Life & Culture

Meet the Muslim and Jew who saved each others lives in conflicts decades apart

A new film tells the incredible story of two friends who risked their lives


In Nazi-occupied Sarajevo, Zejneba Hardaga saved her Jewish friend Rifka Kabiljo and her husband and two children from being rounded up.

More than 50 years later, at the height of the Balkan War, the Jewish woman who had been smuggled to safety returned her Muslim friend’s mitzvah.

She rescued Hardaga, her daughter and son-in law and their children from the same city when it was under siege by Serbs bent on eliminating its entire Muslim population.

“It’s almost too perfect a story,” agrees award-winning writer-director Sabina Vajraca, who tells the story of the friends’ reunion in Israel in Sevap/Mitzvah, a short film tipped as a 2024 Oscar contender.

And there is more to the story. Hardaga, while still in her twenties, went on to save many more Sarajevo Jews during the Second World War and was the first Muslim woman to be declared Righteous Among Nations. Vajraca hopes to tell the wider story of her rescue missions, which are recorded at Yad Vashem, in a feature film.

“As a Muslim who is used to hearing about Jews and Muslims not liking each other, I was fascinated by my grandmother’s stories about Muslims who’d helped Jews escape Bosnia during the war,” says the US-based director, who escaped Bosnia as a refugee during the 1992-1995 Bosnia War.

She funded her 20-minute film with the $40,000 prize money she won for the script in a contest held by the New York-based Claims Conference, which supports Holocaust survivors.

She added: “I wanted to tell a true story. I didn’t want to be dismissed as an idealist who was making things up. I was also very moved by my grandmother telling me her greatest regret was that she hadn’t done anything when her own best friend was taken by the Nazis because she’d been warned not to get involved.”

Vajraca found the story of Hardaga and Kabiljo by searching Bosnian-Jewish archives: “This one was perfect — two best friends who saved each other. My grandmother had passed away when I made the film, but I felt she was guiding me as I told their story.”

That story relays how Hardaga, who was given passage to Israel by the Claims Conference, spent the final year of her life with Kabiljo in Jerusalem. And there’s an equally powerful epilogue: her daughter Aida not only remained in Israel, but converted to Judaism.

The dramatic costumes shown in the film played a big part in helping to save Jews — “they were clothed in traditional Muslim dress, and the Nazis knew not to show disrespect by uncovering the veiled faces of Muslim women” — were rigorously researched.

But Vajraca also dramatised her film by introducing Queen Esther into the narrative. She explained: “I wanted to open with a mother reading to her child, and a Jewish friend suggested Esther as a symbolic figure. I went with it even though I’ve never seen a book about her in Bosnia.”

The lavish interiors depicted in the film were also carefully researched. Vajraca said: “Zejneba married into a wealthy merchant family who lived opposite the Sarajevo Synagogue.

“Everyone had lived side by side for centuries under Ottoman rule. There were no Jewish quarters in Sarajevo and Zejneba had lots of Jewish friends, neighbours and acquaintances.

“I’m in awe of her bravery. She continued helping them even after her father was arrested and sent to a concentration camp for doing the same.”

Half a century later, Vajraca’s father demonstrated his own bravery after she, her mother and brother were smuggled out of Banja Luka in northern Bosnia in 1994, when she was 14. He stayed behind to run underground rescue operations.

Omitted from the film is the fact that after being spirited out of Sarajevo, Kabiljo’s husband Josef stayed on in Bosnia to sell the family’s property before he left.

“Like so many others, he was naive about the fact that he was in danger,” says Vajraca. “Zejneba still found a way to save him.”

Despite the heroic work of the 54 Bosnians honoured as Righteous Among Nations, more than 12,000 Jews, a fifth of Sarajevo’s wartime population, were murdered during the Second World War.

But today’s small community is a vibrant one, says Vajraca. “There are two synagogues, and Jews and Muslims are again living peacefully side by side.”

She knows what she’s talking about. Her 2005 documentary Back To Bosnia about a family’s return to the country to reclaim their stolen property, and how they are forced to examine their past while there, is featured in the BBC’s top 100 films directed by women and won the Director’s Choice award at the 2006 Crossroads Film Festival.

Meanwhile, Sevap/Mitzvah which had its Los Angeles premiere at the Oscar-qualifying HollyShorts festival this week, has already won the Best Female Focus award at the Cordillera Film Festival in Reno.

UK screening dates will be announced soon. “The question I hope it will make people ask themselves is whether, in Zejneba’s situation, they would become small and fearful and think only of themselves.

“Or whether they would find their humanity and save others,” says Vajraca.

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