Discover the Sarajevo Haggadah, the Medieval Illuminated Manuscript That Survived the Inquisition, Holocaust & Yugoslav Wars

If you attend­ed a seder this month, you no doubt read aloud from the Hag­gadah, a Passover tra­di­tion in which every­one at the table takes turns recount­ing the sto­ry of Exo­dus.

There’s no defin­i­tive edi­tion of the Hag­gadah. Every Passover host is free to choose the ver­sion of the famil­iar sto­ry they like best, to cut and paste from var­i­ous retellings, or even take a crack at writ­ing their own.  

As David Zvi Kalman, pub­lish­er of the annu­al, illus­trat­ed Asu­fa Hag­gadah told the New York Times, “The Hag­gadah in Amer­i­ca is like Kit Kats in Japan. It’s a prod­uct that accepts a wide vari­ety of fla­vors. It’s prob­a­bly the most acces­si­ble Jew­ish book on the mar­ket.”

21st cen­tu­ry adap­ta­tions have includ­ed Mar­velous Mrs. Maisel, Sein­feld, Har­ry Pot­ter, and Curb Your Enthu­si­asm themed Hag­gadot.

There are Hag­gadot tai­lored toward fem­i­nists, Lib­er­tar­i­ans, inter­faith fam­i­lies, and advo­cates of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment.

One of the old­est is the mirac­u­lous­ly-pre­served Sara­je­vo Hag­gadah, an illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­script cre­at­ed by anony­mous artists and scribes in Barcelona around 1350.

Though it bears the coats of arms of two promi­nent fam­i­lies, its prove­nance is not defin­i­tive­ly known.

Leo­ra Bromberg of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Thomas Fish­er Rare Book Library notes that it is “espe­cial­ly strik­ing for its col­or­ful illu­mi­na­tions of bib­li­cal and Passover rit­u­al scenes and its beau­ti­ful­ly hand-scribed Sephardic let­ter­forms:”

As pre­cious as this Hag­gadah was, and still is, Hag­gadot are books that are meant to be used in fes­tive and messy settings—sharing the table with food, wine, fam­i­ly and guests. The Sara­je­vo Hag­gadah was no excep­tion to this; its pages show evi­dence that it was well used, with doo­dles, food and red wine stains mark­ing its pages.

Some brave soul took care to smug­gle this essen­tial vol­ume out with them when 1492’s Alham­bra Decree expelled all Jews from Spain.

The manuscript’s trav­els there­after are shroud­ed in mys­tery.

It sur­vived the Roman Inqui­si­tion by virtue of its con­tents. As per a 1609 note jot­ted on one of its pages, noth­ing there­in seemed to be aimed against the Church.

More hand­writ­ten notes place the book in the north of Italy in the 16th and 17th cen­turies, though its new own­er is not men­tioned by name.

Even­tu­al­ly, it found its way to the hands of a man named Joseph Kohen who sold it to the Nation­al Muse­um of Sara­je­vo in 1894.

It was briefly sent to Vien­na, where a gov­ern­ment offi­cial replaced its orig­i­nal medieval bind­ing with card­board cov­ers, chop­ping its 142 bleached calf­skin vel­lum down to 6.5” x 9” in order to fit them.

It had a nar­row escape in 1942, when a high-rank­ing Nazi offi­cial, Johann Fort­ner, vis­it­ed the muse­um, intent on con­fis­cat­ing the price­less man­u­script.  

The chief librar­i­an, Dervis Korkut, a Mus­lim, secret­ed the Hag­gadah inside his cloth­ing, reput­ed­ly telling  Fort­ner that muse­um staff had turned it over to anoth­er Ger­man offi­cer.

After that folk­lore takes over. Korkut either stowed it under the floor­boards of his home, buried it under a tree, gave it to an imam in a remote vil­lage for safe­keep­ing, or hid it on a shelf in the museum’s library.

What­ev­er the case, it reap­peared in the muse­um, safe and sound, in 1945.

The muse­um was ran­sacked dur­ing 1992’s Siege of Sara­je­vo, but the thieves, igno­rant of the Haggadah’s worth, left it on the floor. It was removed to an under­ground bank vault, where it sur­vived untouched, even as the muse­um sus­tained heavy artillery dam­age.

The pres­i­dent of Bosnia pre­sent­ed it to Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers dur­ing a Seder three years lat­er.

Short­ly there­after, the head of Sarajevo’s Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty sought the Unit­ed Nations’ sup­port to restore the Hag­gadah, and house it in a suit­ably secure, cli­mate-con­trolled set­ting. 

A num­ber of fac­sim­i­les have been cre­at­ed, and the orig­i­nal codex once again resides in the muse­um where it is stored under the pre­scribed con­di­tions, and dis­played on rare spe­cial occa­sions, as “phys­i­cal proof of the open­ness of a soci­ety in which fear of the Oth­er has nev­er been an incur­able dis­ease.”

UNESCO added it to its Mem­o­ry of the World Reg­is­ter in 2017, “prais­ing the courage of the peo­ple who, even in the dark­est of times dur­ing World War II, appre­ci­at­ed its impor­tance to Jew­ish Her­itage, as well as its embod­i­ment of diver­si­ty and inter­cul­tur­al har­mo­ny depict­ed in its illus­tra­tion:”

 Regard­less of their own reli­gious beliefs, they risked their lives and did all in their pow­er to safe­guard the Hag­gadah for future gen­er­a­tions. Its destruc­tion would be a loss for human­i­ty. Pro­tect­ing it is a sym­bol of the val­ues which we hold dear.

For those inter­est­ed, the Sara­je­vo Hag­gadah fig­ures cen­tral­ly in the best­selling 2008 nov­el Peo­ple of the Book, writ­ten by the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning author Geral­dine Brooks. You can read an New Times review here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

How Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beau­ti­ful, Cen­turies-Old Craft

Turn­ing the Pages of an Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­script: An ASMR Muse­um Expe­ri­ence

The Medieval Mas­ter­piece, the Book of Kells, Has Been Dig­i­tized and Put Online

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Manuel P. Ron says:

    After read the arti­cle I guess the title is not fair because the text says the book was saved from the roman inqui­si­tion. Using the span­ish inqui­si­tion with holo­caust in the title is only work­ing to increase the black leg­end. To be hon­est, I’ll remove the span­ish word from the title.

  • Ann Fisher says:

    I’m sure I’m one of many peo­ple who first learned of the Sara­je­vo Hag­gadah through Geral­dine Brook’s mar­velous novel“People of the Book.”

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