Hostage to politics, glorious Sarajevo Haggadah languishes in crumbling museum
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Hostage to politics, glorious Sarajevo Haggadah languishes in crumbling museum

Priceless 14th-century manuscript from Spanish Jewry's Golden Age survived inquisitions and the Holocaust, but now sits trapped in the shuttered Bosnian National Museum, barred from public display

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Detail of the 'Maror' page of the Sarajevo Haggadah (courtesy of the Foundation for Jewish Culture)
Detail of the 'Maror' page of the Sarajevo Haggadah (courtesy of the Foundation for Jewish Culture)

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina — One of the most magnificent Jewish manuscripts, a book that survived two inquisitions and a Holocaust, is sitting trapped behind closed doors in Bosnia’s slowly crumbling National Museum, held captive by the dizzyingly convoluted politics of the Balkan nation.

The Sarajevo Haggadah, the most elaborately decorated codex remaining from Spanish Jewry’s Golden Age and today a keystone of Bosnia’s Jewish and gentile heritage, has been kept for the past two years from both the local community and tourists, despite grassroots and international efforts to put the treasure back on display.

The Bosnian government, experts say, is seemingly content to let the Haggadah continue to languish behind closed doors.

The book, which contains the story of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt — retold each year on Passover — is remarkable not only for its beautiful design, exquisite illuminated text, master-craftsmanship, and rare drawings from pre-Inquisition Spain, but also for its own remarkable exodus story.

Page of the Sarajevo Haggadah with inscription by Italian Inquisition censor (Courtesy of the Foundation for Jewish Culture)
Page of the Sarajevo Haggadah with inscription by Italian Inquisition censor (Courtesy of the Foundation for Jewish Culture)

The Haggadah, a 14th-century illuminated manuscript, escaped the Spanish Inquisition and migrated east with Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. It was brought by refugees to Venice, where it passed muster with the Catholic authorities, who deemed it not heretical, in 1609 and was spared from the flames (a Latin inscription on its final page attests to its approval by the Church). At some point in the next three centuries, it traveled a meandering path to the crossroad city of Sarajevo, then home to a thriving Jewish community dating back to Ottoman times.

The Haggadah was sold to the newly founded National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1894 by Josef Cohen, although how he obtained the book remains unclear. Nazi Germany occupied Bosnia in 1941, and the museum’s curator hid it from the Germans, thereby saving it from confiscation or destruction. (An extensive profile of Dervis Korkut, the man who saved the manuscript as well as a Jewish woman during World War II, appeared in The New Yorker in 2007.)

During the three-year siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s, it escaped destruction once again. After the Balkans War, the National Museum received $150,000 in aid from donors, from the UN and from Sarajevo’s dwindling 700-member Jewish community, to curate a special exhibit and put the Haggadah on permanent display.

The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, boarded up by protesters after being shut due to lack of funds. (photo credit: CC BY-SA Watalicom, Wikimedia Commons)
The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, boarded up by protesters after being shut due to lack of funds. (photo credit: CC BY-SA Watalicom, Wikimedia Commons)

But now the Sarajevo Haggadah sits in limbo in the bankrupt National Museum on the Bosnian capital’s main drag. The museum closed its doors on October 4, 2012, after its employees went without salaries for an entire year. (As of this writing, they have still not been paid.) Barring the entryway to the yellow edifice — a vestige of Austro-Hungarian rule in the 19th century — protesters placed signs bearing the word “closed” in English and Serbo-Croatian.

The museum, along with several other cultural institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was left without a government body responsible for running and funding it, leaving it outside the budgets of the country’s various administrative bodies.

To make a very long story short, the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina is divided into two entities — the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, comprising a majority of Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats; and Republika Srpska, which is composed mainly of Orthodox Serbs. These two entities have their own state governments.

‘Our most valuable exhibit’

Asja Mandic, an art historian at the University of Sarajevo, agreed to meet at a coffeeshop on the ground floor of an imposing gray concrete apartment building behind the National Museum. Mandic is involved in CultureShutdown.net, a movement protesting the closure of the museums and seeking to break the impasse.

Over espresso, she attempted to explain the convoluted nature of the political predicament that has left seven national cultural institutions shuttered.

“After the [2005] Dayton Peace Agreement, everything that was on the level of the [former Yugoslav] republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina became the state level — except the cultural institutions. These institutions basically have no status,” she said, neither state, nor federal, nor municipal. “They have been in this situation since 1995.” The museums managed to scrape by on sporadic funding from Bosnia’s various governmental bodies until 2011.

The government of Bosnia and Herzegovina has no culture ministry, and cultural affairs fall under the Ministry of Civil Affairs, which allots a portion of its small budget to arts and culture. Getting government funds to Bosnia’s museums, however, is an uphill battle against the country’s second entity, Republika Srpska, which also vies for the same state funds. The current civil affairs minister, Sredoje Nović, is Serbian, making him more likely to funnel money to Republika Srpska.

Though the civil war ended nearly 20 years ago, wounds remain open on the streets of Sarajevo and in the halls of government. Abuse of state powers by Serb officials is rampant in Bosnia, according to a 2013 report from The Center for Eastern Studies, an Eastern European public policy institute.

Because the National Museum doesn’t fall under any governmental body’s jurisdiction, “nobody is responsible for financing it,” Mandic said. Operating the National Museum, and putting the Haggadah back on permanent display, would only cost about €500,000 per year, she said.

“What little money they have left they keep to run the electricity so they can protect the artwork and objects inside,” noted Mandic.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art attempted shortly after the National Museum closed to borrow the Haggadah, which would have brought in much-needed funds and put the manuscript on exhibit. In February 2013, however, Ljiljana Sevo of Bosnia’s National Monuments Preservation Commission said the Sarajevo Haggadah couldn’t be loaned because of the ongoing legal battle over the museum’s status and unpaid wages, the Associated Press reported.

The Metropolitan Museum declined to comment on its negotiations with the Bosnian National Museum, and didn’t respond to inquiries as to whether there were still plans to seek a loan of the Haggadah.

For the time being, there are also no plans to bring the the Sarajevo Haggadah to Israel, or even to digitize the manuscript and make it accessible on the Internet.

Daisy Raccah Djivre, chief curator of the Israel Museum’s Jewish Life wing, said that while the museum “would be delighted one day to be able to display the Sarajevo Haggadah in our museum if this should become possible at a future point,” there were no such plans in the works.

Aviad Stollman, curator at Israel’s National Library, said it was “unrealistic” to acquire the manuscript. The library is digitizing 75,000 Jewish manuscripts, he added, but the Sarajevo Haggadah is “not necessarily on top of the list.”

Ultimately, nobody in the Bosnian political system is willing to put themselves on the line when it comes to lending out what Dr. Mirsad Sijaric, head of the museum’s archaeology department, called the “most valuable exhibit from our collections.”

Sijaric said that despite the fact that museum employees haven’t been paid since December 2011, the National Museum’s closure has not affected the protection of its artifacts, including the Haggadah, and they are treated with “full respect… according to museum standards.”

“[The] Sarajevo Haggadah is certainly the most valuable and most known artifact in our museum, and as such enjoys a special security treatment, but ultimately shares the fate of the entire institution,” he said.

Like seeing a facsimile of the Mona Lisa

The Haggadah has been seen by a rare few since the museum closed two years ago, and while the manuscript is national property, members of Sarajevo’s dwindling Jewish community are clamoring for its return to public display.

The Sarajevo Jewish cemetery, with the National Museum visible amid the trees to the left of the bright yellow Holiday Inn. (photo credit: Moti Tufeld)
The Sarajevo Jewish cemetery, with the National Museum visible amid the trees to the left of the bright yellow Holiday Inn. (photo credit: Moti Tufeld)

The Haggadah is seen as a indispensable part of the city’s rich Jewish heritage, as well as the country’s cultural history. Before World War II, Sarajevo was 20 percent Jewish and home to eight synagogues. Its Jewish cemetery, the second largest in Europe and dating back to the 17th century, rests on the hill above the National Museum. The unique barrel-shaped gravestones sit among the weeds. Though the Nazis killed the vast majority of Bosnian Jews and only two synagogues remain, the Haggadah survived.

Ambassador Jakob Finci, a former Bosnian envoy to Switzerland and de facto leader of Sarajevo’s remaining Jews, said Bosnians were attracted to the manuscript’s survival story.

“People here, non-Jews especially, they really fell in love with the Haggadah,” he told The Times of Israel over the phone.

Finci said he is optimistic that the Haggadah is in good shape, but dismayed by the fact that after so much investment by Sarajevo’s Jewish community, it is no longer on public exhibition.

“We are not directly involved” in bringing the museum back to life, he said, but the Jewish community is “always pressing [the museum] to show the Haggadah.” Standing in for the museum, a small gallery next to a former synagogue-turned-Jewish museum in downtown Sarajevo exhibits and sells facsimiles.

A gallery in downtown Sarajevo where facsimiles of the Sarajevo Haggadah are sold and displayed. (photo credit: Moti Tufeld)
A gallery in downtown Sarajevo where facsimiles of the Sarajevo Haggadah are sold and displayed. (photo credit: Moti Tufeld)

“The problem is that there is no real management in the museum who can understand the value of this book. And even when the museum was open, [only] for four days in the year did they show the original Haggadah. During the rest of the time they showed just a copy, which is ridiculous,” he said.

Finci compared the Sarajevo Haggadah to the Mona Lisa, saying that people don’t visit the Louvre to look at a facsimile. “It’s not enough. You cannot replace the original with anything.”

“There was no one in this country brave enough to give permission to send the Haggadah to New York,” Finci said, adding that it is also unlikely that the Haggadah will be able to go on display in a 2015 exhibition in Barcelona to celebrate Spain’s bygone Jewish heritage.

“It’s a hostage of the [local] politics and it’s a hostage of those problems after the war in Bosnia [and Herzegovina],” continued the ambassador.

‘I absolutely don’t understand how this is possible in a civilized society’

“It’s really a pity that we are not able to use [the Sarajevo Haggadah] for the promotion, not only of the Jewish culture, but even of the promotion of the joint life of different religions here in Bosnia over the centuries.”

Mandic, the art historian and activist seeking the reopening of Bosnia’s cultural institutions, voiced equal frustration over the seemingly endless “ridiculous situation.”

“I absolutely don’t understand how this is possible in a civilized society, that you have people sitting there in parliament and they just don’t care about their own cultural heritage” — Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats alike, she said.

Despite the logjam, Finci, the Jewish leader, remains hopeful. He said the Haggadah is like a phoenix: “After each catastrophe, it rises again and shines again.”

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