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Priceless 14th-century Haggadah on Permanent Display in Sarajevo

November 4, 2002
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For the first time in its turbulent history, the world-famous Sarajevo Haggadah is now on permanent public display.

The 14th-century Haggadah went on display Monday in Bosnia in a secure, climate-controlled room in the Sarajevo National Museum.

“Tonight the odyssey of the Sarajevo Haggadah has come to an end. It is home. It is safe,” said the head of the U.N. mission in Bosnia, Jacques Klein. “It remains the symbol of hope, of tolerance, a symbol of Sarajevo that has endured.”

Klein spoke at a gala ceremony Monday night inaugurating the exhibition of the priceless manuscript in the Sarajevo museum.

The U.N. Mission, along with the Bosnian Jewish community, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the Yad Hanadiv and Wolfenson foundations, facilitated the $150,000 project to restore the Haggadah and prepare the new exhibition room.

“It’s like a Chanukah present,” Jakob Finci, the president of the Bosnian Jewish community, told JTA by telephone.

“One of the reasons we organized the inauguration at this time is because of Chanukah, to find a reason for celebration,” he said. “It’s an event that’s important not just for us Jews, but for all the people in Bosnia.”

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

During the Bosnian war of the 1990s, it became a symbol of the shattered dream of multiethnic harmony there. Its return to public view is regarded as a symbol of hope for the future.

The Haggadah is being displayed along with valuable religious texts from Bosnia’s other faiths: Islam, and the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Representatives of the other religions, including the chief imam of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric, took part in the inauguration ceremony.

The inauguration was treated as a major public event, and big banners advertising it swathed the outside of the museum.

The Haggadah has rarely been shown publicly and has never before been on permanent display.

It was handwritten in Spain and brought to Sarajevo after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

Wine stains and children’s scrawls on its calfskin pages provide proof of its use during centuries of traditional Passover Seders.

Legends grew up about where and how it managed to survive.

During World War II, just before the Germans entered Sarajevo 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.

Throughout the Bosnian war, Bosnia’s Jews were perceived as being outside the framework of the bloody ethnic conflict: neither Serb, nor Croat, nor Muslim. The Jewish community won widespread respect as a key provider of nonsectarian humanitarian aid.

Passover seders in Sarajevo became public events promoting tolerance. Senior Christian, Muslim and political leaders, as well as diplomats and visiting foreigners, attended.

“Jews are still regarded here this way,” Finci said. “We are the only group trying to play this positive role, and it is highly appreciated. Jews and the Jewish community are still regarded as being helpful and not locked inside any struggle for power.”

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