FOUR members of a Muslim Bosnian family have been recognised by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for hiding Sydney resident Aviva Fox during the Holocaust.
Born Nada Kollmann in 1942, Fox was a baby when Avdo Prohic took her to his mother Esma’s house in Gracanica after her father had been shot by the Nazis and her mother imprisoned, perishing in jail.
When they heard the SS was looking for her, she was sent to live with Esma’s son Sabrija Prohic and his wife Safita in Zagreb, where she stayed until the war was over.
Avdo, Esma, Sabrija and Safita Prohic were all recognised by Yad Vashem at a ceremony at Sarajevo’s Jewish Community Centre on May 29 this year. A descendant of the family, Rejhan Prohic, collected the awards on their behalf.
Fox, a teacher at Kesser Torah College, travelled to the ceremony along with her brother by adoption (cousin by birth) Egon Sonnenschein, who played a key role in establishing contact with the Prohic family after more than 70 years.
She described the experience as “beyond words”.
“As a child, you don’t know anything, but now meeting them I realise what a risk they took,” she said.
“They all greeted us like long-lost family members. The gratitude to them is beyond words because if not for them I wouldn’t be alive today.”
Sonnenschein – also a Holocaust survivor – initiated the process with Yad Vashem and ensured the process moved along.
“It was a wonderful, wonderful occasion,” he said of the ceremony.
“The entire experience was inspiring, uplifting and satisfying, both for family and guests. One of the best parts about it was it brought the Muslim and Jewish people in Bosnia much closer together.”
Israel’s ambassador to Bosnia Boaz Rodkin joined the ambassadors of six other nations, 35 members of the Prohic family from Bosnia, Croatia, France and the USA, and relatives of Sonnenschein and Fox at the event.
It was the culmination of a process that began five years ago when an Israeli relative told Fox that someone was looking for her and gave her a number to call. Unsure, she asked Sonnenschein to make the call, while she stayed in the room.
At the other end was Rejhan Prohic – an investigative journalist by profession – who had spent 15 years fulfilling a promise to look for Nada Kollmann.
“Once he said why he was looking for me, because he promised his grandmother on her deathbed, I took over the phone and said, ‘I’m the person you’re looking for,'” Fox recalled.
Sonnenschein met the Prohic family when he travelled to Europe with his wife Miriam the following year. Upon returning, he told Fox they should try to have the family recognised by Yad Vashem.
“She wasn’t sure yet,” he explained, until she travelled to Europe herself and met the family in Slovenia.
“She came back and said okay, but you do all the work.”
Sonnenschein submitted 21 different documents, only for Yad Vashem to request further evidence.
He didn’t have photos or postwar letters, while testimonies from Fox, who was too young at the time, and Rejhan, a member of the recipient family, were invalid.
“I wrote back and I said, I was 15 when I came back, and I remember everything 100 per cent and they definitely deserve it,” Sonnenschein said.
Six months later, the honour was confirmed.
“It meant a huge amount to me,” Sonnenschein, who “witnessed terrible atrocities in Bosnia” during the Holocaust, said.
He and his parents spent the war moving from Slovenia, to Bosnia, to Italy and then Switzerland.
“When we came back … from my mother’s side everybody was killed except little three-year-old Nada,” he said, adding, “Aviva would never, when I spoke about the Holocaust she walked out, she couldn’t take it.
“When Rejhan came to the scene, slowly, slowly, she could listen to it. All of a sudden, she didn’t have so many nightmares. And now she is ready to speak at the Jewish Museum as a Holocaust survivor.”
Egon Sonnenschein will give a talk about his experiences and the Prohic family at the Sydney Jewish Museum on Wednesday, August 15 at 1.15pm.