Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Mystery Of the Sarvejo Haggadah

Here is background info from a Jewish newspaper article.
The Haggadah is used during the Seder meal.

Jewish Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina:

It has been long time since the middle of the 14th century, the golden age of Spain when the amazing and incomparable ”The Sarajevo Haggadah” was created. It still remains unclear whether we will ever learn the date and place of the book’s making, the symbol of liberation, which has also become a symbol of Sarajevo.

Year after year for centuries the Jews around the world have been celebrating Passover, the holiday that marks liberation from the Egyptian slavery by a traditional Seder dinner at which Haggadah, the book of liberation, is being read. Every Jewish family has a copy of Haggadah and rich families in prosperous Spain could even afford lavishly decorated ones – a specially made Haggadah, as the one we have.
In addition to the mystery regarding the date and place of its making, it is also a mystery as of who painted it. If he was a Jew, how dared he portray a man and if he was a Christian who provided him with the necessary instruction? Could it be that he was a Muslim, as they lived in harmony with the Jews at the time in Spain and who were masters of calligraphy? The Muslim religion also proscribes portrayal of human image. No one knows the answer to these questions and that leaves us with the baffling mystery unsolved to the present day.

The very first image after opening Haggadah leaves us confused. Imagine presenting the Earth as round in the 14th century! Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake for the very crime 200 hundred years later and our authors just took it for granted and repeated it in depicting every single day of the Creation. Browsing through the glorious pages we find the entire Old Testament and one can only imagine all the tales being told in addition to it. They must have been told in Ladino language, the language of Cervantes and later in Italian, probably in Bosnian too or in some other language. The images are so inspiring that it is not at all difficult to imagine the storyteller enriching every page of Haggadah by his always new interpretations often related to everyday situations.

Browsing through the book further, one comes to the well known page used also as the cover for the new reprinted edition which says ”Who is hungry should come forward and eat, the thirsty should come and drink…”, the sentence being said at every Seder, the sentence inviting wretched and unexpected guests to join us as we ourselves are celebrating. Several more mysteries follow. The coat of arms of the city of Barcelona at the top, or something closely resembling it. And then the two coats of arms at the two corners at the bottom. One depicts a rose and the other a wing. Let us remember that the word for rose in Hebrew is ”shoshan” and wing is ”elazar”. Could it be a proof that the Haggadah was made as a gift for the occasion of marriage of members of two dominant families Elazar and Shoshan, as there is evidence of the two families becoming related by marriage at the time?

Several pages are stained by red wine. Quite normal, taking into account that one has to toast four times at Seder and it is a little wonder that a drop here and there is spilled on the occasion. What sort of wine was it? Was it Kosher? Who was learned to write using the Haggadah pages? Who added images of humans and animals in the empty spaces? We will probably never get a proper answer to all these questions.

After expulsion of Jews form Spain in 1492, probably around 1510, the Haggadah changes hands. A note mentions the 18th year after the expulsion but does not provide us with names of either of the owners. Yet another mystery. Did somebody buy the book practically for free so that the desperate owner could save or feed himself or did that somebody buy the book in order to help a miserable man who had nothing else worth selling?

Finally a right track! The year of 1609 and a note that the book holds nothing against the church. The Haggadah was granted amnesty and won’t be burnt at the stake, as was the case with so many other books of much more na├»ve contents during the inquisition. What about the illustration at the first page? Could it be that the inspection was started at page two or that the examiner supported the blasphemous ideas of Giordano Bruno?

Then comes a long pause. We can only presume what happened between 1609 and 1894. The manuscript came to Bosnia and Herzegovina either as a piece of dowry or as a bribe, or simply as property of those who looked for security in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Sarajevo. The Haggadah lived to see its worldly glory in the European Jerusalem, where Jews have been living with others since 1565. It was in this city that the Jewish cultural – educational and humanitarian society ”La Benevolencija” was established in 1892. The Haggadah was far too expensive when Josef Cohen offered to sell it to the society. What is its market value today? Who knows? The figures go as high as 700 million US$ (which is probably a misprint of estimated 7 million US$). It was sold for 150 Kruna, estimated today (and probably also at the time) at 15.000 KM. The buyer was the Archaeological Museum, the institution opened in 1888 that was financially capable of acquiring worthy antiques. The correspondence related to purchase of this manuscript between Sarajevo and Vienna is presented at this exhibition.

Then a strange thing happened. The manuscript was sent to Vienna for the first expertise and, believe it or not, was returned to Sarajevo after two years. How bleak would the British Museum, the Louvre and other world renowned museums around the world would have looked today if they returned everything they took from around the world? The Austrians have returned the Haggadah to Sarajevo. We will never find out whether that happened because Sarajevo was part of the Monarchy at the time or if it was an act of honest professionals. Nevertheless, we thank them even one hundred years later for having the Sarajevo Haggadah today and not the Vienna Haggadah.

The Haggadah was never displayed. It was always kept in a special place and was available for viewing only to the selected few. It was not seen and yet everybody knew about it. One of the first relics that the German forces requested after entering Sarajevo in 1941 was the Sarajevo Haggadah. Thanks to ingenuity of Mr. Jozo Petrovic, the director and Mr. Dervis Korkut, the custodian of the Archaeological Museum, the Haggadah was not handed over then. Obersturmbanfuerer Fortner was quite puzzled after he was told that a German officer ”was here a minute ago and took the book away… His name? How could we dare and ask?” Anyhow, the book was saved and then comes another mystery. As its former owners and enthusiastic readers ended their lives in Jasenovac, Auswitz, Gradiska, Jadovno and dozens of other concentration camps, the Haggadah survived without our knowing where and how. A legend says that it was hidden under the threshold of a mosque in a village at the foot of mountain Bjelasnica. Another says that it was buried under a cherry tree or under a walnut tree. It is probably realistic to believe that it was buried among other titles of the museum’s rich library as its nondescript binding prevented even most cunning visitors from discovering the wealth behind the plain cardboard covers.

After the liberation in 1945, the Haggadah gets back to the Archaeological Museum, which changed name to the National Museum. The fact that the manuscript survived the times in which six million Jews were not that fortunate made it legendary. First studies come out soon as well as new reprints and disputes. Who owns the Haggadah? The Supreme Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina rules that the Haggadah is property of Bosnia and Herzegovina and that its proprietor is the National Museum. The dispute is thus closed, followed by both legal and pirated reprints by publishers Svjetlost in Sarajevo, Prosveta in Belgrade or in cooperation of the two publishers.

During the preparations for the global exposition ”Sepharad 92” in 1991 to mark the expulsion of Jews from Spain of five hundred years ago, the Haggadah was requested for the largest exhibition of Sephardic art ever organized in Madrid. Unfortunately or rather fortunately, the Madrid Museum required it to be insured for 7 million dollars because of the wars in Slovenia and in Croatia and the organizers had to give up on the idea. So it happened that the Haggadah remained in Sarajevo and awaited the war that lied ahead. Once again, it was saved in a mysterious way. The hero this time was Dr. Enver Imamovic, the director of the Museum, who, along with a couple of brave policemen and members of the territorial guard, took out the Haggadah from the Museum immediately at the front line and moved it to the vault of the National Bank.

During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina several newspaper articles around the world speculated that the Haggadah had been destroyed or even that the Government of Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina sold it and used the funds to buy arms, which was all untrue. By 1995 Bosnia was no longer high on the agenda for media around the world. We were left to bleed to death and they dealt with other topics. Then an idea on how to bring back attention of the world to Sarajevo by using Haggadah was born. Senator Lieberman said: ”I will come to Sarajevo for Passover if the Sarajevo Haggadah will be on the table.” President Izetbegovic and Prime Minister Silajdzic accepted the idea and the Haggadah was brought to the Jewish Municipality Building for the Passover of 1995 under massive security measures. The event was noted by all news agencies around the world and quite a few sent their reporters to Sarajevo especially for the occasion. It was the ”Breaking News” for CNN and Senator Lieberman did not make it to Sarajevo because of the tight siege and closing down of the airport.

Nevertheless, the Haggadah was presented to public for the third time. It was proved that us, Bosnians and Herzegovinians, can care for relics other than those of our own milieu and we also succeeded in bringing the attention of the world to Sarajevo and to the Haggadah once again.

A broadcast of ABC Night Line dedicated to the Sarajevo Haggadah was seen by 12 million American viewers.

A part of the story told through documents from the Archives of Bosnia and Herzegovina is before you.

Soon the Sarajevo Haggadah will also be before you. By joint efforts of the UN Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, our Jewish community, the Archaeological Museum and several donors, a space to permanently exhibit the Haggadah at the Archaeological Museum is being prepared so that everybody can see it and prove it to himself and herself that the mystery is real and that beauty is eternal.

We hope and believe that peace and tranquillity will prevail in the next 650 years of existence of the Sarajevo Haggadah and that its beauty will overcome all hardships and problems.

Sarajevo, March 2002.
Jakob Finci


Sandra said...

What an informative article. I have read the novel The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks but my knowledge of this Haggadah didn't go much further. Thank you for posting it.

Unknown said...

There is so much more info. If you go to Geraldine Brook's website. There is detailed information about the journey from it's beginning to the Nazi, and Bosnia. If you do a google search on Sarvejo Haggadah so much will pop up. Including a blog of the Museum director that saved the book. It is interested that this book existed since Jews were not to have picture of people anywhere.

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