Support During Bosnian War Helps Woman Come to Israel, Convert

Life boiled down to one egg for Sarah Pechanac.

Shortly after war erupted in Sarajevo in the early 1990s, her family’s home was wrecked in a bombing that forced them into communal quarters underground.

Hope came in the form of a single egg — a piece of charity dispensed from Jewish communities to the general public in Bosnia.

Pechanac, who was born a Muslim, describes the jubilation she felt asking her daughter, then 9, how she would like the egg prepared.

At the end of the 20th century, in the middle of Europe, their biggest decision was “how to eat one egg,” she muses.

The egg symbolizes the life story of Pechanac, who went on to complete a Jewish circle begun by her family.

Fifty years earlier, under Nazi occupation, her parents and grandfather hid Jews in their Sarajevo home, which was situated across from Gestapo headquarters in Yugoslavia.

Through their connections, the well-to-do family fabricated Christian identification documents for Jews to flee to Italy and Palestine.

Pechanac’s grandfather was jailed for aiding Jews. He eventually was shipped to a concentration camp, and never heard from again.

In the summer of 1985, Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial invited Pechanac’s mother, Zejneba Harbaja, to plant a tree honoring her family as “Righteous Gentiles.”

Nearly a decade later, in the thick of the Bosnian conflict, Israel took Pechanac and her family on the last convoy of Jews rescued from the city through a joint project of the North American Jewish federation system’s overseas beneficiaries, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Pechanac remembers that the convoy — 300 people on six buses — passed 24 checkpoints from Sarajevo to Makarska, a small Croatian town on the Adriatic Sea. At each stop, she says Jewish Agency and JDC leaders paid cash to facilitate their passage.

“Here you can see where money goes,” she says, praising the work of the federation system — “to buy human beings and their future.”

After continuing on to Budapest, the group flew to Tel Aviv.

Like most Bosnians, Pechanac’s family was secular, and they had many Jewish friends.

Soon after she arrived in Israel, she decided to convert.

“It’s a love story,” she says. “I want all my life to be a Jew” and “I feel all my life that I am a Jew.”

Fittingly, Pechanac now works at Yad Vashem as an archives manager at the museum.

Pechanac imbibed Israel’s Jewish culture as families welcomed her to their Shabbat dinner tables.

She jumped into the crowds shopping at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, picking over spices and sweets, figs and flowers for Shabbat.

And she labored with rabbis. Approval came one year after her immigration when, exasperated, she asked, “If I keep Shabbat and kashrut,” and send my daughter to a Jewish school, can I become Jewish?

“Welcome, you are a daughter of Israel,” the rabbis answered, she says.

Pechanac changed her name from Aida to Sarah — she likes to go by “Sarah of Jerusalem” — and her daughter’s name to Esther.

At 46, her husband, Vladimir, was circumcised and changed his name to Moshe.

The couple remarried in a traditional Jewish ceremony, and her daughter, now a 20-year-old officer in the Israel Defense Forces, had a Bat Mitzvah.

The death of Pechanac’s mother — and her daughter’s reaction to it — further fueled her Jewish mission.

Pechanac’s daughter, then 11, urged the family to leave Israel in search of Jews they could aid.

Pechanac’s daughter explains that she wants to continue her grandmother’s legacy of helping Jews.

There are still “a lot of Jews around the world who need help, so we should get there and give them” help, she told JTA.

In response, Pechanac, whose sister is Muslim and brother is Christian, has toured North American Jewish federations during the past nine years, raising funds for the relief of Jews in distress.

“With my story, I want to motivate people to continue to help our brothers and sisters all around the word,” she says.

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