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From the Ravages of War, Sarajevo Haggadah Appears

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The legendary Sarajevo Haggadah made its third appearance in 50 years on Saturday at a noontime seder in this city’s only synagogue.

The ceremonial seder was held during daylight hours because of spotty electricity and increasingly aggressive sniper fire as the three-year-old was raged on.

Along with some 70 of the remaining Jews of the city and kosher wine and matzah provided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the seder was attended by several high-level Bosnian officials, including President Alija Izetbegovic, Prime Minister Harris Siladzic and Cultural Minister Enis Karic.

But the special guest at the seder was the more than 600-year-old Sarajevo Haggadah.

Its greatness only came to light in Sarajevo after a poor Sephardic jew named Kohen sold it in 1894 to the city’s National Museum. Curators in Vienna recently assessed its worth as a great medieval manuscript at $7 million.

The Haggadah has never actually belonged to the jewish community in Sarajevo.

Its history dates back to the 14th century in northern Spain, probably Barcelona, and most likely left with a Jewish family when Jews were expelled in 1492.

The next recorded date is 1609, when , as recorded in the margins of the illuminated manuscript, it was sold in Italy.

The precious legacy first came to public view in 1894 in Sarajevo, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The book narrowly escaped the clutches of a high-ranking Nazi book collector in 1941, who demanded that the museum director turn it over to him.

But the director of the museum, Joze Petrovic, told the Nazi that another German official had taken the book to hide it with a family until end of the war.

In an indication of the relations that were once possible in Sarajevo, it was a Serb who lied to the Nazi about the Haggadah while a Muslim hid it, according to the president of the Jewish community, Ivan Ceresnjes.

The Jews, he said, remain politically neutral and continue to have good relations with Muslims and Serbs, he said.

Since World War II, the Haggadah was seen only briefly on two special occasions — once in 1966 at the 400th anniversary celebration of the Jewish community of Sarajevo and then in 1988, as part of an exhibit of Jews in Yugoslavia.

The Haggadah surfaced for only one reason this week, according to officials: to dispel rumors flying around about the Haggadah. Among the rumors were that the Bosnian government had sold it off for arms, or that it had been ruined or water-logged during the war or that it had been stolen.

All these rumors were laid to rest on Saturday, as Resad Gogalija, an employee of the Ministry of Culture stood before the assembled crowd, displaying page after magnificent page.

The book appeared in remarkably good shape. Although measuring only 6.5 by 8 inches, the pages, in brilliant blues and golds, were more lively than any reproduction.

Bringing the book out of hiding was no easy task and, in fact, sparked major governmental debates.

The director of the National Museum, Envir Imamovic, who had rescued the book from the museum’s leaky basement toward the beginning of the war, was adamant about never letting his prize possession out as long as the fighting continued in Sarajevo. Once it became clear that the Bosnian president was determined to have it displayed, Imamovic resigned as the museum’s director.

As an indication of the continuing debate over the Haggadah, two leaders of the Jewish community, Jacob Finci and Ivan Ceresnjes, were asked to attend a meeting at the Ministry of Culture on Monday, where they were informed that the government has reconsidered its original idea of sending the book out of Sarajevo for restoration and exhibition.

Thus the ancient treasure of Bosnia, rarely seen over the centuries, has gone back into hiding once again.

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