Sarajevo Haggadah alive and well

SARAJEVO, Bosnia, May 2 (JTA) – The famous Sarajevo Haggadah is alive and reasonably well – and living in an underground bank vault in the heart of the Bosnian capital.

A 10-member delegation from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee got a rare glimpse of the priceless illuminated manuscript last week during a fact-finding mission to Bosnia.

It was one of the few times that the Haggadah has been revealed to outsiders in recent years, and the experience was colored by a sense of drama.

A bank functionary led the group through corridors and down narrow stairways into a basement vault lined with safety deposit boxes.

Wrapped in white tissue paper, the Haggadah was removed from a sealed, blue metal lock box and placed on a table.

Wearing clean, white gloves, a staff member from the Sarajevo national museum then opened the book, turning over page after page to reveal the elegant Hebrew calligraphy and brilliantly colored and gilded illustrations. Created in Spain in the 14th century, the Haggadah was brought to Sarajevo after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

Owned by the Sarajevo National Museum since 1894, the 109-page manuscript, lavishly illustrated with exquisite illuminated paintings, has long been a symbol of Jewish presence in the Balkans.

More recently, during the Bosnia war in the 1990s, it became a symbol of the shattered dream of multi-ethnic harmony in Bosnia.

Just before Passover, three international experts examined the Haggadah at the invitation of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

After their visit, Jacques Klein, the head of Bosnia’s United Nations mission, told a news conference that experts would soon come to Sarajevo to make minor repairs on the Haggadah, primarily on its binding.

He also said that UNESCO might include the Haggadah in its Memory of the World Program, which lists world documentary heritage.

“The Sarajevo Haggadah deserves our utmost care and attention,” Klein said.

He said he planned to seek international support for the preservation project, “so that the Sarajevo Haggadah may survive as a lasting symbol of religious and ethnic tolerance in Bosnia.”

Klein said the experts had found that the Haggadah had suffered remarkably little damage during six centuries of conflict and upheaval.

During World War II, just before the Germans entered the city in 1941, the director of the National Museum smuggled it to a Muslim professor who hid it in a mountain village.

Its whereabouts during the 1992-95 Bosnia war were a matter of rumor. The National Museum was bombarded and badly damaged, but the Haggadah survived unscathed, either in a bank vault or in secret private custody.

In 1995, Bosnia’s then-President Alija Izetbegovic displayed it briefly at a community seder during Passover, partly to dispel speculation that the government might have sold it to purchase weapons.

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