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Revealing Bosnia's heroes

Eli Tauber wants to tell the stories of the Serbs, Croats and Muslims who helped Bosnia's Jews.

Bosnians sit under signs representing Roma, Serbs and Jews during a ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Jasenovac concentration camp between Bosna and Croatia, April 17, 2005. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — In 1941, when Sarajevo’s Jews were being rounded up and sent to concentration camps, Dr. Muhamed Kundurovic, a Bosnian Muslim, reported to a military camp where Jewish women and children were being held and declared they were carriers of an infectious disease. It was a lie, but a well-intentioned one, intended to get the prisoners out of the camp so he could help them escape.

Among those saved that day was Albert Musafia, age 11. Over the weeks and months that followed, non-Jewish friends and neighbors repeatedly helped the boy and his family. For a while, they lived hidden in an apartment in the center of Sarajevo; their neighbors all knew but no one turned them in to the authorities.

In a nation whose painful recent history gave birth to the term “ethnic cleansing,” Eli Tauber wants Bosnians to remember that even in the darkest of times, many risked their own lives to protect others from the forces of ethnic and religious hatred. A leader of Bosnia’s dwindling Jewish community, Tauber is leading an exhaustive effort to document the story of Musafia’s family and other cases when Bosnians saved Jews.

“This was something I needed to do,” said Tauber, who has written a book about his research and created an exhibit that he hopes to bring to communities around Bosnia. “This is something that Bosnians need to hear about. People from many nations, many religions saved Jews.”

Before World War II, Bosnia had a thriving Jewish community of about 14,000 that dated to the 16th century. Many were Sephardic Jews who had fled Spain during the Inquisition and eventually settled in Bosnia, then part of the Ottoman Empire. An estimated 12,000 members of that community did not survive the war. Much of the country’s Jewish history was erased too, its synagogues looted and destroyed.

The Bosnia war in the early 1990s further decimated the country’s Jewish community, sending many of the country’s remaining Jews fleeing to Israel. In Sarajevo, the Jews who remained helped feed and provide medicine to besieged residents of the city and organized some of the most successful humanitarian evacuations of the war.

Today there are only about 700 Jews left in Bosnia. Tauber fled to Israel in the early 1990s, but never forgot his homeland or the stories of how his parents survived the Holocaust. About 70 other members of his family perished, many of them in the notorious Croatian concentration camp Jasenovac, where Serbs, Jews, Roma and communists were killed.

“People said that after Auschwitz, after the Holocaust, it’s impossible for something like that to happen again. But it has happened,” said Tauber, referring to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia during the war and particularly the massacres at Srebrenica, where an estimated 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed. “And it’s terrible that it happened in Europe, so close to the European Union. And no one made any reaction.”