The Adventures of a Pesakh Haggadah

At Pesakh, the Passover, it is traditional to read from a special book, the Haggadah, about the liberation of the slaves from Egypt. Each of us is commended to think as though we personally were among those liberated. Over the centuries there have been several Haggadot which gave the story contemporary meaning. But a JSG member who went to Bosnia during the war there heard about one particular centuries-old Haggadah whose adventures have become a legend of its own.


SEDER a la mode. Clothing styles suggest book's origin in 14th Century Barcelona.


"Did you paint your eggs yet for Easter?''

"No. Have you baked your baklavas for Bayram?"

They laughed. There was a war on. Eggs and other good things were scarce, but not good neighbourliness. Hearing Tihomir had visitors, the Muslim lady next door had brought some tasty bureks, savoury pastries, for our breakfast.

It was April 1994. After being on the road I'd almost forgotten Pesach. I'd miss the JSG seder. But on the way back to the Tuzla miners' club later, passing old people collecting food parcels from the big Serb Orthodox church, we came upon some people selling bits and bobs outside a block of flats. Among the old fishing tackle, portable radios and paperbacks, a brightly-coloured art-book was propped up, a facsimile: Sarajevske Haggadah.

In 1894, a child from the Cohen family came to infant school in Sarajevo carrying an old Hebrew book under his arm. His father had died, and the family needed to sell its prized possessions to buy food. The teacher who purchased the manuscript book recognised its value, and it was taken into the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This Sarajevo Haggadah attracted scholars. Its 84 white parchment leaves were beautifully illuminated. It had no less than 34 pages of Biblical scenes depicted in brilliant blues, reds and golds.

Abandoning the notion that Judaism frowned on representational art, scholars awoke to the extent of illuminated Jewish manuscripts. On the fly leaf of the Haggadah was a note of sale, dated 1510, written in a Hebrew that experts recognised as a north Italian hand. But further clues indicated a more distant origin. A passage "pesach misraim mibet aven/from the house of iniquity . . .' was known to have last been in use in Provencal seders. Some of the pictures showed people wearing hooded garments once fashionable in Barcelona.

The experts concluded that this Haggadah had most likely been produced in the kingdom of Aragon, some time in the late 14th century. It must have begun its journey to Sarajevo with the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. But the Haggadah's adventures were not over...

In April 1941, the Nazis reached Sarajevo. The book was menaced with its people. A German officer came to the museum, demanding to see the famous Haggadah. But the museum's Croat director kept the officer talking, telling him another officer had been for the Haggadah. Meanwhile, curator Dervis Kohut, a Muslim who had made a special study of Bosnia-Hercegovina's varied cultures and the Jewish contribution, had smuggled the precious book away.

Just as Moses was hidden in the bulrushes, and later took refuge with Midianite miners, the book of liberation of the Hebrew slaves spent the war years concealed, some say beneath the floor of a peasant's cottage in a remote Bosnian mountain village, others that it was under the village mosque.

Dervis Korkut did not confine himself to rescuing books. Among Kosovar refugees brought to Israel were a couple called the Jahas. Mrs.Lamidja Jaha, daughter of Dervis Korkut, accepted an honour for her father at the Yad Vashem memorial centre. Yad Vashem traced one of several Jewish people whom the Korkut family had hidden in their home. Mira Bakovic testified that after a stint with the partisans she had sneaked back into Sarajevo and been sheltered by the family for six months. On occasions German officers called, and she had served them coffee, her face hidden by a Muslim veil.

In 1941 the Nazis' Croat allies, the Ustashe, set up a state swallowing most of Bosnia. They also set up concentration camps like Jasenovac. With the blessing and participation of Catholic priests, they butchered thousands of Gypsies, Serbs and Jews, as well as many Croats and Muslims who opposed their regime. Serbian fascists also rounded up Jews, and massacred Muslims in Bosnia.

Ustashe state propaganda provided the International Red Cross with photographs depicting Jasenovac as some kind of holiday recreation centre. But truth came out. In November 1942, Tito's partisans entered Bihac, north-west Bosnia, recruiting Muslim youth, establishing a resistance government, the Anti-Fascist National Liberation Council, and setting up their own press.

On Tuesday, 8 December 1942, Vladimir Dedijer noted in his diary:"We are working on a brochure about Jasenovac, one of the most frightful documents of recent times. Several Jewish comrades escaped from the camp after first killing some guards. They swam across the Sava and reached Kozara.. . .In the brochure are mentioned the names of hundreds of our comrades who have been killed in this camp. I dropped in on the printshop and explained how this brochure would have reverberations among the people. Solomon Romano, a quiet, calm worker, one of the best in the entire print shop, is silent today, not lifting his head from the type. I thought he was ill, but he quietly says: 'I have been unable to sleep since I began to typeset this.'

"I did not immediately understand what he meant, but then I watched him. Solomon continues: 'They took my father, mother, three sisters and two brothers there. I was at home with them in 1941, but jumped through the window and then went right to the partisans.. .' Solomon's father was a poor tinsmith. When I talked about this over lunch, little Albert bowed his head. Afterwards some comrades explained that the Ustashe took his father, mother and two sisters to Jasenovac." (Vladimir Dedijer, Dnevnik, V.II).

Solomon Romano, a Jewish printer from Sarajevo, had joined the communist youth in 1936. He fought as a partisan in the Romanija mountains east of Sarajevo, as well as working on the underground press. Albert Altaras, 20 at the time Dedijer met him, had also worked in the print trade before taking to the hills. Dedijer adds a note on the escapers:"These comrades were Moric Danon, Moric Romano and Solomon Katan. They were forced to work on the right bank of the Sava at Gradiska. They attacked with axes the Ustashe who had taken them to a mill. Later they headed for Kozara, lost their way, and emerged somewhere near Kotor Varos. They first fell into Chetnik hands, but were soon freed by the First Proletarian Brigade. The three then joined our army. Solomon Katan died after the Fifth Offensive, and Moric Danon and Moric Romano remained in our army until the end of the war. The Ustashe shot comrade Solomon Romano's father Isak, and brother Leon, an apprentice, at the end of 1942. The Germans took his mother, Hana, brother Jahica and sisters Rifka and Nina to Loborgrad, where they died in the gas chambers."

April 1992; war and barbarism returned to Yugoslavia. Fascists returned from Australia, California, and the Argentine. Croat forces trashed the museum commemorating the victims of Jasanovac; hadn't their President Franjo Tudjman vandalized its history? In Bijelina, Serb Chetniks slaughtered Muslims in the mosque, with grenade and machine-gun fire, then went in and pissed on the bodies. Dr.Karadzic's artillery bombarded Sarajevo's national museum and library with high-incendiary shells, book-burning on a spectacular scale.

April 1993: in Warsaw, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the ghetto revolt, the old Bundist fighter Dr.Marek Edelman reminds people that it is happening again: "In Bosnia we are witnessing mass slaughter, and Europe is behaving the way it did toward the resistance in the Ghetto'.

What had happened to the Haggadah? When children and old people are targeted by snipers, thousands of women raped, and mortar bombs hit bread queues, who will care for an old Hebrew book? The museum had been reduced to ashes. Rumour had it the Haggadah had been burnt, or it was ruined by fire hoses; or the government had secretly sold it abroad to buy arms.

In 1992, when the shelling began, the museum's Muslim director, Enver Imamovic, and three volunteers had braved shell and sniper fire to enter the museum, and save precious volumes. With the help of a Bosnian Serb, they broke into the museum vault, removed the Haggadah and brought it to the National Bank, where it was kept in an underground vault.

Pesach 1995. In the third year of siege, the remaining Jews of Sarajevo, the remnant of a remnant, gathered for a seder. Not Elijah the prophet, but President Alia Izetbegovic, his ministers, and the Muslim imam, Spahic, arrive. Praising the Jewish aid organisation La Benovelencia, for helping all Sarajevans, they handed over a present for the community. An old book. ..The Sarajevo Haggadah has survived. Like many Bosnians it may go abroad. Hopefully, it will return to Bosnia with the tradition of civilised tolerance which first brought it to that land, and sheltered it. Hopefully, despite the pharaohs of imperialism, ethnic hatred and partition, the vision of freedom and humanity for which so many Bosnians fought and died, in the Second World War and in the past few years, will live on.

That's what I wrote in Jewish Socialist No.35 Spring 1996.

In fact the Haggadah was kept safe in the bank vault, though it was shown to a visiting delegation from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

In 2002 an international team of experts reported that the Haggadah would soon be ready for display. Andrea Pataki, of the Austrian Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, said that she had to repair and stabilise the binding and end papers, but did not have to touch the magnificent colored illustrations. "I checked under a 25X microscope and I didn't see any flaking or powdering of the pigments," Pataki told the Balkan Times. “The overall condition is very good for its age."

Pataki said she also did not want to do anything to remove the wine stains and other signs that bear witness to the Haggadah's use at the seder table. “That's something you never touch – it's part of the book's history,'' she said.

And quite right too!

The Sarajevo Haggadah is now on permanent display in a rebuilt museum. Sadly, the Haggadah's happy ending remains among isolated cases as yet, like the rebuilt bridge at Mostar. If only the damage to Bosnia and Hercegovina and its multicultural tradition by war and nationalism, the Dayton agreement's entrenching of ethnic divisions, and the carve up of a society by commercial carpet-baggers, could be as easily repaired. "Dayenu" -it would suffice!

And since I wrote that, disturbances in Bosnia and Hercegovina, sparked off by protests over factory closures in Tuzla, where my story began, and spreading across boundaries, - with the graffito "Down with Nationalism" appearing - suggest a new generation of Bosnians want to put their country together again.


If you liked that story, you might like to read this:


Posted: 8 July 2014