The astonishing and unique SarajevoHaggadah was created in the middle of the 14th century, the golden age of Spain. We still do not know the exact date and place of the book’s creation or the name of the artist who illuminated it. Was it perhaps a wedding gift on the occasion of the marriage of members of two prominent families called Shoshan and Elazar, since there are two coats of arms in the bottom corners, one representing a rose (shoshan) and the other a wing (elazar)? Perhaps we will never learn.

We do, however, know that in the eighteenth year after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, the Haggadah changed hands. A note mentions this fact but does not provide us with the names of either of the owners. There is another note, dated 1609, stating that the book does not speak against the Church, which saved it from being burned by the Spanish Inquisition. We know nothing further about it until it is mentioned in 1894. It is assumed that the manuscript came to Bosnia and Herzegovina either as part of a dowry or as a bribe, or simply as the property of those seeking sanctuary in Sarajevo, the “European Jerusalem”, where Jews have lived alongside other faiths since 1565. It was in this city that the Jewish cultural, educational and humanitarian society, “La Benevolencia”, was established in 1892, and when a certain Josef Cohen offered to sell it to the society, they found that it was too expensive. What is its market value today? No one is certain. The estimates have been as high as 700 million US$, but this was probably a misprint for 7 million. It was bought for 150 Crowns (the equivalent of around $10,000) by the National Museum in Sarajevo (Zemaljski muzej), which was established in 1888.

The manuscript was then sent to Vienna for an expert assessment, and was returned to Sarajevo a few years later. It is somewhat astonishing that the Austrians did not keep it for their own museum, but whether they returned it because Sarajevo was part of the Monarchy or it was the act of honest professionals, we are still grateful to them a hundred years later. 

The Haggadah was never publicly displayed. It was always kept in a special place and was available for viewing only to the select few. It was not seen, yet everyone knew about it. One of the first objects that the German forces demanded after entering Sarajevo in 1941 was the Sarajevo Haggadah. Thanks to the ingenuity of Mr Jozo Petrović, the director, and Mr Derviš Korkut, the curator of the National Museum, the Haggadah was not handed over. Obersturmbannfuehrer Fortner was quite puzzled when he was told that a German officer “has just taken the book away.” “And his name?” “How could we dare ask?” In any case, the book was saved, while the lives of its former owners and many of its enthusiastic readers ended in Jasenovac, Auschwitz, Gradiška, Jadovno and other concentration camps. The Haggadah survived, but no one now knows where or how. According to one version, it was hidden under the threshold of a mosque in a village at the foot of Mt Bjelašnica. Another claims that it was buried under a cherry or walnut tree. It is more realistic to assume that it was hidden among other titles in the museum’s rich library, as its nondescript binding would have prevented even the most sharp-eyed visitors from suspecting the real contents within the plain cardboard covers. 

Whatever the truth, after the liberation in 1945, the Haggadah was back in the National Museum. The first studies on it appeared and disputes over its ownership began. The Supreme Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina ruled that the Haggadah was the property of Bosnia and Herzegovina and that its custodian was the National Museum, which ended the dispute.

The Madrid organisers of the Sefarad ’92 exhibition, marking the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, requested that the Haggadah be sent for display in this, the largest exhibition of Sephardic art ever. However, the Madrid Museum required it to be insured for 7 million US$ and, because of the wars in Slovenia and in Croatia, this idea had to be abandoned as the premium was too high. Thus, the Haggadah remained in Sarajevo awaiting the coming war. This time, it was saved in a dramatic fashion. The hero was Dr Enver Imamović, the director of the Museum, who, together with several brave policemen and members of the territorial guard, rescued the Haggadah from the Museum, which was on the front line, and transferred it to the vault of the National Bank. 

While the war raged in Bosnia and Herzegovina several newspaper articles abroad speculated that the Haggadah had been destroyed or even that the Government of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina had sold it and used the funds to buy arms, all of which was untrue. By the beginning 1995 the plight of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Sarajevo was no longer high on the agenda for media around the world. This gave rise to the idea of refocusing international attention on Sarajevo by using the Haggadah. US Senator Lieberman declared that he would come to Sarajevo for Passover if the Sarajevo Haggadah were on the table. President Izetbegović and Prime Minister Silajdžić accepted the idea and the Haggadah was brought to the Jewish Community building for Passover in 1995 under extremely tight security. The event was reported by news agencies around the world and quite a few sent their reporters to Sarajevo especially for the occasion. It was breaking news on CNN, though Senator Lieberman did not make it to Sarajevo because of the siege and the closing of the airport. 

Thus, the Haggadah was presented to the public once again. It proved that we, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, cared for cultural values created in milieux other than our own, and at the same time we achieved our aim of drawing world attention to Sarajevo and to the Haggadah.. The following year 12 million American viewers saw a programme on ABC Night Line dedicated to this priceless manuscript.

Through the joint efforts of the UN Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, our Jewish Community, the National Museum and several donors, in 2002 a room with special security was opened so that the Haggadah could finally be on permanent public display.

Jakob Finci
President of the Jewish Community of Bosnia & Herzegovina