Ellis Shuman

On the trail of the Sarajevo Haggadah

How an illuminated manuscript inspired me to travel to the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I first learned of the Sarajevo Haggadah when I read the novel, People of the Book, by Australian-born author Geraldine Brooks. The book, inspired by a true story, tells the harrowing journey through the ages of a beautifully illuminated Hebrew manuscript. This colorful holy book was spared destruction during World War Two when it was saved by an Islamic scholar and hidden in a village mosque. Its history goes back even further, to 14th century Spain and Venice.

The novel fascinated me. It was also exciting to learn that one of the characters in the story, a member of the partisans fighting against the Nazis, was based on a true person, the mother of one of the members of the moshav where I live near Jerusalem.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Sarajevo, a city famous for its cultural religious diversity. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in 1914 was the “shot heard round the world” that sparked World War I.

Sarajevo HaggadahAlthough my wife and I had lived for two years in Bulgaria, and we had traveled extensively in the region, we had never yet visited Bosnia and Herzegovina. We signed up for an organized tour to the Balkans, which included visits to the stunning mountains and nature reserves of Montenegro, and to the seafront walled city of Dubrovnik, in Croatia. I eagerly looked forward to my visit to Sarajevo.

In addition to being the place where the first world war was launched, Sarajevo suffered heavily in a war that marked the end of the 20th century. During the Balkan conflict in the years 1992-1995, some 60% of the city’s buildings were either destroyed or damaged by Serbian bombardment. 11,541 people lost their lives in Sarajevo in that war; a tunnel dug under the city’s airport provided a lifeline for much needed supplies.

Jewish connection to Sarajevo

The Jewish connection to Sarajevo goes back centuries. Strongly involved in commerce and trade, the Jewish community lived freely among the Muslim and Christian population. The Ottomans provided land for a central synagogue, originally built in 1581 and later reconstructed with stone walls in 1831.

Saravejo Synagogue
Saravejo Synagogue

In World War Two, the city’s Jews were rounded up and sent to the camps. The synagogue became a prison, and then stables for Nazi officers. The building was used as a warehouse until 1966, and then reconstructed. It opened its doors in 1976, only to be closed during the Balkan war years. In 2004, the Sarajevo Synagogue reopened its doors as a synagogue and museum. There are today some 700 Jews in Sarajevo, but only 80 adults constitute the active Jewish community. A total of 1,100 Jews live in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is the country’s most prized treasure. A Haggadah is a narrative of the Exodus read at the Passover Seder service. Sarajevo’s 109-page text is unique because it is handwritten on bleached calfskin, and illuminated in copper and gold, with colorful depictions of Biblical scenes.

Inside the Sarajevo Synagogue
Member of the Sarajevo Jewish community explains.

The manuscript is housed in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a building nearly destroyed in the four years of the Balkan war. The Haggadah is protected in a special vault with a bulletproof glass door on the museum’s restored second floor. The Haggadah is reportedly the most valuable book in the world; it was insured for $7 million when it was transported to an exhibition in Spain in 1992.

In October, 2012, Bosnia’s National Museum closed its doors due to a lack of funding. For years the museum had survived on donations, but they were not enough to keep the institution running. An offer by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to exhibit the Haggadah was rejected due to domestic legal issues.

My visit to Saravejo to see the prized manuscript was not in vain. The synagogue displays a copy of the famed Haggadah, and even when viewed behind glass, this replica is strikingly beautiful. The Haggadah tells the story of the Exodus from Israel, but this particular manuscript also demonstrates an ability to survive despite the most horrific odds. It is no wonder that this fascinating book inspired me to visit Sarajevo.

Sarajevo Haggadah
Replica of the Sarajevo Haggadah
About the Author
Ellis Shuman made aliya to Jerusalem as a teenager, served in the IDF, was a founding member of a kibbutz, and now lives on Moshav Neve Ilan. Ellis is the author of ‘The Burgas Affair’ – a crime thriller set in Israel and Bulgaria; ‘Valley of Thracians’ - a suspense novel set in Bulgaria; and 'The Virtual Kibbutz' - a collection of short stories. His writing has appeared in The Times of Israel, The Huffington Post, The Jerusalem Post, Israel Insider, and on a wide range of Internet websites. Ellis lived with his wife for two years in Bulgaria, and blogs regularly about Israel, Bulgaria, books, and writing.