PART THREE: 1994 to 1999
Mira Papo, now an Israeli citizen, had been wracked by guilt ever since 1946 for not having appeared at the show trial of the man who had saved her life, Dervis Korkut. During the breakup of Yugoslavia and the siege of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996, Israel offered temporary shelter to Bosnian refugees. It was likely one of them who left behind an out-of-date newsletter that Mira came across in Jerusalem. Printed in Serbo-Croatian with items of interest to Jews in the former Yugoslavia, it featured an article commemorating Korkut. Spellbound, she read about the good deeds of the man she had failed, including his role in saving the Sarajevo Haggadah.
Stunned to discover that he had not been executed in 1946, but had died an elderly man from natural causes in 1969, she wrote, “It was as if a stone fell from my heart.” Her daughter-in-law remembers Mira, after finding the article, weeping and murmuring to herself in Serbo-Croatian. It was the first she or Mira’s son Davor had heard of Dervis Korkut.
The teenager Korkut had rescued in 1942 was now seventy-two years old. Hoping to make some amends by giving the testimony she had failed to deliver at his trial, Mira sat down to write a three-page, single-spaced letter to the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial center.
The letter states that what follows is “my true story, how Dervis Efendi Korkut saved me from certain death.” By describing what really happened, Mira wrote, she hoped to make amends: “Perhaps this modest material will help to clarify his identity as a great friend of the Jews of Bosnia long before World War II. I remain as a solitary witness that Dervis was indeed so, even in a time when we had few true friends.”
At the time that Mira was writing her account, Dervis’ widow Servet was in reluctant exile from the new horrors of Sarajevo, living with her son Munib in Paris. She was astonished when an Israeli diplomat called to tell her that she and Dervis had just been named Righteous Among Nations. Their names were to be inscribed in the gardens of Yad Vashem, not far from the trees planted in memory of famous rescuers of Jews, such as Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler.
Servet was unable to travel to Israel to see their names inscribed. So Yad Vashem came to her and held a ceremony at the Israeli Embassy in Paris. She was presented with a certificate of honor and a medal, and told that she had the right to Israeli citizenship. She was also awarded a monthly stipend from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, a New York-based organization that provides material support to some thirteen hundred elderly rescuers.
Then she received a phone call from Mira, who explained why she had failed to appear at the trial, and how tormented she had been by that failure. Servet tried to soothe her old friend, telling her that, even if she had testified, it would have made no difference, because the court was just a tool of the regime, which had already made its decision. “Mira said that ever since she left Yugoslavia she had wanted to get in touch with me, to apologize, but that she wasn’t able. ‘It’s O.K.,’ I said to her. ‘I understand.’’’
Mira died in 1998, just a year too soon to see how completely her belated testimony would accomplish the restitution she desired.
Servet’s daughter Lamija had grown up to become an economist. She’d married an Albanian man (changing her last name to Jaha) and settled in Pristina, in the Serbian region of Kosovo. The Jahas had two children. At some point, Servet gave a copy of the certificate to her. Apparently, Lamija, who could not read Hebrew, had no idea of its significance, only that it had something to do with her father.
By 1999, however, this region also started to slide toward war when the Serbian government began yet another ferocious campaign of ethnic cleansing. This time they were determined to rid themselves of Albanians, who were Muslims, as well as the majority in Kosovo.
In March 1999, NATO began bombing Serbia. Servet was in Pristina visiting Lamija, who says, “My mother left on the last bus to Bosnia. I said to her, ‘I don’t want you to go through another war.’” After Servet’s departure, Lamija and her husband tried to obtain exit visas for themselves and their children. While her husband called relatives in Sweden, Lamija contacted Munib, who requested help from friends in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris, but to no avail. Somehow, she was able to evacuate her teenage daughter and son.
Soon after the children left, Lamija’s apartment lost electrical power. Then their phone lines went down. Through a wall, she could hear the phone next door ringing. The neighbors were Serbs, and she realized that the lines were being cut on the basis of ethnicity.
One day an armed soldier knocked on their door and told them that everyone must leave and head for the train station. They were each allowed two suitcases. Everyone in their building was frantically trying to decide which things to take with them, with the sounds of boots and guns in the background. Somehow in the rush, it occurred to Lamija’s husband to fold up the certificate from Yad Vashem and put it in his jacket pocket. Neither he nor Lamija could read Hebrew, and neither could remember what it was about, but somehow it seemed significant.
It was yet another experience of exile – and how can these images fail to remind us of that earlier holocaust? The Jahas joined a massive crowd of refugees surging toward the train station. Soldiers packed them aboard an overcrowded train—“twenty-seven people in a carriage made for six,” Lamija recalls – and did not tell them where they were going.
Late in the day they were discharged in the vicinity of the Macedonian border. In the chaos, they lost the small bags they’d managed to carry from their apartment. But they still had the photocopy of the certificate.
They found themselves among thousands of refugees in a stinking field with no proper latrines. “People were fighting for water,” she says. “There was no food, no blankets, no shelter. People were sick. Some were already dying.” There were rumors, too, of meningitis in the camp—the disease that had killed her sister after the war. As night fell, the temperature dropped sharply. When a few food packs arrived, the distribution turned into a riot.
At three in the morning the Jahas decided that staying in the camp was too dangerous. They crept out of the muddy field and walked all night toward the Macedonian border, carrying nothing but her pocketbook. Encountering a border guard, they concocted a story about having left a car on the other side. They lied about the direction they’d come from and denied having been anywhere near the refugee camp. Whether he believed the unlikely tale or took pity on them, the guard let them cross.
The Jahas were safe, if temporarily. Finding shelter with a relative in the town of Kumanovo, Lamija resumed the desperate phone calls and discovered that her children were safe in Budapest. But she and her husband – only two of almost a million refugees from Kosovo – were refused admission at all foreign embassies. His family could do nothing for them in Sweden, and, from Paris, Munib also reported no hope. All this Muslim could suggest, curiously, was that they ask for help from the Jews of Skopje.
On a whim, they found the head of the local Jewish community and produced the crumpled photocopy. They were astonished to discover that it honored her parents as “righteous among the nations.” It bears a Biblical epigraph: “Whoever saves one life is as though he had saved the entire world.” The Macedonian Jews, delighted by the opportunity to repay a debt from the Second World War, went into a frenzy of lobbying and organizing.
Four days later, Lamija and her husband flew to Tel Aviv, where they received the news that their children Fitore, 20, and Fatos, 16, would soon join them. The two sudden celebrities found themselves blinking in the harsh Mediterranean sunlight and the flash of reporters’ cameras.
The story of how Dervis, a Muslim, had saved Mira, and Mira, a Jew, had saved Dervis’s child proved irresistible to the Israeli media — and to its politicians. Prime Minister Netanyahu, the unrelenting persecutor of the Palestinians – remember those keys from Part One of this story? – took advantage of the photo opportunity and was there to welcome them. “Today,” he pontificated, “the state of Israel, which emerged from the ashes, gives refuge to the daughter of those who saved Jews.” The exhausted Lamija was speechless.
Then, in the midst of all the chaos, someone pushed through the crowd and addressed her in Serbo-Croatian. “It was a good feeling, to have someone speaking your language,” she says. But she had no idea who the man greeting her so warmly was. Opening his arms, he introduced himself, and Lamija fell into the embrace of Mira Papo’s son Davor Bakovic, who took them home as long-lost relatives.
Earlier, Davor had traveled to France to present the award to Munib, but he had been unaware of Lamija’s existence. Late at night before the day of her impending arrival a reporter called and woke him up, shocking him with the news that this woman was another Korkut child, and he hurried to greet her.
After their miraculous escape and welcome, the Jahas stayed in Israel for four years. Eventually they moved to Canada, but they and their children remain very close – family, they say – with the Bakovic clan. ”It was an amazing discovery,” he recalls. ”I felt as if a sister had appeared from a faraway place. I felt close to these people even though I didn’t know them at all. The circle of my life had become linked with Lamija and her family. To me it proved that people can’t be divided up into nations and sects. They’re human beings who can touch each other.”
The meeting was also a revelation for Lamija. Her father died when she was 14 and had never told her that he had sheltered Jews. Servet (who would die in 2013) had told her briefly about it only a few years before. “My father did what he did with all his heart, not to get anything in return. Fifty years later, it returns somehow. It’s a kind of a circle.”
Well, we all love a happy ending, but this story is still not over.