Treasures of the Past: The Sarajevo Haggadah

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By Aaron Feigenbaum.

The southeast European country of Bosnia is best known to Westerners for the bloody civil war of the 1990‘s, as well as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the streets of the capital Sarajevo a hundred years ago. However, underneath Bosnia’s turbulent past lies the rich history of a prosperous Jewish community that contributed much to world civilization.
Chief among these contributions is the exquisitely illustrated Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the most renowned and most beautiful Jewish manuscripts that still survives to this day. And indeed, this treasure of Judaism and Jewish culture has survived quite a few ordeals.
The Sarajevo Haggadah’s story begins in Barcelona, Spain around 1350 when it was presented to a young Jewish couple as a wedding gift. Not only is it one of the most antiquated Sephardic Haggadahs in the world, but its illustrations cover the widest range of subjects among its peers. No one knows who created it, but its 109 pages are written on bleached calfskin, illuminated in gold and copper, and contain 34 pages of illustrations depicting not only the seder, but also major events in the Torah including the Creation of the World and the Burning Bush. There are also illuminations detailing the Bais HaMikdash and the inside of a Spanish shul. The text includes the Haggadah itself, as well as piyyutim and the Torah readings for the week of Pesach.
The Haggadah remained in Spain until around 1510 where a note tells us that it is in Italy. Another note found in the margins dating to 1609 mentions that the Church has spared the book from burning since it has found nothing objectionable in it. Beyond this note, records regarding the book’s whereabouts and condition during this period are basically non-existent.
It wasn’t until 1894 that the Haggadah turned up again, this time in Sarajevo, Bosnia where it was sold to the Sarajevo Museum by a needy member of the Jewish community named Joseph Kohen. Interestingly, the Haggadah was then sent to Vienna, Austria for two years after which it was returned to Sarajevo. No satisfactory explanation has been found for this odd chapter in the tale.
Once the Germans and Ustashe fascist militia came barging into Sarajevo in 1941, they almost immediately set their sights on the Haggadah. Dervis Korkut, a custodian at the museum, told the German officer that the Nazis had already taken the book before his arrival. In reality, Mr. Korkut managed to deliver this priceless treasure into the hands of a Muslim cleric in Zenica, not far from Sarajevo. The cleric hid it either under the floorboards of his home or among the Muslim texts in library of the local mosque. Miraculously, the Sarajevo Haggadah survived the war and so did a young Jewish girl named Mira Papo who was rescued by Korkut as was smuggling the Haggadah. (Interestingly, the elder Papo helped save the life of Korkut’s daughter during the Bosnian war.)
But the story’s not over yet. Having been returned to the Sarajevo Museum after the end of WWII, the Haggadah was again put in danger by the devastating Bosnian civil war of the 1990‘s. A band of thieves broke into the museum in 1992 but did not take the Haggadah since they did not realize its value. The director of the museum then put the Haggadah in a bank vault for safekeeping. It wasn’t until 1995 that it was returned to the Jewish community of Sarajevo by no less the president of Bosnia himself in an internationally televised event.
Unfortunately, even after all this, the drama of the Sarajevo Haggadah still continues, though the problem this time is not war and violence, but money and politics. In 2012, the Sarajevo Museum that was housing the Haggadah closed down due to lack of funding. To make matters more complicated, the Museum could not loan out the Haggadah to another institution before its closure due to legal hang-ups caused by inadequate provisions in the 1995 peace accords that ended the Bosnian civil war. Simply put, the museum’s legal status is up in the air and the Haggadah remains behind locked doors as of last year. G-d willing, these matters will be resolved and the whole world will be able to see this beautiful masterpiece for themselves.
(Adapted from Jewish Virtual Library and Huffington Post)
Note: The Foundation for Jewish Culture is sponsoring a musical interpretation of the Haggadah’s story composed by L.A.-based accordionist Merima Ključo. While there are no upcoming L.A. dates, if you happen to be in cities such as Dallas, San Francisco, or D.C. at the right time this year, then I highly recommend seeing it.
The full schedule and more can be found at: http://www.jewishculture.org/musi