Why Sarajevo could lose a 660-year-old Jewish prayer book

The Sarajevo Haggadah has endured the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews from southern Europe, the Nazi Holocaust and the war in Bosnia. But now, 20 years after the siege of Sarajevo, it may not survive a government that no longer cares about its national treasures, the CBC's Carol Off reports.

Sarajevo Haggadah has survived Spanish Inquisition, Nazi Holocaust and Bosnian war

The Sarajevo Haggadah has endured the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews from southern Europe, the Nazi Holocaust and the war in Bosnia.

It’s been hidden under floorboards and in bank vaults; spirited out of danger by people willing to risk their lives; and shielded from the ravages of ethnic cleansing. Over six and a half centuries, this beautiful little book – which tells the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt – has escaped the grips of enemies with hate in their hearts.

But it may not survive its newest and most formidable foe: the banal indifference of a government that no longer cares about its national treasures.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is housed in Bosnia’s National Museum, a building that was almost destroyed in the 1990s, during four years of war. A special vault on the museum’s restored second floor is equipped with a bulletproof glass door to protect its most valuable artifact. Only with special permission can one enter, and no one but a curator can touch this richly decorated medieval manuscript.

20 Years after the Siege of Sarajevo

Carol Off, host of CBC Radio's As It Happens, and Anna Maria Tremonti, host of The Current, both covered the Bosnian war and recently travelled back to Sarajevo 20 years after the siege.

Listen to As It Happens Monday, April 2 to Thursday, April 5 at 6:30 p.m. (7 NT) and The Current on Tuesday, April 3 at 8:30 a.m. (9 NT) for coverage of the anniversary.

But even under glass, the illuminated miniatures and the text – handwritten on tempered hide – literally glow as though from an internal light.

Haggadahs are commonly used by Jewish families as a kind of guiding text for Passover celebrations; the Sarajevo Haggadah actually has wine and water stains on some pages, indicating that its original owner probably used it for the family Seder.

While many households have their copies, the 660-year-old Sarajevo manuscript has taken on an almost mystical quality. Its insured value is more than a billion dollars.

Dangerous rescue operation

The museum’s former director, Enver Imamovic, talks about the artifact with reverence not just because it’s one of the most valuable manuscripts in the world, but also because he nearly lost his life trying to preserve it.

In April 1992, when Bosnian Serbs attempted to invade the city with a plan to make Sarajevo the capital of an ethnically pure Greater Serbia, the Muslim official did what everyone in Bosnia did – he tried to survive. But when the museum itself came under attack in June of that year, Imamovic decided he had to get inside the building and save the Jewish book.

How he managed to convince several police to drive him through a rain of bullets and mortar shells in order to get to the besieged museum, Imamovic isn’t sure. When the chief of police asked him incredulously whether the book was as valuable as a human life, Imamovic, without hesitating, said yes.

His police escort then drove like a maniac right up to the big oak doors of the building and spent many hours searching the cavernous structure before they found the fortified safe in which the book was kept. Luckily, one of the policemen was an expert on locks and managed to break into the strong box. With the precious manuscript in hand, they braved the bullets once again to get the haggadah to the city’s central bank vault, where it would be locked up for most of the war.

The Sarajevo Haggadah, which currently resides in the city's National Museum and is insured for over a billion dollars, has been the subject of numerous dangerous rescues over the last 100 years. (John Perry/CBC)

When asked about his motivation, Imamovic is bewildered by the question – as though a doctor would walk past someone in need of help, he says.

He remarks that it’s only foreign reporters who ask why Muslims would risk their lives for a Jewish book. The fact that all the men involved in the rescue operation 20 years ago were Muslims actually reveals the most important quality of pre-war Sarajevo.

Although Serb nationalists attempted to separate ethnic identities, most Bosnians — especially those in Sarajevo — didn’t see themselves as Muslims, Croats and Serbs: they were all part of a shared identity. Imamovic says the city’s Jewish heritage was as important to them as any other because it’s what made Bosnia the rich cultural mix that the nationalists wanted to destroy. The Haggadah was a symbol of that.

Driven out of Spain and unwelcome in most of Europe, large numbers of Sephardic Jews settled in lands under the control of the Ottomans starting in the early 1500s. Bosnia was among the few countries in Europe that tolerated other ethnicities and Sarajevo became a rich cultural ferment that included Muslims, Catholics, orthodox Christians and many others, including Jews. The city was often called Little Jerusalem.

First belonged to Spanish family

The Haggadah probably came to Sarajevo with the Spanish family that first owned it; there’s even a little notation on one page indicating that it was inspected by an Inquisitor, a subtle indication of the persecution the family endured.

In 1894, the National Museum purchased the book for a small sum from a man named Josef Cohen, with neither purchaser nor seller really knowing the book’s value. The Cohens were a well-respected Sarajevo family that had probably fallen on hard times. Scholars all over Europe soon learned of the little treasure and other museums offered to buy it for many times the price that poor Josef Cohen got.

As the Third Reich rounded up Europe’s Jews for extermination, Hitler gave instructions to find and secure Jewish cultural artifacts for a museum he was planning.

As soon as the Germans occupied Sarajevo, they came looking for the famed Haggadah. The museum’s director at the time lied to a German officer, telling him that the book had already been taken by another officer. The director then entrusted the book to Dervis Korkut, the museum’s chief librarian.

In one of the most celebrated rescues of the Haggadah, Korkut snuck the book out of the city and up Bjelasnica mountain, where a Muslim holy man hid the manuscript under the floorboards of a shepherd’s hut. (In some versions of the story, it was hidden in a mosque.) It stayed there for many years before returning to the museum, again with the help of Muslims.

Just as the story of the Jews – from the Exodus onward – is one of surviving against tremendous odds, it seems the little Haggadah has had some special spirit protecting it from extinction.

Manuscript a victim of neglect

But post-war Sarajevo is a very different place. While shreds of multicultural Bosnia still remain, the nationalists who sought to divide the country succeeded. A peace agreement that was supposed to help the country heal has enshrined the ethnic differences in a constitution and created a hydra-headed government that allows (perhaps even forces) people to cleave to their bloodline. Only institutions that speak to each group’s national identity receive any financial support from government.

The upshot is that all of Bosnia’s cultural institutions are on the brink of termination. The staff of the National Museum hasn’t been paid in six months; they have no money to pay for climate control; they can hardly afford to keep the lights on.

Enver Imamovic says there is every likelihood that the museum will close. He doesn’t know what the fate of the Haggadah will be. But he knows that the government doesn’t care.

Imamovic says the UN’s cultural agency, UNESCO, actually has the power to step in and seize artifacts of international importance that are at risk of destruction.

"My concern now is that the world will see that we are unable to protect the book and [UNESCO] will demand that it be removed," he says. But he also wants to see the book preserved.

The man who crawled under a hail of bullets to save the Haggadah is profoundly sad.

He says Bosnian culture survived the war. He's not sure it can survive the peace.