Barry’s Blog # 164: Kind of a Circle, Part Two of Four

PART TWO: 1942 to 1992

To be born is to be weighed down with strange gifts of the soul, with enigmas and an inextinguishable sense of exile. – Ben Okri

Sarajevo was a rich cultural ferment that included Muslims, Catholics, orthodox Christians and Jews. People often called it “Little Jerusalem.”

Most students of history know that the city played a small but significant role in 1914, when the assassination of a Serbian noble set off the mad chain of events that led to the start of the Great War. But here we are interested in Sarajevo’s role in World War Two. In 1942 the city was absorbed into the puppet state of Croatia, its tolerant, cosmopolitan culture crushed by the invading German Army and the Croatian Catholic, Fascist Ustashe, who were determined that their new state would be cleansed of Serbs (who, as Eastern Orthodox Christians tended to side with Russia), Muslims and Jews.

Now some actual, historical names enter our story, and some are still alive today.

Hitler’s ally, Ante Pavelic, who had headed the Ustashe through the nineteen-thirties, proclaimed that his new state must be “cleansed” of Jews and Serbs: “Not a stone upon a stone will remain of what once belonged to them.”

The terror began on April 16th, when the German Army entered Sarajevo and sacked the city’s eight synagogues. The Sarajevo pinkas, a complete record of the Jewish community from its earliest days, was confiscated and sent to Prague, never to be recovered. Deportations followed. Jews, Gypsies, and Serb resisters turned frantically to sympathetic Muslim or Croat neighbors to hide them. Fear of denunciation spread through the city.

Hitler had a plan for a “museum of an extinct race.” Synagogues and community buildings in Josevof, the Jewish quarter of Prague, had been spared destruction so that, when all of Europe’s Jews had been obliterated, it could become a caricature “Jew Town” for Aryan tourists to visit, populated by Czech actors in Hasidic garb.

The museum’s future exhibits would eventually fill fifty warehouses. The best of Europe’s Judaica was being amassed as part of the general plunder under the authority of Alfred Rosenberg, the Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories. Rosenberg planned to facilitate a new branch of scholarship: Judenforschung ohne Juden (Jewish studies without Jews). Hitler had directed the Wehrmacht to extend all possible assistance to his unit.

The Nazi commander was General Johan Fortner, a man who was greatly feared in Sarajevo: in addition to commanding his own Army division, he oversaw an Ustashe regiment known as the Black Legion. Reputedly the most vicious of the Nazi allies, the Black Legion engaged in massacres of Serbs and Jews; it also tortured and killed those suspected of sympathizing with the partisan Resistance.

Shortly after the Germans took control of Sarajevo, General Fortner arrived at the Sarajevo museum demanding to speak to the director, Jozo Petrović, who knew very well what Fortner was looking for. The director, who spoke no German, asked his chief librarian, Dervis Korkut, a Muslim, to act as a translator.

Korkut came from a highly regarded family of Muslim alims, or intellectuals, famous for producing judges of Islamic law. His brother Besim was a professor of Arabic. Dervis, born in the old Ottoman capital of Bosnia, Travnik, in 1888, aspired to be a doctor, but his father insisted that he continue the family tradition of religious scholarship. He studied theology at Istanbul University and Near Eastern languages at the Sorbonne. He spoke at least ten languages and served for a time as the senior official in the ministry of religious affairs and as an honorary consul for France.

His interests were wide-ranging. He wrote papers on history and architecture, but his abiding interest was the culture of Bosnia’s minority communities, including Albanians and Jews. In 1941, after Yugoslavia tried to appease the Nazis by passing anti-Jewish laws, Korkut wrote a paper titled “Anti-Semitism Is Foreign to the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

Because of its multi-ethnic nature, Balkan history is unusually complicated. Various groups fought both the Germans and, due to ancient enmities, each other. One such group formed the Handschar Division, a Muslim branch of the Nazi S.S.  63076_10201034924414630_802909402_n

As a prominent Muslim intellectual, Korkut had come under intense pressure to join a Fascist-leaning group known as the Young Muslims, which served as a kind of proving ground for the Handschar. He refused. Later in the war, he also refused an order signed by Ante Pavelic, requiring him to relocate to “the Croatian People’s Liberated Zagreb” to take charge of the library under the Ustashe government’s control.

Korkut’s passionate interest in Bosnia’s cultural diversity manifested itself in his studies of the region’s art and literature. He was fascinated by the myriad influences in Sarajevan writing—how a lyric poem composed by a Slav might use classical Arabic and yet echo Latin verse forms carried to Sarajevo from the court of Diocletian on the Dalmatian coast. Of all the treasures in his care, none embodied the possibilities of diversity—or the fragility of intercultural harmony—as exuberantly as the Sarajevo Haggadah.



Dervis Korkut

A few minutes before the meeting with the Nazi General, Korkut pleaded to be allowed to take the Haggadah and keep it out of Nazi hands. The reluctant director warned, “You will be risking your life,” but he agreed.

The two men hurried to the basement and removed the Haggadah from its safe. Korkut tucked the small codex, which measured about six by nine inches, into the waistband of his trousers. Then they made their way back upstairs to face the general, who had come to specifically for the Haggadah. But the director lied and claimed that he had already given it to one of Fortner’s officers. Frustrated, Fortner left, and Dervis took the Haggadah home for lunch.

What happened next? In 2007, Dervis’ widow Servet told Geraldine Brooks:

I knew he had a book from the library, and that it was very important. He said, ‘Take care, don’t tell. No one must know or they’ll kill us and destroy the book.’ Over the midday meal, he pondered what to do with the Haggadah. That afternoon, he drove out of the city, to Visoko, where one of his sisters lived, on the pretext of visiting her. From there, he took the book to a remote village on nearby Trescavica, where his friend was hodza, or imam, of the small local mosque. There, Servet said, the Haggadah was hidden among Korans and other Islamic texts for the duration of the war. When it was safe, the hodza brought it back to us, and Dervis returned it to the museum.

But what really matters in the Korkut family is another rescue—of a young Jewish woman. “In our family,” his daughter Munib says, “the Haggadah is a detail. What my father did for Jewish people—that is the biggest thing that we, in our family, have to be proud of.”

The girl, Mira Papo, like most Sarajevo Jews, was descended from Ladino- speaking Sephardic exiles who, over the centuries had made the same journey as the Haggadah.

But the ethnic cleansing had begun. Mira’s father was rounded up along with other Jewish men and sent to a so-called labor camp. These camps were little more than way stations of starvation and brutality en route to Bosnia’s notorious death pits.

Bosnia-Herzegovina sits on a limestone lacework of underground caves. The geology, as Brian Hall wrote in “The Impossible Country,” is “a mass-murderer’s dream come true, a mighty necropolis of empty mass graves, high and dry, waiting to be filled.” Jews and Serbs—Salomon Papo most probably among them—had their throats cut before they were pushed off the edge. Then grenades were hurled in.

Later they came for the women. Mira defied an order to assemble at a Jewish community center. When she found that her mother and two of her aunts were being held there, she climbed in through a back window and urged them to try to escape from the city with her. When they refused, she said that she would stay with them, but they insisted that she get away and survive. She watched as the women were loaded onto trucks, never to be seen again.

Mira escaped from Sarajevo and joined the Communist partisan Resistance. Before the war, she had been a member of a socialist Zionist youth group called the Young Guardians. She’d had to slip away to the group’s twice-weekly meetings because her father did not approve of its modern, secular bent. The Young Guardians fostered an ethos of idealism and self-sacrifice, qualities held to be necessary to future Zionist pioneers. The group had hiked in the Sarajevan mountains and learned outdoor skills and first aid, which were now useful to the partisans.


Jewish Yugoslav partisans

At the beginning of the war, when Josip Broz Tito—who was to become Yugoslavia’s leader in the Communist era—called for Yugoslavians of all ethnicities and political persuasions to rise up against the German occupation, her youth group joined an odred, or partisan unit. They used classic guerrilla tactics, conducting hit-and-run strikes and then retreating to the mountains, where local people could be counted on to help them hide.

Throughout the brutal mountain winter of 1942, Mira Papo served as muleteer and medic as her unit harassed the Germans. The mule was essential to the odred’s survival, carrying ammunition and medical supplies. Memoirs by British and American officers who, at a later stage in the war, conducted daring parachute drops into partisan territory, romanticize these partisans as bands of high-spirited boys and girls who might dance late into the night in a farmer’s barn before setting out to blow up a bridge.

At this early stage of the Resistance, there were two anti-Fascist forces, Tito’s Communist partisans and the mostly Serbian anti-Communist group known as the Chetniks. For a while, the two groups buried their ideological differences, but eventually the Chetniks betrayed the partisans. In March, 1942, with the partisans in disarray, Tito ordered a ruthless reorganization of his forces. Mira’s Jewish odred was stripped of their weapons and abandoned.

Helpless, they split into small groups to increase their chances of eluding German patrols. For days and nights, the young Jews moved through the forest, hunted constantly by Germans and their dogs. Those who were discovered often died gruesomely. One account tells of captured partisans being tied up on a roadway and repeatedly run over by German trucks. Of the thirty members, only a handful made it back to Sarajevo alive. Mira was one of them, but her family was gone.

“I entered Sarajevo at dawn of a spring day. The streets were still empty,” Mira later wrote. She was carrying a few eggs tied up in a scarf that had been given to her by the family of one of her comrades, whose mother had also supplied her with papers allowing her to enter the occupied city.

Exhausted, Mira drifted toward the center of the city, “thinking about what to do, who to go to.” Lost in her thoughts, she suddenly realized that she had come to the Finance Ministry building, where her late father had been a janitor. The only light in the building at that early hour came from the porters’ room. A man emerged from the shadows and she recognized him as her father’s friend. “I called out his name and the traditional Bosnian greeting, ‘God help us.’ He did not recognize her after her year of hardship. “Then he said, ‘Are you Salomonova?’ “—Salomon’s daughter—“I nodded my head and then I started to cry.” He left but returned with a distinguished-looking gentleman – Dervis Korkut – who drove her to his home.

Despite not knowing her and despite the considerable risk – he was a prominent person and German officers frequently attended concerts in his home – he and Servet took Mira in and called her Amira. Servet gave her one of her own traditional Muslim veils—a zar—that conceals the body and most of the face like a chador, and the Korkuts passed her off as a Muslim servant who was caring for Munib, who was then an infant. Mira and Servet, who were the same age, became best friends.

For four months, Mira lived in hiding with the Korkuts. Then, in August, a stranger arrived with an envelope for her containing false identity papers and a rail ticket. An aunt who was married to a Catholic had arranged for her to hide in a family house on the Dalmatian coast, where there were no Germans. She stayed there until the end of the war.


Mira Papo

The Nazis killed 80 percent of Sarajevo’s 12,000 Jews and destroyed its eight synagogues. In 1944 they rounded up, deported and gassed the Jews in the aforementioned Ghetto of Venice, as well as almost all of Thesalonika’s 50,000 Jews (most of them Ladino-speaking Sephardim).

Curiously, only one German-occupied country refused to give up its Jews – Muslim Albania, and it has its own remarkable heroes, such as Ali Sheqer Pashkaj. “Why did my father save a stranger at the risk of his life and the entire village?” asked his son, “My father was a devout Muslim. He believed that to save one life is to enter paradise.”

Not a single Jewish life was lost to the Nazis in Albania. Of the 22,000 righteous gentiles honored by Yad Vashem, 70 have been Muslims, 63 from Albania.

After the war, anyone who had served with the partisans was well placed in the new Tito regime. Mira returned to Sarajevo, and was commissioned as an officer in the Army medical corps. She became engaged to a fellow Army officer, also a former partisan, named Bozidar Bakovic, and their future in the new Communist era seemed assured.

In 1946, Servet found her and begged help for her husband. The new Yugoslav regime was taking vengeance against the Nazis and the Ustashe and executing many, including General Kortner. But they were also using these war-crimes trials to silence dissident voices. Dervis Korkut, just as unwilling to bow to Communist excesses as he had to Fascism, had become an outspoken critic of Yugoslavia’s oppressive attitudes toward religion. He had also compiled a list of people whom the Chetnicks had executed in eastern Bosnia.

But Tito considered such list-making inconvenient. He had granted amnesty to many of these Chetniks, suppressing potential intercommunal rifts so as to consolidate his unified Communist state. The regime had arrested Dervis as a Nazi collaborator and placed him in solitary confinement.

Mira assured Servet that she would testify on his behalf, but she never came to court. Her fiancé feared that the Party would turn its wrath upon them if she appeared as a witness for someone in what was clearly a politically motivated trial. He refused to let her leave their apartment and give evidence for Dervis, the man who had saved her life.

She didn’t know it, but the regime didn’t execute Dervis. Other people came forward who knew about the Haggadah to testify on his behalf. He still received a stiff prison sentence of six years, mostly in solitary confinement.

But Servet, now the wife of a convicted enemy of the state, saw her apartment confiscated and her food ration rescinded. With Munib, now five years old, and a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Abida, she became temporarily homeless. Dervis’s large and prosperous family was unwilling to risk associating with her. So she and her children went to stay with one of her own relatives who lived in the province of Kosovo, arriving there in the middle of a meningitis outbreak. Abida became infected and died fifteen days later

After his release he resumed his old job, but Dervis lost all citizenship rights. Then sixty-seven years old, he had not wanted another child. “He didn’t want, but I wanted,” says Servet. Lamija was born in 1955, thirteen years younger than her brother, and the family chose to shield her from their difficult past.

Dervis and Lamija were very close until he died in 1969, when Lamija was fourteen years old. “I always felt I could ask him about anything and he would explain it patiently to me,” Lamija told me. “When I was a small child, afraid before going to sleep, he would tell me a story, over and over. I could visit him at work, anything, and he always had time for me—except when he was watching the news,” she added with a laugh.

“When he died,” Lamija recalled, “so many people came to the house, saying, ‘He helped me find a job,’ ‘He gave me loans,’ ‘He guaranteed my credit,’ ‘He found a flat for me.’ Then I realized how he was a good person and how many good things he did and never mentioned.” One thing he had never mentioned was his rescue of Mira Papo – just as Mira had never mentioned it to her children.

Mira, still a devoted Communist, gave birth to two sons, Davor and Daniel. But her husband soon died and she was left alone with the two infants. Recently demobilized from the Army, she lost her right to military housing and was herself homeless for a while. Eventually the Army took her back as a medical officer, in charge of public health on the Dalmatian coast. Over time, she became disillusioned with the dream of a socialist utopia and began to reconnect with her Jewish roots. Davor immigrated to Israel in 1970 and she followed two years later.

Time passed and Europe let go of its wounds, or thought so. In reality, the old enmities, like the Titans of Greek myth, had merely been cast into the underworld of unresolved forgetfulness, where they festered and grew in strength. In 1984, modern Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics and once again proudly showed off its cosmopolitan, tolerant self to the world. Soon, however, the Bosnian War erupted, shattered that image and eventually claimed another 250,000 dead.

Only eight years after the Olympics, on May 17th 1992, Serbian artillery destroyed Sarajevo’s Oriental Institute. In less than two hours, 10,000 books and 5,000 unique Turkish, Persian and Arabic manuscripts were lost in flame.

Then, on August 27th (almost precisely 500 years from the date the Jews left Spain, and fifty years after Dervis had saved the Haggadah), the Serbs began to shell the National Library and Museum. In support of the attack, they dropped dozens of shells on adjacent streets, deliberately preventing the fire brigade from coming into action.

The attack lasted less than half an hour, but the fire lasted into the next day. The sun was obscured by the smoke of books, and all over the city sheets of burned paper, fragile pages of grey ash, floated down like a dirty black snow. Catching a page, said local people, you could feel its heat, and for a moment read a fragment of text in a strange kind of black and grey negative, until, as the heat dissipated, the page melted to dust in your hand.

Bosnian National Library (1)

Bosnian National Library

During WW II the Nazis had burned twenty million books, but not in one place (rather, in about 45 different places). This single day in Sarajevo, then, may have been the biggest book burning in history – over a million books.

And yet, under sniper fire, the citizens of Sarajevo formed a human chain to pass books from the flames.

Why, like 16th-century Catholics and 20th-century Nazis, did the Serbs want to burn books? The answer is that cultural productions are the places of memory, the kindred fruits of the human imagination. They tell stories of complexity and nuance, the very things ideological purists hate the most. Burning books creates the situation where the people of a society (in this case, Muslims who had lived in Sarajevo for 500 years) might have no memory of their past. So don’t the surviving artifacts symbolize both tolerance and resistance?

And the Haggadah? It was saved once again by an archaeology professor, another Muslim.

Enver Imamovic convinced several policemen to drive him through a rain of bullets and mortar shells in order to get to the burning museum. When the chief of police asked him incredulously whether the book was as valuable as a human life, Imamovic, without hesitating, said yes.

He and the policemen spent many hours searching the cavernous structure before they found and broke into the fortified safe that held the Haggadah. Then they braved the bullets once again to get it to the city’s central bank vault and locked it up for the rest of the war.


Enver Imamovic

In an interview, Imamovic remarks that it’s only foreign reporters who ask why Muslims would risk their lives for a Jewish book. The fact that all the men involved in the rescue operation were Muslims actually reveals the most important quality of prewar Sarajevo.

Although Serb nationalists attempted to separate ethnic identities, most Bosnians — especially those in Sarajevo — didn’t see themselves as Muslims, Croats and Serbs: they were all part of a shared identity. Imamovic says the city’s Jewish heritage was as important to them as any other because it’s what made Bosnia the rich cultural mix that the nationalists wanted to destroy. The Haggadah was a symbol of that.

But this story is not over. Continue to Part Three.







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1 Response to Barry’s Blog # 164: Kind of a Circle, Part Two of Four

  1. John Zuska says:

    This is a wonderful story, Barry, beautifully told. In our age it’s especially important to remember ages and individuals who expressed the supreme virtue of tolerance which permits cultural streams to join and produce new things important to all.

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