reportedly enraged by this turning of Nazi ideology on its head – but they worked. Jews with Iranian citizenship were excused from wearing the yellow star that Nazis forced other Jews to wear.
More crucially, Sardari – without consulting his superiors – issued hundreds of passports to Iranian-Jewish families, eventually saving up to an estimated 2,000 Jews – and earning Sardari the nickname “the Iranian Schindler”.
Rescue in Sarajevo
During the brutal years of war in Yugoslavia from 1992-1996, much of Sarajevo was destroyed. Ordinary life ground to a halt. As the war dragged on, the only island of normality and hope became one run-down synagogue in the center of the city. This housed La Benevolencija – “Good Will” in the Sephardi Jewish language of Ladino – a Jewish charitable organization that became a center of humanitarian aid in Sarajevo, funneling donations from abroad into the beleaguered city.
For thousands of Yugoslavs – not only Jews, but also Muslims, Serbs, and Croats – the synagogue’s radio became their only link with relatives outside the besieged city. When Yugoslavia’s postal service broke down, the synagogue became a mail center, processing thousands of letters – even telephoning people to let them know that letters from outside the city had arrived. A soup kitchen in the synagogue fed over three hundred people daily at the height of the siege, and a clinic staffed with doctors and nurses in the synagogue treated Sarajevans. Over 40% of all medicines used in Sarajevo during the war were distributed by La Benevolencija, free of charge.
Muslims, who were targeted for genocide by Bosnian Serbian forces during the war, made up the bulk of the Yugoslavs aided by La Benevolencija. Jakob Finci, the Jewish charity’s head, was proud of that fact: “Many Muslims in Sarajevo sheltered Jews from the Nazis in the war. I cannot forget this fact” he explained of his activities during the height of the siege.
From Sarajevo to Jerusalem
During the siege of Sarajevo, while the Jewish charity La Benevolencija aided Muslims, one Jewish family in Israel reached out to help a Yugoslav Muslim family directly – and even got the Prime Minister of Israel involved.
The story of this extraordinary rescue begins during World War II. That’s when Mustafa and Zejneba Hardaga, Muslims living in Sarajevo, decided to defy the German occupying authorities. They knew the dangers; the Nazi Gestapo headquarters were across the street from the Hardagas’ apartment and at night they could hear the screams of people being tortured. Nonetheless, they offered shelter to Mustafa’s Jewish business partner Josef Kabiljo – as well as Josef’s wife and daughter. Years later, Josef remembered: “They welcomed us with the words: ‘Josef, you are our brother, and your children are like our children. Feel at home and whatever we own is yours.’” When Gestapo agents would knock on the door, Josef and his family hid behind clothes in the back of a closet.
Zejneba Hardaga’s father, Ahmed Sadik, also helped Yugoslav Jews, forging documents to allow them to pass as non-Jews. He was arrested and executed for his activities.
Following the war, the Kabiljo family moved to Israel, but always stayed in touch with the Hardagas. Mustafa passed away, and the Kabiljo family kept in touch with Zejneba and her daughter Sara Pecanac, who was born after the War. In 1992, as the Kabiljos watched what was happening in Sarajevo, they wanted to aid the family who’d saved their lives. Recruiting an Israeli journalist covering the Yugoslav war, they got into contact with the Hardagas and helped them secure space on an aid convoy evacuating Sarajevo. When the refugees encountered red tape, the Kabiljo family asked then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to help, which he did.
Facing a choice of where to live once they left Sarajevo, Zejneba and her daughter Sara chose to move to Israel. Upon arriving, they met not only with the Kabiljo family, but with Yitzhak Rabin as well. Sara eventually converted to Judaism, and works for Yad Vashem in Israel today. “When I was growing up,” she explains, her mother “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.’”
When a Palestinian suicide bomber blew up a bus in the center of Tel Aviv on September 19, 2002, five Israelis died – as well, as Jonathan Jesner, a Scottish Jewish teenager who was studying in an Israeli yeshiva, or religious school, for the year. His family offered his organs for donation, noting that Jonathan had meant to start training as a doctor in London the following year. “The principle of saving life is one of the greatest values of Judaism,” explained Jonathan’s brother, Ari, at the time.
His family’s decision saved the life of Yasmin Abu-Rumeileh, a seven year old Palestinian girl who had been waiting for a kidney for two years. Dina Abu-Rumeileh, Yasmin’s mother, said she wanted to meet and offer condolences to Jonathan Jesner’s son and hopes others can learn from her daughter’s experience “that we need peace”.
Three years later, another organ donation caused headlines in Israel; this time it was a Palestinian boy whose organs saved the life of a Jew. In November 2005, 12-year old Ahmed Khatib was shot mistakenly after he waved a toy gun at Israeli soldiers who were raiding a nearby terrorist hideout. Ahmed was transported to a local Israeli hospital. As his life ebbed, his parents Ismail and Abla Khatib decided to donate their son’s organs. Cautioned that as they were in an Israeli hospital, some of his organs might go to Jews – a radical idea for this family who lived in an area where Jews are commonly called “the enemy” – they decided to go ahead anyway.
Within hours, six Israelis received life-saving transplants: four of the patients were Jews. Then deputy prime
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