In a small but especially meaningful place in this little known part of the world, not far from Israel, there once lived a very special Jewish hero. Albert Agarunov was one of 10 children. During his childhood years, his mom Leah was honored with the title “Heroine Mother” by the Azerbaijani government; a commemoration for her invaluable contribution of such a large number of well-raised children.
Albert’s parents emigrated to the capital city Baku, from a small community known as the Red Town – one of the oldest Jewish regions in the world. Baku offered many opportunities, and the Agarunov family raised all 10 into strong, intelligent, and especially happy young men and women. Albert was an engineer, and those who knew him remember a spirited and especially clever man and true friend; a person who lived his life without fear. This past April 25, 2015, Albert would have celebrated his 46th birthday.
A statue in his elementary school depicts the young and incomparably talented soldier. Albert began his military career in the Soviet army, but soon found himself wanting to give back to the country he loved and knew all his life. I would wager that most people in the world have never heard his name or story, but in the majority-Muslim Republic of Azerbaijan, Albert is renowned as a war hero, and it remains this way so many years after his death. In May 1992, he was tragically killed at 23. His story reads like a great novel about heroism and courage. Pinned down at the city of Shusha in Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region, this Azerbaijani-Jewish Hero went to extraordinary lengths to defend his tank battalion against an onslaught of Armenian tanks. He was a friend, a renowned sharpshooter, a nationally honored martyr, and a proud protector of his homeland.The unique story of Albert’s life is infused with pride for his country,a nation ingrained with an unparalleled standard of interfaith engagement and continues to honor and celebrate Albert’s courage and heroism.
Albert was known to all who knew him as a shining example of strength and kindness. He was one of the Armenian army’s biggest targets. The Armenian invaders were so especially offended by Albert’s strong military skills, coupled with his identity as a Jew, that they placed a bounty of what equals 5 million rubles on his head. Albert fought with all of his heart and might as he and many Jewish soldiers faced the Armenian invasion and subsequent acts of ethnic cleansing and brutality against over 20 percent of Azerbaijan. With the option to leave for Israel or elsewhere in the west, Albert and his fellow Azerbaijani Jews chose to fight in order to defend their homeland of Azerbaijan. A truly righteous man, Albert lost his life when a sniper bullet caught the seemingly uncatchable hero, because Albert had left the security of his tank, exposed to the enemy, instructing the tank driver so as to avoid driving over the many murdered bodies of his comrades on the ground. Albert lost his life because he was busy honoring the lives of his countrymen, unwilling to put even his own safety before the integrity of their memories.
Albert was a war hero and a warrior, an icon of Jewish life and commitment who was not only accepted in his majority-Muslim nation, but widely cherished by all faiths. When taking in the story of Albert’s life, like any historic event, one can easily see that the beginning is as meaningful as the end. The life of Albert Agarunov is one that carries spiritual and emotional resonance for all people, but especially for Jews in the Muslim world. The meaning and depth of his identity was only realized because he was born and raised in a place that has spent thousands of years living as if interreligious harmony is an expected component of life. Albert fought for his homeland Azerbaijan, because for thousands of years and all the right reasons, his homeland has fought for him.