Sacred Haggadah from Spain survives in Bosnia

Some 650 years old, an illuminated Haggadah - the text read by pious Jews annually to commemorate the Passover, survives in Bosnia-Herzogovina, having perhaps miraculously survived centuries of anti-Semitic persecution. Now known as the Sarajevo Haggadah, it has survived Spain's expulsion of the Jews following the Alhambra Decree of 1492, Nazi and Ustashe persecutors during the Second World War, and then the seige of Sarajevo by Serbia 20 years ago.

The pages are beautifully illustrated and bear gilt and copper embellishments to the text that recounts the story of the Passover, when the Jewish people were preserved from the wrath of the Pharaoh and fled Egypt to begin their trek to Canaan through the Sinai Peninsula. The tome is believed to have been created in the mid-1300s in Barcelona, where Sephardic Jews had long been tolerated. Jewish traders added to the wealth and prosperity of Barcelona and surrounding Catalonia because of their contacts with the outside world. The rulers of Catalonia had long had Jewish counselors, as did other Spanish rulers until the unification of Spain under the crowns of Fernando of Aragon and Isabel of Castile in the 1400s. The resultant nationalism, in which the 'Catholic Monarchs' imposed their view of national and religious unity, was intolerant of Judaism as it was of Islam. It was thus that Jews were forced to leave, taking with them the Sarajevo Haggadah, during the year Christopher Columbus made his first voyage to the Americas.

By the 1600s, the book made it to Italy. It was there that Jews had fled, some of whom went to Rome. However, in it was sold to the National Museum in Sarajevo in 1894.
During the Second World War, during the German occupation and resultant death camps in Yugoslavia, the Haggadah was kept hidden from both Nazis and their local Ustashe allies by the museum's chief librarian, Derviš Korkut. Risking his life, Korkut smuggled the manuscript out of Sarajevo and gave it to a Muslim cleric for safekeeping. The Haggadah, now safe in nearby Zenica, was hidden under the floor of either a mosque or a Muslim home there. In 1957, a facsimile of the Haggadah was published by the Rabbinical Seminary in Budapest, Hungary.

Notations made in the margins of the manuscript, as well as stains left by drops of wine used during the commemoration of the Passover, bear testimony to the Haggadah's witness to survival and faith.

The Haggadah survived another close call in 1992 during the Bosnian War, when it was discovered on the floor of the museum during a police investigation of a break-in. Apparently, the thieves thought it had no value and left it behind. It was then taken to an underground bank vault during the Siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces - the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. In response to rumors that the government had sold the Haggadah in order to buy weapons, the Bosnian president presented the manuscript at a community Seder in 1995.

The manuscript has since been restored with financing from the United Nations and the Bosnian Jewish community in 2001, and went on permanent display at the Sarajevo museum in December 2002. Reproductions have been made over the years, while the Sarajevo publishing house Rabic Ltd. has announced that 613 facsimile copies on handmade parchment will be published.



Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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