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The Nine Lives of the Sarajevo Haggadah

The European Jewish Press describes how one of the most storied and endangered of Jewish books, the Sarajevo Haggadah, has not only survived, but a Sarajevo publisher announced this week it will be republished in a labor-of-love Italian edition in which “almost everything” will be done by hand.

The Haggadah actually begins its life in Barcelona around 1350 according to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency story. It was probably commissioned as a wedding present. Two centuries later, and after the Spanish Expulsion, its owners brought it to Sarajevo. From then, we hear little about it until it surfaces in 1894. This is how a 1996 Jewish Week article describes its subsequent history:

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 siege, 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.

sarajevo haggadah ma nishtanah

Sarajevo haggadah, ‘Mah nishtanah’ page (Talmud.de)

When Edward Serotta produced his remarkable Nightline story during the siege of Sarajevo, in which he found and helped save the book, he used it as a metaphor for the city itself, then under heinous bombardment by Bosnian Serbs (who now face war crimes trials for their murderous acts). Just as Sarajevans were unvanquished by their tormentors and vowed to remain in the city for the duration, they saw this little book as emblematic of their own endurance. For a compelling recounting of what the siege was like for the local Jewish community, read this Charles London account in New Voices.

EJP speaks to what’s happened to the book since the Bosnia war:

International experts, financed through a special campaign facilitated by the United Nations and Bosnia’s Jewish community, restored the book in 2001.

In December 2002, it went on display at the museum.

The limited edition will sell for 1,150 euros a copy and the publishing house has already received 100 orders from abroad.

It’s a little beyond my budget, but how I’d love to touch a single page from the reproduction! You may purchase it here. It now costs 1,700 Euros. Amazon has several out of print non-Rabic editions available. I’ve read online about the beautiful Cecil Roth edition.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency credits the wonderfully philanthropic, James Wolfensohn (he also donated funds to buy the Gaza greenhouses in hopes they could provide Palestinians with a new livelihood) with providing the wherewithal to produce this painstaking reproduction:

The idea — and seed money — for the project came from James Wolfensohn, the past president of the World Bank.

“When he saw the haggadah during a visit to Sarajevo, he asked why we didn’t try to produce a better facsimile,” said Finci.

“When I answered that it would be too expensive, he said that he would be ready to provide money for it, which we could repay him after publication.”

Wolfensohn personally donated $150,000 for the project. The edition’s publisher, Rabic of Sarajevo, provided further funding, and the project was also helped with a bank loan.

After reimbursing Wolfensohn and repaying the bank loan, the proceeds will be divided between the publisher and La Benevolencija, the Bosnian Jewish cultural, educational and humanitarian society.

{ 7 comments… add one }
  • yosef weiss July 23, 2006, 6:37 PM

    Dear Sir,
    How can I rich This haggadah?
    Yosef weiss
    ISRAEL 76123

  • Richard Silverstein July 23, 2006, 9:05 PM

    Read the European Jewish Press story (linked above) which contains the name of the publisher. I wasn’t able to locate a website for them. But if you write to the newspaper’s editor or the reporter who wrote the story, perhaps they can help.

    UPDATE: You may contact La Benevolencija about purchasing a copy.

  • Barbara Firstenberg September 22, 2008, 11:37 AM

    How can a purchase a copy of The “Sarajevo Haggadah”? Do you have the contact information for La Benevolecija.

    Thank you very much.

  • Alan October 7, 2008, 3:40 AM

    link to haggadah.ba

    Here is where you can order a book.
    I have 4 clients on a private tour of Jewish interests in Croatia as well as Bosnia who have arranged a private tour of the museum but, apparently, the book in display is not the original (kept in safe!)

  • Aaron D January 26, 2009, 4:30 PM

    I have read “People of the Book” and simply had to see the actual masterpiece in real life! The journey was amazing since entire Balkans was a mystery to me and had known little about the Jewish heritage of the region. Inspired by the book, my family and I departed on the most wonderful journey and enjoyed every second of it! The tour was designed by a local agency and now they even have a web site for that tour only: link to sarajevohaggadahjourney.com We could not, of course, touch the book but the exhibition is exceptional and the curator even showed us the actual book. Moving experience!

  • samira December 9, 2010, 9:02 AM

    With best gretings from Sarajevo

  • Ann Georgeoff November 2, 2012, 7:34 PM

    I read that the museum has has to close its doors. Where is the Haggadah now?

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