December 7, 2019

A Statue Unveiled: A Jewish War Hero Honored in a Muslim Land

Unveiling ceremony of a statue of Azerbaijani Jewish National Hero Albert Agarunov in Baku, Azerbaijan on November 15, 2019. Photo courtesy of Mountain Jewish Synagogue of Baku

Nov. 15, 2019 was a particularly special day for the Jewish communities of Azerbaijan, and for Jews worldwide, who know the story of our most decorated war hero, Albert Agarunov. On this day in our capital city of Baku, an enormous statue of this National Hero of Azerbaijan was unveiled with military honors before a crowd of government and community leaders, and the broader community and foreign guests that had come to celebrate one of our greatest heroes. Some traveled from afar to attend the special unveiling, including Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; Commissioner for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and President of Congress of Christian Leaders Rev. Johnnie Moore; Chief Sephardic Rabbi Emeritus of Israel Shlomo Amar, several other rabbis from Europe, the United States and Latin America, as well as state senators from the Western United States.

 

Albert is a symbol of national pride, in a 95% Muslim nation that has a thriving and prosperous Jewish presence, both in the capital city of Baku and in smaller cities across the nation. Our history in Azerbaijan is very old and very special. I suppose all Azerbaijani Jews can consider themselves lucky, in a sense, because our nation has for thousands of years been the one safe space for Jews in an otherwise turbulent region. Each of us here has a story, perhaps from long ago and for others much more recent history, of our family coming to and settling in Azerbaijan, after a dangerous journey fleeing from antisemetic nations.

 

Albert was a Mountain Jew, born in 1969 to a large family with 10 siblings. He worked in oil production and loved music, and was known by friends, family and neighbors as a particularly kind and spirited young man – with a strong sense of justice and a zest for life. In 1991, despite being given total freedom to refrain from service or leave the country following the collapse of the USSR, Albert joined the army voluntarily to fight for Azerbaijan as Armenia led a brutal military invasion of our Karabakh region, as he was passionate about defending his country, a place that has protected him and all Jewish residents for thousands of years. He was a renowned tankist, and his ability to subvert the enemy at many turns led to the status of a hunted man, as the Armenian army placed the bounty of $100,000 on his head. Albert was unparalleled in his skills as a tankist, navigating in the most dangerous and compromised situations, managing to outmaneuver thousands of soldiers and achieved exceptional military feats, such as disabling nine Armenian tanks and two armored trucks in one day. His ability to disarm two tanks at once, was called by his combat friends as the “Jewish Sandwich”. Rare was his ability, his bravery and his willingness to fight for what he knew to be right, for his country, and what he believed in.

 

Albert’s kindness and bravery extended beyond his service in our military. On the worst of days at the height of the Armenian invasion and massacres, Albert drove his tank into areas where the ground was literally covered in bodies of men, women and children – slain, innocent Azerbaijani civilians. On those days, Albert would leave the safety of his tank, even under the threat of immediate fire, and navigate the driver, so as to avoid harming those tragically murdered bodies anymore than they had already suffered. He had immense respect for the dead, equal to his insatiable respect for life.

 

Albert lived and died with his good values and his good heart. He was killed in Shusha, the city he had been the last to defend before it was invaded by Armenia. Albert was shot by an Armenian sniper while he was out of his tank, making sure his driver avoided the slain bodies of his comrades on the ground. On May 8, 1992, the Jewish world, Azerbaijan, and all those who loved him, lost a true hero. He was only 23 years old. His fellow soldiers, overcome by his loss and with the need to continue fighting, painted the name “Albert” on their tanks, as a way to keep him with them as they carried on.

 

This statue is a national treasure, honoring a beloved national hero, revered across Azerbaijan, in all communities, Jewish, Muslim and Christian. It is not the first time Albert Agarunov has been recognized by our country, and I am sure it will not be the last. A plaque of remembrance is affixed to his childhood home, the school he once attended is now named in his honor, and Albert is buried at Martyrs Lane, an impressive monument overlooking the Caspian Sea, one of Baku’s most visited destinations. And last year one of Baku’s most beautiful streets was named after him, adorned now by his statue. In June of 1992, Albert was awarded the honor of National Hero of Azerbaijan, the highest honor awarded for military service. Thus he became one of the first Azerbaijanis awarded this highest honor. The naming of a Baku street after Albert and this amazing statue on the same street became a reality thanks to President Ilham Aliyev, under whose leadership Azerbaijan is now a world-renowned place of interfaith peace, harmony and acceptance.

 

Albert’s bravery represents all that we hold dear in Azerbaijan, and he is a source of immense pride to the 30,000 Jews that live here today in Azerbaijan, and the many that live in Israel, the United States and in Europe. He is a symbol of brotherhood and friendship between Azerbaijani and Jewish people, and between Muslims and Jews in general. Albert is also an epitome of bravery and peace for all people across the globe, that believe in fairness, justice, and kindness – a person who lived a truly exceptional life. I hope this statue brings happiness to his family, hope to all who visit and hear of it, and inspiration for all of us to continue fighting for what is good.