Seven centuries after its inception, an invaluable Sephardic Jewish book whose wine-stained pages somehow survived exile, the Inquisition, the rise and fall of an empire, two world wars, and the conflict in Bosnia returns home. From Art.
The code, known as the Sarajevo Haggadah after the city where it has been kept since at least 1894, is believed to have originated in northeastern Spain around 1350, possibly as a wedding gift on the occasion of the unification of two prominent Jewish families.
Like all haggadas, it contains the stories, prayers, rules, and rituals of the Passover. But in contrast to most and contrary to the prohibition of “count pictures”, many of the 142 bleached calfskin pages are decorated with vivid illustrations of the creation of a resolutely round earth, slavery in Egypt and Moses leading the Jewish people to the promised land. Elsewhere, a giant serpent persuades Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, Noah sails on in his ark, and Sodom and Gomorrah are consumed by fire.
The paintings, which were last seen in Spain before the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, can now be seen in Madrid at an exhibition organized by the Sefarad Israel Center of the Spanish Government and the Embassy of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Although the exhibition doesn’t show the actual Sarajevo Haggadah – the original kept in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina is too valuable to travel – the 52 facsimile images provide an eloquent summary of the skill, effort and dedication that the in the making of beeches.
But, as one of the curators of the exhibition points out, this particular Haggadah is as famous for its wandering existence and supernatural endurance as it is for its religious and cultural content.
“This exhibition is about sharing this remarkable story and showing people the beauty of the book and how it survived,” said Jakob Finci, a retired lawyer and diplomat who serves as president of the Jewish community of Bosnia and Herzegovina .
“It is an important book for Jews all over the world, but especially for the Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
After leaving Spain during the eviction, the Haggadah surfaced in Italy in 1609 when a priest who worked for the Roman Inquisition read it through and added a note confirming that it did not contain anything that was the sensitivity of the Roman Catholic Church insulted.
From there it finally got to Sarajevo, where it was sold to the National Museum by a local Sephardic family in 1894 for 150 crowns. Museum staff hid it from the Germans when the Nazis occupied Sarajevo in 1941 and hid it in a mosque in the mountains. A little over half a century later, the Haggadah survived the heavy bombardment of the museum during the siege of Sarajevo.
No wonder, then, that the book is viewed as something of a talisman by the country’s Jews and its wider population.
“It was always saved by people who weren’t Jewish, and it became something of a symbol for Sarajevo,” says Finci. “It’s like a phoenix that rises again after every catastrophe. The story of the Sarajevo Haggadah has become something of a legend in Bosnia and around the world. “
Miguel de Lucas, President of the Sefarad Israel Center, hopes the exhibition will help bring a little closer to modern Spain, its past and the culture of the men, women and children who were driven from their homeland by King Ferdinand bring Queen Isabella.
“The Sarajevo Haggadah is not very well known in Spain at all,” he says. “I think a lot of Spaniards see Sephardic Jews as characters from literature, and we love to show people that they were in the 21st century.
Whenever he visits the Sephardic community, be it in Sarajevo, İzmir, Thessaloniki or Plovdiv, De Lucas says that he is affected by this preference.
“The Haggadah is a kind of symbol for this and a symbol that can help the Spaniards today to understand that Sephardic Jews are not characters from the literature of the 16th and 17th traditions under difficult conditions in the 21st century.”
When the exhibition ends in Madrid in mid-December, it will move to Seville and then, with a bit of luck, to Barcelona, near the region where it is likely to have originated.
Finci, who was born in 1943 in a concentration camp on the Croatian island of Rab, which was then occupied by Italy, heads a community that lost 85% of its members in the Holocaust. Today there are around 1,000 Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina, more than three quarters of them Sephardic.
In the small, phoenix-like book, in the distance it has traveled and in the wars it has survived, Finci sees an old but lasting message.
“I hope this exhibition in Spain will remind you of what you lost in 1492 when you lost the Jews and everything the Jews made including the Haggadah” he says.