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May 17, 2022 1:03 pm

Movie Inspired by Muslim Family That Saved Jewish Friends During Holocaust Wins Grant

avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

Zejneba Hardaga (fourth from the right) at a Yad Vashem tree planting ceremony in Israel in honor of her family in 1985. Photo: Yad Vashem.

A screenplay inspired by the true story of a Muslim family that saved their Jewish friends during the Holocaust won a grant that will help its development into a film, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany announced Tuesday.

Written by Bosnian-American filmmaker Sabina Vajrača, the film is based on the real-life story of Mustafa and Zejneba Hardag, who risked their lives to hide the Kavilio family when the Nazis invaded Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, during World War II. The Hardagas provided refuge to their Jewish friends multiple times during the war, which helped the Kavilios survive the Holocaust and eventually immigrate to Israel.

In 1984, the Kavilios asked Yad Vashem to recognize the Hardagas as Righteous Among the Nations. Fifty years later, during the Bosnian War in 1994, the Hardagas faced danger as Serbian forces in Sarajevo perpetrated an ethnic cleansing campaign against Muslims. After the Kavilios urgently pleaded on behalf of the Hardagas, and with help from the Joint Distribution Committee and Yad Vashem, the Israeli government secured the Muslim family’s safe passage to the Jewish state.

Zejneba’s daughter, Sarah Pecanac, and her family later converted to Judaism. She also began working at Yad Vashem.

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The filmmaking contest hosted by the Claims Conference received 39 applications from seven countries. As the winner, Vajrača will receive $40,000 and additional support for her project, which recently started filming in Bosnia.

“I’m deeply humbled and very excited,” said Vajrača. “May this story inspired by a Muslim family and a Jewish family helping one another survive when wars came to their doorsteps inspire us all to continuously choose good over evil, no matter the circumstances, even if it means crossing religious, political, and any other borders we may at times deem insurmountable.”

Vajrača was influenced to focus on the Hardagas for her film because of her own Muslim family’s experience in Bosnia during World War II.

“Before she passed, my grandma told me a story of watching Nazis take her Jewish best friend and her family away, never to be seen again,” the filmmaker explained. “She was just a little girl, but she understood the gravity of the situation, and remembered it vividly when, 50 years later, soldiers came for our family — Muslims’ turn to be taken to the camps. One of her biggest regrets, all those years later, was that she did nothing to help her friend.”

After remembering the story of the Hardaga family, she felt compelled to make a film about them because she was “tired of the same old ‘Jews and Muslims hate one another’ narrative, [and] I wanted to tell a story I was more familiar with, that of us helping each other, as my grandma told me.”

“The story of Zejneba [Hardaga] and Rifka [Kavilio] was the one I loved the most. Zejneba reminded me of my grandma, and I want to believe that, had she been older, she would have done just as Zejneba did,” Vajrača said. “Goodness begets goodness is a mantra I grew up hearing, and I hope with this film I can spread that message far and wide.”

Vajrača’s film and details about the Hardaga family are featured in the recently launched Claims Conference social media campaign, “Don’t Be A Bystander.”

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