Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the Sarajevo Haggadah is its seemingly everlasting power to connect people. Not just people across the Seder table, although judging from its wine-stained pages, it did that, many times across the years. But more than that, its power to connect people from various backgrounds in the celebration of life.
The Haggadah is a copper and gold illustrated Passover text used during the traditional Jewish Passover Seder. The Sarajevo Haggadah is one of the oldest Sephardic Haggadahs in the world and is considered to also be the most beautiful with its 34 pages of copper and gold illuminations depicting key scenes in the Bible from creation through the death of Moses. The book is produced on over 109 pages of bleached calfskin, and historians believe it can be traced back to Barcelona, putting its creation date somewhere around 1350.
The manuscript is richly decorated with pigments made from lapis lazuli, azurite, and malachite featuring illustrations resembling medieval Christian Psalters, with some in the decorative Islamic style of ornamentation. Despite its Jewish religious significance, The Sarajevo Haggadah, amazingly, was always a book that brought numerous cultures and religious traditions together, from its creation in Spain before the expulsion, to its final arrival in Sarajevo, the Jerusalem of Europe.
As a result of the Alhambra Decree, also known as the Edict of Expulsion, it is believed that the Sarajevo Haggadah left Spain in 1492 after the expulsion of the Jews, and re-surfaced again in Italy in the 17th century. It got its name when it was sold in 1894 to the National Museum of Sarajevo by a man named Joseph Kohen.
In 1941, the Nazi military rolled into Sarajevo as Bosnia and Herzegovina became absorbed into the Nazi puppet state of Croatia, headed by Ante Pavelic. The country was to be cleansed of Jews, and “Not a stone upon a stone will remain of what once belonged to them.” Dervis Korkut, Bosnian National Museum’s chief librarian, and Bosnian Muslim intellectual was a declared critic of Nazi tactics, penning a paper titled, “Anti-Semitism Is Foreign to the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
In early 1942, General Johann Fortner arrived at the museum in search of the fabled Haggadah, with rumors of potentially of displaying it in the soon to be opened Nazi “museum of an extinct race.” The exact details of Korkut’s smuggling of the Haggadah are unclear, but by all accounts, he brought the text to a village called Trescavica (near Visoko), where his friend, an imam, of the small local mosque, kept the Haggadah hidden among Korans and other Islamic texts for the duration of the war.
During the Bosnian War and the Serb siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege of a city in modern history, the Haggadah survived in an underground bank vault. Today, the Haggadah is on display in the restored National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where it is kept inside a glass case in the museum’s trophy room dedicated to Bosnia’s greatest treasures.
The Sarajevo Haggadah’s story is one of survival and one of the most cherished features of Sarajevo’s own identity, brotherhood, tolerance, and a celebration of humanity.