The Unknown Hero of Jewish-Muslim Cooperation, on One Bullet-ridden Tombstone

Next year will be the 200th anniversary of ‘Sarajevo’s Purim,’ and one local Jewish historian is determined that the efforts of Zeki Effendi will not be forgotten

Michael Colborne
Michael Colborne
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The bullet-pocked tombstone of Zeki Effendi at the old Jewish cemetery in Sarajevo, Bosnia.
The bullet-pocked tombstone of Zeki Effendi at the old Jewish cemetery in Sarajevo, Bosnia.Credit: Michael Colborne
Michael Colborne
Michael Colborne

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina – It takes what feels like an eternity to find the tombstone of Zeki Effendi (aka Moshe ben Rafael Attias) on the steep hillsides of the old Jewish cemetery overlooking the Bosnian capital.

Eli Tauber, an adviser on culture and religious affairs for Bosnia’s Jewish community, says it took him about two hours to find Zeki Effendi’s tombstone when he first visited the site 12 years ago.

The tombstone of the once lofty figure who, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, became a pillar of Bosnia’s Jewish community and a scholar of Islam, has certainly seen better days.

It is cracked, decaying and pocked with bullet holes from the Bosnian war in the 1990s, when Bosnian Serb forces used the cemetery as a position to besiege the city below.

Despite the fading letters, Zeki Effendi’s tombstone tells the story of centuries of Jewish-Muslim cooperation – and a story that is at risk of being forgotten. Tauber believes it’s the only Jewish tombstone in the world with inscriptions in Arabic (Ottoman Turkish), Hebrew and Latin (Bosnian) scripts.

Ransom demand

Zeki Effendi was born in 1845 to a prominent Jewish family in Sarajevo, which is home to a centuries-old, largely Sephardi community. He was educated in an Ottoman Turkish state school, where he studied an Islamic curriculum alongside mostly Muslim classmates.

He then went to Istanbul to study Islamic culture and religion in more detail, immersing himself in the poetry of 13th century Persian poet and mystic Saadi Shirazi. He eventually returned to Sarajevo, working in the Ottoman-era tax authority and, after Bosnia fell under Austro-Hungarian control in 1878, becoming the city’s main translator of Ottoman Turkish.

Eli Tauber standing next to the tombstone of Zeki Effendi at the old jewish cemetery in Sarajevo, Bosnia.Credit: Courtesy of Eli Tauber

But Zeki Effendi was much more than that. Tauber recounts how he took it upon himself to collect and retell stories of Sarajevo’s Jewish past that, even by the 19th century, he worried would soon be forgotten.

Opening a copy of the book he wrote several years ago about the man, Tauber shows prayers and poems Zeki Effendi had collected, mostly in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) – the native language of Tauber’s grandmother.

One story that Zeki Effendi helped keep alive, Tauber explains in his office at Sarajevo’s only remaining synagogue, was the story of what he calls “Sarajevo’s Purim.”

In 1819, the governor of Ottoman-era Bosnia, Ruzdi Pasha, imprisoned and threatened to execute a dozen or so leading Jews unless Sarajevo’s Jewish community paid a huge ransom. The night before they were due to be executed, a representative of the Jewish community went around town and begged prominent Muslims to do what they could to try and stop the executions.

It worked. The next morning, a crowd of several thousand Muslim Sarajevans gathered at the gates of the governor’s house.

“Since the greedy Pasha was planning to execute detainees at dawn, on the Sabbath, angry people of Sarajevo, about three thousand of them, broke into Pasha’s palace and released the detainees,” Zeki Effendi later wrote.

And they didn’t stop there. As Tauber tells Haaretz, 249 high-profile Muslim Sarajevans signed a letter and sent it to Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II, denouncing Ruzdi Pasha and demanding that he be replaced.

Again, it worked: the sultan withdrew the hated governor from Bosnia.

The grave of Zeki Effendi, with the Bosnian city of Sarajevo in the distance.

But even just a few decades later, the story of “Sarajevo’s Purim” had been “almost forgotten,” says Tauber, until Zeki Effendi retold it in the late 19th century. “He pushed people to take old stories and not forget them,” he adds.

But Jewish-Muslim cooperation isn’t just a relic of Bosnia’s more distant past.

In the 1930s, there were more than 12,000 Jews in Sarajevo (almost 20 percent of the city’s population at the time) and another 2,000 Jews across the country. But the Holocaust almost completely destroyed Bosnia’s Jewish community, with the Ustase – the Croatian, Nazi-allied puppet regime – murdering some 10,000 Bosnian Jews.

Still, as Tauber recalls, some Jews managed to escape Sarajevo with the help of local Muslims, who disguised their Jewish neighbors in hijabs and other pieces of stereotypically “Muslim” clothing to get them out of the city.

Reversal of fortune

By the time Bosnia was being shattered by war in the early ’90s, the situation had been reversed. As Bosnian Serb forces besieged the mostly Muslim city, Sarajevo’s Jewish community organized convoys to evacuate Jews out of the city. These convoys, Tauber proudly notes, were filled not only with Jews but also Muslims and other non-Jews desperate to flee the city. Tauber says that, according to his own research, some 1,500 Muslims fled the city in these Jewish convoys.

Tauber, who was in Israel during that war, remembers how he and other Bosnian Jews outside of the country were even asked to send their ID cards to Bosnia so they could be used to help people escape the city as Jews, regardless of their religious or national background.

“Someone replaced the photo on my ID,” says Tauber. “Someone fled Sarajevo under my name. I don’t know who it was.”

But this tale of Muslim-Jewish cooperation isn’t talked about much anymore, laments Tauber. Having published a book a few years ago about Zeki Effendi and his life, Tauber is desperate to not only keep Zeki Effendi’s story alive, but tell the community’s stories in much the same way Effendi did more than a century ago.

“For our community, he’s such a special person, a tzaddik,” says Tauber, who notes that many Muslims still feel pride that Zeki Effendi chose to have Arabic script inscribed on his tombstone.

It’s why Tauber has been seeking more and more international help to try and restore Zeki Effendi’s tombstone and fix up the Jewish cemetery. He’s recently asked for help from TIKA, the Turkish international development agency that’s devoted to restoring pieces of Ottoman-era heritage in the Balkans and beyond, but has yet to hear back.

He hopes the old Jewish cemetery, and other Muslim and Christian cemeteries around the city, will soon get UNESCO status – which he hopes will help secure the support he says is needed.

Tauber is also helping to organize a commemoration next year for the 200th anniversary of the Sarajevo Purim and, along with Jewish and Muslim community leaders, a conference devoted to exploring Muslim-Jewish relations in Bosnia and beyond.

Tauber says one man will be the centerpiece of the conference: Zeki Effendi, who passed away 102 years ago this month..

“We’re talking about someone who tried to find everything that is good in human life,” says Tauber, “and to talk about it and to bring people together.”

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