The Muslim family of Sara Pechanec is credited with saving one Jewish family during the Holocaust by hiding it in their home in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. That family later moved to Israel and in 1994 used its influence to save Pechanec and her family from the Bosnian Serb genocide against Muslims.
Pechanec, 54, was able to escape to Israel with her mother, husband and 9-year-old daughter thanks to the intervention of then-Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Ten years earlier, her mother, Zaineba Hardaga, had been the first Muslim woman included among Yad Vashem’s “Righteous Among the Nations.”
“My mother said she never saved Jews for thanks,” Pechanec recalled at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County in Glen Cove. “But she always wanted to go to Israel to see the family she helped.” (Pechanec converted to Judaism and is now an Orthodox Jew working for Yad Vashem.)
Pechanec, who made her comments at a ceremony last Sunday in conjunction with an exhibit about Muslim and Albanian Righteous Gentiles, compared her mother’s actions during the Holocaust to the Talmudic dictum: “Whoever saves one life saves the entire world.”
“I understood that when I saw the grandchildren” of the family her mother rescued, she said.
“My family was very wealthy, but how do you measure wealth?” Pechanec asked. “It is not only money and things, it is friendship.”
Pechanec was among several speakers at the ceremony, held in conjunction with the Islamic Center of Long Island. The exhibit, “Besa: A Code of Honor,” was developed by Yad Vashem, Israel’s museum and research center devoted to the Holocaust, and will be on display in Glen Cove through Nov. 15.
“Besa” refers to a moral code in Albania that mandates extending hospitality and protection to others.
Although Yad Vashem has since the early 1960s honored non-Jews who endangered themselves to save Jewish lives, the story of Albanian and Muslim rescuers was obscured for decades by the secretive policies of the Communist government in Albania that took power after the end of World War II.
Peter Furth, the son of two survivors whose spice-importing business dealt indirectly with Albanians during Communist rule, pointed out that Albania was the only European country whose Jewish population actually increased in size during the Holocaust.
Albania’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ferit Hoxha, noted that Albanian diplomats liberally granted visas to Jews during the war to help them escape the Nazis.
“Albanians give besa, they never sell it,” Hoxha stressed.
The dozen profiles featured in the exhibit convey the heroism of average families, nearly all Muslim, while emphasizing the close relationships between the persecuted Jews and their defenders. One of those featured, Rafik Veseli, a Muslim from Albania and one of the first to receive the honor of “Righteous Among the Nations,” is quoted as saying: “In Albania, there are no foreigners, only friends.”
That sentiment was echoed in nearly every account of each rescuer.
Another child of righteous gentiles, Qemal Bicaku, said through a translator that his father and grandfather — both of whom are featured in the exhibit — saved the lives of 26 Jews. Bicaku, along with his father and uncle, were imprisoned and tortured by the Communists after the war when they began receiving thank-you letters from Jews overseas whom they had saved during the Holocaust.
A daughter of Jews who were hidden in Albania, Dr. Anna Kohen, said the first she learned that her parents had escaped the Nazis by hiding in the home of a Muslim family was when she was about 6 years old.
“I was walking down the street hand-in-hand with my mother when a woman started to scream, ‘Bule! Bule,’ and she ran towards my mother,” she recalled. “The woman hugged her, crying.”
Later Kohen said she learned that Bule was the non-Jewish name her mother assumed while in hiding.
“My father David, was Daut, my mother was Bule, and my brother Elio became ali,” she said.
Kohen is now the president of the Albanian American Women’s Organization, which helps women without medical insurance and victims of domestic violence, as well as disadvantaged children and the elderly.