Ancient Haggadah rescued by Bosnians

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NEW YORK — Hidden in war-ravaged Sarajevo is a 700-year-old Spanish Haggadah that was saved by a Bosnian Muslim family during the Holocaust.

"It's a luscious little book," says Berlin-based American photojournalist Edward Serotta of the Sarajevo Haggadah. "People have died over this book."

The Haggadah "has survived everything and this city has survived," says Serotta.

The author of "Survival in Sarajevo: Jews, Bosnia and the Lessons of the Past," Serotta was dispatched to find the Haggadah by the ABC News' "Nightline" program, which aired a special on his search this past Tuesday.

The 142-page illuminated manuscript first surfaced in Sarajevo in 1894, taken by a destitute schoolboy to a museum to be sold. The Haggadah, thought to have come from Spain with the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, was stained with red wine, a sign the boy's family used it for seders.

The museum handed the Haggadah to a Muslim cleric in a remote village for safekeeping in 1941, as the Wehermacht swept across Yugoslavia and sought to seize the Jewish treasure.

When the civil war broke out in 1990, and Sarajevo came under Serb seige, the Haggadah vanished once again after the museum was hit in rocket attacks.

The Haggadah resurfaced when Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic displayed it briefly last year at Sarajevo's only remaining synagogue. It was rumored that the Bosnian government then sold the manuscript, which was valued at nearly $10 million.

In tracking down the Haggadah for "Nightline," Serotta "called in every shot I had" — including several U.S. senators, Bosnia's new prime minister and the country's new minister of culture, Farhudin Rizanbegovic.

Rizanbegovic told Serotta how the home of his Muslim family had been "filled with 400 years of books" — including a facsimile of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah — when in 1992 the Croats destroyed every building "and burned every book in a bonfire."

After being released from a concentration camp, Rizanbegovic was "walking the streets of Sarajevo in borrowed clothing," seeking food for his family, when he spotted "one dogeared copy of the Sarajevo Haggadah" on a vendor's table.

Rizanbegovic told Serotta, "This is what I bought, before food and clothes. This is what I bought to begin to build my library again."

Today, the original book "is really safe," Serotta says.

Serotta was permitted to see — but not touch — the book, whose vellum pages include "the story of creation in 34 miniatures, all the way through Moses getting the [Ten] Commandments."

Serotta says the Haggadah, like all others, begins with an invitation to eat from the bread of affliction.

"There's a cute little picture of people walking home from the synagogue to go have their seder," Serotta says.

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.