LONDON (Dec. 24)
Serbs demand their `share’ of rare Sarajevo Haggadah A priceless Jewish artifact has become the object of a tug of war between Bosnian Serbs and Muslims.
The 1995 Dayton Accord ended the civil war that broke out in Bosnia in 1992, but long-simmering ethnic tensions remain — and now they are focused on a Jewish manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah.
Written on bleached calfskin, the Haggadah dates back to the Jewish presence in Spain before the Expulsion in 1492.
Citing the Dayton Accord, which divided Bosnia along ethnic lines, Bosnian Serbs — who make up about one-third of Bosnia’s population, but control nearly half of the territory — are seeking a one-third share in the treasure.
While not asking for the Haggadah to be physically dismantled, they are demanding that it be exhibited every third year in Banja Luka, capital of the ministate carved out for Bosnian Serbs after the war.
The manuscript is currently held in the vault of the National Bank in Sarajevo, the seat of the Bosnian government.
According to the Bosnian Serb argument, the Haggadah should also be displayed every third year in Mostar, the unofficial Bosnian Croat capital.
Jakob Finci, who heads what remains of the Bosnian Jewish community, believes the manuscript should stay where it is, saying the country’s Serbian and Croatian populations showed no respect for each other’s religious and cultural treasures during the civil war.
The Serbs, he points out, destroyed a 16th-century mosque in Banja Luka, while the Croats blew up the Old Bridge, an Ottoman construction in Mostar — two buildings that were considered among Bosnia’s leading architectural treasures.
“Now, everybody wants his own museum,” said Finci. “The Haggadah is proof of the multiethnicity in Bosnia. It is a testament that even in worst of times, other people’s values were not destroyed.”
The Haggadah, which was carried by Spanish Jews to Italy after the expulsion of 1492, was subsequently brought by a rabbi to Bosnia, which at the time was a province of the Ottoman Empire.
The rabbi’s family passed it down from generation to generation until a descendent sold it in 1894 to the National Museum in Sarajevo.
During World War II, a Nazi general demanded that the Croat and Muslim curators of the museum turn the Haggadah over to him. The curators saved the manuscript by saying they had already given it to another German officer.
They subsequently smuggled the Haggadah from the museum and turned it over to a Muslim preacher, who kept it hidden under the doorstep of a village mosque until the war’s end.
The Haggadah was then returned to the National Museum, where it remained until the outbreak of civil war in 1992.
When Bosnian Serbs shelled Sarajevo in that year, the museum’s Muslim director, along with members of the Jewish community, braved sniper fire to remove the Haggadah from the museum’s vault and store it in its current sanctuary — the National Bank.
After the civil war’s end, the Haggadah was not returned to the museum because that structure — which dates back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire — suffered heavy damage during the Bosnian Serb shelling of the city and has not since been rebuilt.