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The Bosnian Muslim scholar who saved the Sarajevo Hagaddah

  • Dr Hikmet Karcic
  • 6 Dec 2019

This is the story of Dervis M Korkut, a scholar who helped save Jewish lives and preserve their heritage in Bosnia.

Dervis M Korkut ( Jewish Foundation for the Righteous )

One morning in early 1942, German military authorities called and informed the National Museum in Sarajevo that the Nazi General Johann Hans Fortner, commander of the 718th division, was going to visit the Museum.

Jozo Petrovic, the Museum director, conveyed this to his colleague and Museum curator Dervis Korkut. Korkut immediately asked for the keys to the safe. Together they went to the basement, opened the safe, and Korkut took the Sarajevo Haggadah and hid it in the waistband of his trousers.

After a tour of the Museum, General Fortner demanded they give him the Haggadah. Although accounts differ, none of which can be confirmed categorically, what is certain is that the Haggadah was not given to Fortner. Korkut brought it home, after which he gave it to a trustworthy imam in a mountain village mosque, who protected it until it was safe.

Hailing from an influential religious family, Korkut studied in Istanbul and spoke several languages. Istanbul at that time, was awash with revolutionary ideas and dissidents.

Korkut, along with other students, witnessed this turbulent era and graduated around the same time that a Serb terrorist assassinated the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914.

The war was already underway when Korkut returned to Bosnia, and he soon became a military imam in the Austro-Hungarian Army, spending time on the frontlines with the Bosniak regiment.

After the First World War, the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was formed. Elections were held on November 1920, and Korkut campaigned for the Yugoslav Muslim Organization, the largest Bosniak political party.

During the elections, Milorad Draskovic, the Serb Minister of Interior, initiated a process to strip Yugoslav Jews of their voting rights. During the electioneering in the town of Derventa, Korkut gave a speech in favour of Jews and spoke against Draskovic’s policies.

The Yugoslav Muslim Organization performed well in the election and recommended that Korkut be made the head of the Muslim Department in the Ministry of Religions. However, Korkut’s work at the Ministry was not well received by Serb nationalists, and after three years the Serb Radical Party managed to have him removed.

Korkut returned to work as a teacher and soon became a curator at the National Museum in Sarajevo. Over the next ten years, he would change jobs on many occasions, including a one year stint as the Mufti of Travnik. It is believed the regular change of employment was ascribed to his forthright manner.

In 1937, he would return to the National Museum in Sarajevo. On the eve of the Second World War, anti-Semitism in Yugoslavia was growing, with the Belgrade authorities initiated laws that targeted the Jewish population. This atmosphere also slowly spread to Sarajevo, so Korkut reacted by writing an article “Anti-Semitism is foreign to the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina”, published in Belgrade in 1940, on the eve of the war.

In October 1941, Korkut would reiterate his stand by co-signing the Sarajevo Resolution, alongside several members of the Sarajevo Bosniak Muslim social elite – a public condemnation of and distancing from Nazi and Ustasha crimes.

Korkut didn't just talk the talk.

In November 1941, a friend of Korkut brought Donkica Papo, a young Jewish girl, to Korkut and asked if he could help her. Her parents had been sent to a concentration camp, and she was a member of a Partisan group that had been decimated by Nazi security forces.

Korkut brought her home and told his wife Servet that she would be staying with them for a while. She was to be presented as Servet’s cousin from Kosovo, who did not speak Bosnian. Papo was kept safe until Korkut managed to get her a false ID and send her to an Italian-occupied area of the country.

By 1943, the number of Bosniak Muslim refugees from eastern Bosnia, survivors of genocidal Serb Chetnik campaigns, was overwhelming in Sarajevo. Korkut, along with his colleagues, started collecting humanitarian aid for the refugees, most of whom were women and children.

At this point, Korkut's principles were getting him into trouble at the museum. Members of the Ustasha administration wanted to get their hands on the museum’s rich library but, according to archival documents, Korkut refused to hand over the library, often citing legal or administrative reasons.

In short, he became a liability to the regime, and in 1944 he received an order, signed by the Ustasha leader Ante Pavelic, to be transferred as a librarian to the Zagreb National University Library.

However, Korkut’s sources warned him that this was a foil to incarcerate him and his family in the Jasenovac camp, the largest and most brutal Ustasha-run camp where thousands of Jews and Serbs were murdered. Korkut managed to evade the transfer by taking sick leave and then going into hiding with his family in Sarajevo until the Partisans liberated it in April 1945.

After the establishment of the new Communist state, Korkut continued working at the Museum. The new government’s policy was to create a new Communist elite. To do that, they attempted to dispose of or retire previous non-Communist elites by putting them on trial for “collaboration with the occupiers.”

Korkut criticised the new government for decisions related to the destruction of cultural heritage in Sarajevo. He met with the British consul in Sarajevo and asked him to intervene with the Allies to provide international legal protection, similar to the 1919 Saint Germain Minority Protection Treaty, for Yugoslavian Muslims.

Korkut was arrested and tried in 1947. It was a short trial in which several prominent Bosniak intellectuals were accused of collaboration with the Ustashas. Korkut's primary sin was the conversation he had had with the British consul, and he was sentenced to 8 years in prison with hard labour.

After his release, Korkut started working at the Sarajevo City Museum, where he worked until his death in 1969. He passed away at the age of 81.

The story of his life and saving the Haggadah and Donkica Papo was unknown until the Bosnian War when, in 1994, Papo wrote a letter to Yad Vashem and told the story of Korkut.  On December 14, 1994, Yad Vashem recognised Dervis and Servet Korkut as Righteous Among the Nations.

Korkut lived and worked according to what he believed in and never compromised on his principles. He did not calculate self-preservation into his decisions and sacrificed his work and life to do what was right. The least we can do is to remember him and honour his memory.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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