The wise Preacher in the Hebrew Scriptures said, “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days” (Ecclesiastes 11.1). This ancient word was made fresh in a modern story of rescue that came to an amazing full circle.
Dervis Korkut was curator of books and manuscripts at the Sarajevo Museum. He was from a prominent Bosnian Muslim family of liberal intellectuals. He studied theology in Istanbul and Paris. When Nazis occupied Yugoslavia during World War II Korkut spoke out about the anti-Semitic policies of the occupation. Korkut had worked very closely with the Jewish community as a scholar translating old documents. In the 1920s he had defended the Jewish community against anti-Jewish laws. Then when the Nazis took over he sent a position paper to the occupation government titled “Anti-Semitism Is Foreign to the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina.” He wrote that anti-Semitism was “only the lightning rod used to draw the people’s attention away from their real problems.” He presented the vision of pluralism in Bosnia: “The most beautiful proof of religious tolerance in Bosnia is that (in Sarajevo) all four domestic religious houses of worship (Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish) were exactly one beside the other.” Then Korkut was introduced to Mira Papo, and his resistance to the Nazi policies became personal.
Mira Papo came from a Jewish family that had fled the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, finally settling in Sarajevo. In 1941 the Nazis arrested the Jewish men in Sarajevo, including her father Salomon Papo, and shipped them off to the concentration camps. Then the women were ordered to gather together, but Mira refused. Her mother convinced her to resist, and the nineteen-year old watched her family members loaded onto trucks, never to be seen again. Of the 75,000 Jews in Yugoslavia before the war only 12,000 survived.
Papo then joined the Yugoslav Communist partisans fighting the Nazis. In 1942 the partisans took away the weapons of the Jewish members and sent the Jewish partisans unarmed to Sarajevo. Most of the Jews were caught and killed, but Papo found her way to the front of the finance ministry building where her father had once worked. A man came up to her and said, “Aren’t you the daughter of Salomon Papo?” It was a porter who had once worked with her father. He walked with her to the Sarajevo Museum and introduced her to Dervis Korkut.
Korkut and his wife Servet took Papo into their home. They had a baby boy named Munib, so they developed the story that Papo was a Muslim woman hired to tend to the baby. Papo wore the full robes of traditional Muslim dress and went by the Muslim name of Amira. For four months Papo never left the Korkut home, and whenever German officers looked in they never expressed suspicions about the “servant” in traditional garb. In August 1942 false documents were procured and arrangements made to smuggle Papo to a safe area on the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia where she spent the rest of the war.
Genocide may be about more than killing people. It can also be about destroying the culture and memory of a people. Korkut saved one Jewish woman, but he also saved a Jewish cultural masterpiece, the Sarajevo Haggadah. The Haggadah is an illustrated Passover text used during the traditional Jewish Passover Seder. The Sarajevo Haggadah is the oldest Sephardic Haggadah in the world and is considered to also be the most beautiful. Produced on 109 pages of bleached calfskin, the Sarajevo Haggadah has wine stains on some of the pages, showing that was used at many Seders in Jewish homes. It had been brought from Spain to Bosnia where it was sold to the museum in 1894.
In 1942 a Nazi general burst into the Sarajevo Museum looking to steal Jewish treasures for himself and demanded that the director give him the Haggadah. The director said he had given the document to a German lieutenant a few hours earlier who claimed to have come from the general. The general demanded the name of the lieutenant, but the director said he had no right to ask the name of a German officer. While the director was holding the general at bay with this false story, Dervis Korkut slipped out the back door of the museum with the Haggadah. He traveled deep into the Bosnian hills to the farm of a Muslim friend. There the priceless manuscript was hidden for the duration of the war, and according to some reports was kept for a while under the floorboards of a small rural mosque.
After the war Korkut was imprisoned by the new Communist government under false charges he had participated with a Muslim fascist militia. The testimony of Jewish friends saved him from the firing squad, but he spent six years in prison. After his release a daughter named Lamija was born to Dervis and Servet. In 1969 Dervis Korkut died. His daughter met an Albanian Muslim man named Vllaznim Jaha. They were married and lived in Pristina, Kosovo. Meanwhile, Mira Papo had settled in Israel, where in 1994 her testimony about her rescue by Dervis and Servet Korkut finally led to recognition of this brave couple. They were honored with the “Medal of the Righteous Among the Nations” and their names engraved on the Honour Wall in the Garden of the Righteous at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. Lamija Jaha was given a certificate about her parents’ honor.
Then war broke out between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo. The Serb army and militia engaged in “ethnic cleansing” against the Albanians in Kosovo, and the Jaha family fled with thousands of other refugees into Macedonia. While in the refugee camps Lamija tried to find a nation that would take them in, but even European countries where she had relatives would not provide them sanctuary. In the chaos of their flight from Kosovo Lamija had grabbed the certificate from Yad Vashem. One official who saw it suggested that she contact Israeli officials. When she presented the document to Israeli officials her entire family was brought to Israel for temporary shelter. Lamija and her family were warmly met at the airport by the son of Mira Papo. Eventually this Muslim refugee family from Kosovo became citizens of Israel, finding welcome for having sheltered a Jew during an earlier time of “ethnic cleansing.”
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This profile on Dervis Korkut comes from the pages of Interfaith Heroes 2. Interfaith Heroes 2 is one of the three books that inspired this website. Learn more about Daniel Buttry’s series of books on global peacemakers.