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Remembering Srebenica

In this week’s sedra we hear the second part of the inheritance of the five daughters of Tzelophehad. The first part, in parshat Pinchas, was about individual rights, the rights of Tzelophehad’s daughters to a share in the land. This second part is about group rights, in this case the right of the tribe of Menasheh. The Torah affirms both the rights of the individual and the rights of the group because both are essential for a free society.

While placing enormous emphasis on the value of the individual, Judaism also insists on the value of those institutions, like Sinai Synagogue, that preserve and protect our identities.

In the short time that I was a university student in the 1980's I visited Israel as part of a Jewish Agency funded trip for young jewish youth leaders. The aim was that we could learn the history of the holocaust and pass on that knowledge to the Jewish youth of the UK. One night we were invited to the home of a famous philosopher and historian. (So famous that sadly I have forgotten his name). When he asked us why we were there we replied "to learn about the holocaust" - at which he replied that we were wasting our time. Shocked at his response we asked but surely it is important to learn about the Shoah so that we never forget. Knowing the history is irrelevant - if you do not learn from the lessons of the past then you are forever condemned to repeat.

In his 1941 State of the Union address Franklyn D Roosevelt spoke of four fundamental freedoms

  • The first is freedom of speech and expression - everywhere in the world.
  • The second is freedom of every person to worship God in their own way – everywhere in the world.
  • The third is freedom from want - everywhere in the world.
  • The fourth is freedom from fear - everywhere in the world.

As the world was coming to terms with the atrocities that took place in the previous years these four freedoms became the bedrock of the founding charter of the United Nations in 1945. The UN was supposed to ensure that everyone - anywhere - had these four freedoms.

But we have not learned the lessons of the past - we have sat back, ignored the obvious consequences and watched idly by as acts of outrage against a people because of their tribe, ethnicity or religion have continued.

This shabbat we remember the Srebonica Massacre, 11 July 1995, when 8,352 boys and men were rounded up, slaughtered buried in mass graves because they were Muslim and the 20-50,000 women and girls who suffered rape and sexual violence during the three years of the Bosnian war.

The lessons learned from Srebrenica are that hatred and intolerance can flourish if left unchallenged. Even in Bosnia-Herzegovina, people of different faiths had lived peacefully together for many years. But left unchallenged hatred and intolerance can flourish if left unchallenged even in such an integrated society.

Sara’s Story

Sara’s extraordinary story bears witness to the remarkable bonds of friendship, faith, and courage born out of the dire circumstances of war.

The story begins during the Second World War, when the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia and seized Sarajevo in 1941. The Gestapo opened an office in the city, across the street from the home of Sara and her parents, Zejneba and Mustafa Hardaga.

Historically, Ottoman mosques, synagogues, catholic and orthodox churches, have stood side by side in Sarajevo. During the Nazi occupation, the Jewish community suffered immense persecution, the old synagogue was looted, and the 400-year-old Torah scrolls were burnt. Amid the brutality, Sara’s father and mother Mustafa and Zejneba, agreed to take in Mustafa’s friend and business partner Yosef Kabiljo, whose own home had been destroyed during a Nazi bombing raid.

Yosef, his wife and daughter were Jewish. They hid behind clothes in the back of a walk-in closet when the Gestapo came to the Mustafa’s home to check documents. The Kabiljo family stayed with the Hardagas until Yosef Kabiljo was able to move his wife and children to Mostar, a Bosnian city that was under Italian occupation. Yosef stayed behind to liquidate his business but was eventually imprisoned and forced into hard labour. However, Sara’s mother Zejneba recognised Yosef on the street whilst he was being made to clear snow, and brought him food. When he managed to escape, he again returned to his hiding place in the Hardaga’s home.

Those who were found to be resisting the persecution of the Jewish community were severely punished. Sara’s grandfather, was also helping to hide Jewish families and forge documents was executed by the Nazis. After the war Yosef and his family returned to Sarajevo. Again the Kabiljos stayed with the Hardagas until they could find a place of their own, before eventually emigrating to Israel. In the 1985, Yad Vashem recognized Sara’s grandfather and her parents, as Righteous Among The Nations.

Although Sara’s father Mustafa passed away in twenty years after the end of the Second World War, the story of Sara and her mother Zejneba continued in Bosnia. The Siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in modern warfare, lasting 1,425 days starting from April 1992, to February 1996. From the outset of the Bosnian war, Serb snipers surrounded Sarajevo, and the city was under extreme bombardment. Chronic shortages of electricity, gas, and food, left families isolated and shattered. So extreme was the food shortage, that Sara and Zejneba were literally living off soup made from grass for weeks. “We watched people dying in the street outside our home, shot to death, and watched houses burn,” Sara said.

Unable to leave the besieged city or contact others within Bosnia, let alone outside the country, Sara’s family had all but lost hope when they received a message from an Israeli journalist covering the war. From Israel the Kabiljos had been tuning into the evening newscasts, and contact the journalist in an effort to find out if Sara and her mother were still alive. The journalist passed on a message to a local community organization in Sarajevo that the Kabiljo family was searching for Zejneba. A message was sent back to Israel that Zejneba and Sara were still in Sarajevo.

After learning that Zejneba was still alive, the Kabiljos again contacted Yad Vashem and officials agreed to help organize a rescue, to the amazement of Sara and her mother. In early 1994, the Hardagas joined 300 other refugees on a convoy of six buses that left shattered streets of Sarajevo behind.

The Hardaga family was given its choice of destinations. Sara and her mother picked Jerusalem. The rescue was extraordinary — one family saving another from genocide, only to see the favour returned half a century later. It is an amazing story.”


The Srebrenica Prayer


We pray to almighty God,
May grievance become hope
May revenge become justice
May mothers' tears become prayers
That Srebrenica
Never happens again
To no one and nowhere

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