ZAGREB, Croatia (Oct. 15)
For the first time in its history, a 14th-century masterpiece considered one of the most precious Jewish illuminated manuscripts in the world, will be exhibited to the public.
Produced in northern Spain, the Sarajevo Haggadah was brought to Bosnia in the 16th century by Jewish refugees from Spain. For centuries it belonged to the Sephardic Koen family in Sarajevo until it became the property of the Sarajevo National Museum in 1894.
“The book has been saved in a miraculous way, both in World War II, and now again during the recent war from 1992-96, although Sarajevo was heavily bombed,” said Jakob Finci, president of the Jewish Communities of Bosnia and Herzegovina and of La Benevolencija, a Jewish-run humanitarian organization in Sarajevo.
According to one legend, Finci said, the book survived the war buried under the doorway of a Sarajevo mosque. Another legend says it was buried under a plum tree on a mountain near Sarajevo.
The truth is that, together with the Sarajevo Community’s Pinkas — the Jewish communal register — the Haggadah was the most important document the Germans searched for when they occupied Sarajevo in April 1941.
Jozo Petrovic, who at that time was the head of the Sarajevo National Museum, simply told the German officer who came to collect the book that another German officer had come half an hour earlier and taken it away.
“So the Germans did not get it,” Finci said, adding that the most probable explanation is that the museum director simply put the Haggadah on the shelf with other books. Its cover was simple and inconspicuous, and it did not attract attention.
During the bombardments and siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s, the National Museum was directly exposed to shelling on the front line. Still, the director managed to bring the Haggadah out of the museum and store it in the safe deposit box of the National Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
After the war, the Jewish Community of Sarajevo initiated a fund-raising drive to restore the book and provide a safe room in the National Museum so it can be shown to the public. The restoration of book will start next month and continue through 2002.
“It will cost about $100,000,” Finci said, “but we think that it does not make any sense to keep such a precious book out of the eyes of the public. It is our duty to show this manuscript to all who want to see it.”
The Haggadah restoration and exhibit is just one of several important projects for Sarajevo’s Jewish community.
The city’s medieval Sephardic cemetery, considered to be an extraordinary cultural monument, has been cleared of mines, Finci said. During the war, the cemetery was the border between the two sides, and the mines were laid between old gravestones bearing the names of dead Alkalajs, Abinuns, Albaharis and the like.
The Norwegian government helped clean the cemetery, both with money and with experts who cleared the mines.
Now, with the financial help both of the Sarajevo municipality and an American foundation that cares for Jewish cultural heritage in Europe, the cemetery is being restored. The job may take two or three years, Finci said.
There are still about 700 Jews living in Sarajevo, and another 300 in other parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina. They are on generally friendly terms with their predominantly Muslim neighbors.
In 2002, Sarajevo’s big Sephardic synagogue will celebrate its centenary. Since World War II, the building has been the meeting place for both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews of Sarajevo.
During the siege of Sarajevo, a public kitchen was organized in the building and free food and medicine was distributed to anybody who applied, regardless of religion or ethnicity. Now, Finci said, the synagogue’s worn-out facade will be cleaned so it will shine for the centenary.