The wandering Haggadah

When author Geraldine Brooks heard about the Sarajevo Haggadah, she knew her imagination could breath new life into the book’s extraordinary history.

What she knew was this: The Haggadah was crafted in 14th-century Spain, handwritten on bleached calfskin, its biblical illustrations illuminated in copper and gold.

During World War II, the Haggadah was hidden from the Nazis by a museum librarian in Sarajevo, who risked his own life to save the book. The librarian gave it to a Muslim cleric outside of the city, and it was hidden under the floorboards of a Muslim home.

Half a century later, during the Bosnian War, when Sarajevo was under constant siege by Bosnian Serb forces, the manuscript survived in an underground bank vault.

It resurfaced in 1995, and after being patched up by book conservators, was placed in a glass case on permanent display at the National Museum in Sarajevo. It has been appraised at more than $700 million.

These incidents shaped the foundation for Brooks’ latest novel, “People of the Book,” in which the author weaves a fictional account of the book’s precarious past and remarkable survival.

“So many books are lost, but this little book always found protectors, and some very unlikely,” Brooks said during a telephone interview while on her book tour, which stops in the Bay Area on Feb. 5. “It was saved by Muslim hands twice, and also a Catholic priest. It’s an artifact that has brought out our common humanity. The story seemed irresistible.”

The novel is richly imagined and impressively detailed. Brooks researched the novel extensively, including observing book conservators work on the actual Haggadah in 1996.

“It taught me a lot about how conservators approach a manuscript of this antiquity,” she said. “This was the most fun I ever had researching anything. I loved the actual and intellectual journeys this took me on.”

“People of the Book” begins with the fictional Australian book conservator Hanna Heath, who is called to Sarajevo to work on the recovered Haggadah. She discovers a series of artifacts in the pages — an insect wing, a wine stain, saltwater crystals and a white hair.

As she investigates the items, the narrative travels backward through time — Sarajevo during World War II, Vienna in 1894, Venice in 1609, Tarragona, Spain, in 1492 and Seville, Spain, in 1480 — returning to the contemporary tale of Heath, whose character brings romance and modern sensibility to the novel.

Though many of the characters in the novel are fictional, some are real. “I like stories when you can know something but not everything, when the whole truth has been lost, but you can use your imagination to bring it back to life,” she said.

Brooks was born in Sydney, Australia. She was raised Roman Catholic, and grew up in a part of town without any Jews. Her father served in the Australian army during World War II, during which time he went to pre-state Israel and “got swept up in the romance of the early kibbutz movement.”

“I was always fascinated by Jewish history, even though I didn’t know a Jew until I was 18 years old,” she recalled.

In graduate school at Columbia University, she fell in love with another student, Tony Horwitz. They married, and Brooks felt that “it was the natural thing” to convert. She did so at a synagogue in Cleveland, where she was working as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

Brooks soon became a foreign correspondent, and over the course of a decade she covered six wars and traveled all around the world, including Bosnia, Somalia and the Middle East.

Her previous reporting experience and her travels helped her craft realistic portraits for the novel’s historical narrative, Brooks said.

“What the story keeps coming back to is how we as human beings can make these wonderful societies that appreciate diversity,” she said. “Yet there is a propensity to let fear of otherness arise and destroy these prosperous and creative communities. We do it over and over again. We’re very slow learners.”

Geraldine Brooks is also the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “March.” She speaks from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. Feb. 5 at Park Chow, 1240 Ninth St., San Francisco. Reservations are required; call (415) 643-3400. At 7:30 p.m., she will speak at Kepler’s Books, 1010 Camino Real, Menlo Park.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.