VIENNA, March 13 (JTA) — This Passover, reproductions of a well-known illuminated manuscript are going on sale — for $1,350 apiece. The Sarajevo Haggadah should be ready just before Passover, Bosnian Jewish leader Jakob Finci told JTA. “We are printing a limited edition of just 613 copies — the number of the mitzvot.” The Sarajevo Haggadah has long been a symbol of Jewish presence — and survival — in the Balkans. Handwritten and illuminated in 14th-century Spain, the lavishly illustrated 109-page manuscript was brought to Sarajevo after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and remained intact through years of conflict and upheaval. It served countless family seders over the centuries, and wine stains mar some of the pages. Owned by the Bosnian National Museum since 1894, it escaped the Holocaust, hidden away in a remote mountain village. It also survived the brutal Bosnian War of the 1990s, either locked in a bank vault or stashed away in private custody. In December 2002, the book went on display at the museum. A full-scale copy of the Haggadah was published in the early 1980s, but it was printed on paper. The new edition is printed, like the original, on parchment, and bound with leather covers. Each copy is meant to be, as much as possible, a replica of the Haggadah itself. “It will look exactly like the original,” Finci said. “The copies that were published in the past were just copies.” The idea — and seed money — for the project came from James Wolfensohn, the past president of the World Bank. “When he saw the Haggadah during a visit to Sarajevo, he asked why we didn’t try to produce a better facsimile,” Finci said. “When I answered that it would be too expensive, he said that he would be ready to provide money for it, which we could repay him after publication.” Wolfensohn personally donated $150,000 for the project. The edition’s publisher, RABIC of Sarajevo, provided further funding, and the project was also helped with a bank loan. Finci said that potential buyers have already expressed interest, particularly after the Associated Press ran a story about the project last summer. “We have several dozen inquiries and requests from all over the world,” he said, from individuals and institutions. After reimbursing Wolfensohn and repaying the bank loan, the proceeds will be divided between the publisher and La Benevolencija, the Bosnian Jewish cultural, educational and humanitarian society. The creation of this edition represents another step in the Sarajevo adah’s extraordinary history. “The Hebrew word ‘Haggadah’ means ‘telling’ or ‘story,’” Finci writes in an introduction to the edition. “In front of you is a remarkable story, not only because of the beauty of the illuminations, but also because of the strange history of this rare book.” The Sarajevo Haggadah was created in about 1350, probably as a wedding gift, but it changed hands — and countries — a number of times over the centuries. The full details about how and when it arrived in Sarajevo are not known. It was sold to the Bosnian museum in 1894 by Joseph Kohen. Legends formed about where and how it managed to survive. During World War II, just before the Germans entered the city in 1941, the director of the museum smuggled it to a Muslim professor who hid it in a mountain village, some say under the floor of a mosque. Its whereabouts during the 1992-95 Bosnian War are a matter of rumor. The museum was bombarded and badly damaged, but the Haggadah survived unscathed, hidden for most of the time in a vault of the National Bank. Bosnia’s then-president, Alija Izetbegovic, displayed it briefly at a community seder in 1995, partly to dispel speculation that the government might have sold it to purchase weapons. Edward Serotta, director of the Vienna-based Central Europe Center for Research and Documentation, produced a documentary on the Haggadah for “ABC’s Nightline” in 1996. “The facsimile of the Sarajevo Haggadah is certainly an achievement,” he told JTA. “But I look forward now to a real, critical analysis of the book and its history.”
Ruth Ellen Gruber is JTA’s senior European correspondent. Based in Rome, she travels and writes extensively on Jewish affairs in Italy, Central and Eastern Europe and other European countries. A former UPI reporter, she has also written for The New York Times and the Encyclopaedia Judaica. She is also the author of several books: Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to East-Central Europe and Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today.