By Amir Telibečirović
Senior editor, Bosnia Daily
Passover is a time for millions of Jewish families to remember the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt over three thousand years ago. As the Jewish community celebrates Passover, each family will open their Haggadah – a Jewish religious text that sets out the order of the Passover meal, or Seder – and read about this flight. There is one Haggadah, however, that has its own unique story.
Just as various communities across the world have been forced to migrate as a result of conflict, the oldest Sephardic-Jewish Haggadah in the world, owned by the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo has also experienced a “refugee life”. This book brought together ordinary Sarajevans – Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats and Christian Orthodox Serbs – who risked their lives while trying to save the book, both during World War II and when Sarajevo came under siege in the 1990s.
This wine-stained book, evidence that it was used at many Passover Seders, traveled from Barcelona, where it was written and illustrated in the 14th century, to Sarajevo in the 15th century. It contains 34 pages of key scenes in the Torah – from the story of creation to the death of Moses. Historians believe it was taken to Sarajevo by Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492. Centuries later, the book was sold to the National Museum in Sarajevo in 1894 by a Sarajevan, Joseph Kohen.
In World War II, it was hidden from Nazi officers by the museum’s chief librarian, Derviš Korkut. A Muslim, Korkut worked with his Croat colleague to risk his life in order to smuggle the Haggadah out of Sarajevo. According to common tales, the book was hidden under a floorboard of a small mosque nestled in a nearby mountain until the end of the war.
When it was returned to the museum, it was locked in a separate room for the next few decades. Because it was so valuable, the book was kept from the probing eyes of museum visitors, who were instead only allowed to inspect printed copies.
The Haggadah remained untouched in the museum until the Bosnian War. From 1992 to 1995, Sarajevo was under siege by the Serbian army and the museum, which was near the front lines, was exposed to shelling and sniper fire.
As a result, the room containing the Haggadah was destroyed, and although the book remained untouched, many Sarajevans believed it would not survive too many more rounds of shelling. So a group of ordinary Sarajevans – Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats – went to the museum together at night. They risked their lives under sniper shots to take the Haggadah, along with other precious objects from museum, and move it to an underground vault in a bank downtown. The book stayed there until the end of the war, when it was once again returned to the museum.
Even now, when ethnic and religious tensions in parts of Bosnia are worsening, this old manuscript is finding a way to reunite ordinary Bosnians. Recently, the Sarajevo-based publishing house, Rabic Ltd., created 613 replicas of the Haggadah, which are currently being given to Bosnians of all faiths at book fairs across Sarajevo so that locals can see how a Jewish religious text united Christians and Muslims in even the direst of circumstances. Children across Bosnia, even those from ethnically segregated areas, visit the museum on school excursions to hear about this “wonder book” as part of their common heritage.
Although the Sephardic Jewish community in Bosnia is rather small, they support the idea of keeping the Haggadah in Sarajevo as a unifying example of centuries of Bosnian coexistence and as part of the common heritage as Bosnians.
Amir Telibečirović is senior editor of Sarajevo-based online magazine Bosnia Daily. The article was written for the Common Ground News Service.