Lisa Palmieri Billig (Rome)
“We are deeply moved by this gesture of good will on your part that reflects the most noble values and ideals of Islam that you yourself embody” said Oded Wiener, Director General of the Israeli Rabbinate as he received the world famous “Sarajevo Haggadah of Passover” from Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia Herzegovina, at the opening ceremony of the Community of St. Egidio’s 25th annual meeting of world religious leaders currently taking place in Sarajevo. Reciprocally, Mr. Wiener presented Dr. Ceric with a silver-embossed picture of Jerusalem as “a small token of respect for you and your Muslim heritage from Jerusalem.”
The history of the safeguarding of this precious document is a turbulent one, mostly characterized by strife but also by love and caring between Jews, Muslims and Christians in this city that was once, and is again becoming, a crossroads of peaceful coexistence between the three monotheistic religious cultures after two World Wars and the devastating inter-ethnic conflict of two decades ago.
“We will do whatever we can so that what happened here will never happen again” said the Grand Mufti, before presenting consigning the Haggaddah for transport to Jerusalem.
The precious manuscript, dating back to the 14th century in Spain was hidden and protected by Sarajevo’s Muslim community throughout a series of wars. As all “Haggadahs”, the manuscript tells the story of the Exodus which is annually recited at every Jewish family “Seder” dinner since time immemorial.
Despite the successive waves of violence that beset Sarajevo, the Jewish Community of this city has lived in friendship with its Muslim and Christian neighbors throughout, united against the Nazi invasion during World War II and in the struggle to survive two decades ago when its leader and current president, Jacob Finci, organized medical help and food supply transit between the warring factions.
“This gift is a symbol of friendship and appreciation, not only between Bosnian Muslims and Jews but between all citizens” remarked Mr. Finci, recalling the appeal against anti-Semitism and Islamofobia signed by leaders of both communities in 2006.
Handwritten on bleached calfskin and illuminated in copper and gold leaf, the illuminated manuscript is decorated with “flowery tendrils, small birds, butterflies and Gothic arches looming over the Aramaic letters that enclose a fleur-de-lys”, according to a description circulated by St. Egidio . The Haggadah – which contains the story of Exodus recited every year since time immemorial at the dinner table of Jewish families on Passover eve – disappeared from Spain in 1492 when all the country’s Jews were expelled by Queen Isabella. It subsequently found its way to Sarajevo where it resurfaced in 1894.
It was then bought for a pittance by the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina from a Jewish family and although its value today is beyond estimate, it has been appraised as worth $700 million. During World War II it was hidden from the Nazis by the Museum’s chief librarian, Dervis Korkut. When a German officer came looking for this historic and artistic masterpiece, Korkut bravely lied to him, saying he had already consigned it to another German officer whose name he did not know.
At great personal risk, Mr. Korkut then snuck the manuscript out of the city and hid it in a small town, stashed under the floorboards of either a mosque, or, according to some accounts, a shepherd’s hut. Dervis and his wife, Servet, were proclaimed as “righteous” by Yad Vashem in Israel for also saving the life of a young Jewish girl, Mira Papo, hiding her from the Nazis. Many years later, as an elderly woman in Israel, Mira Papo was able to reciprocate in some way by providing refuge and security to Korkut’s daughter during the 1990’s Bosnian War.
In 1992 while that war was raging, the Museum’s director, Enver Imamovic, also endangering his life, managed to convince police to drive through a rain of bullets and morter shells to remove the book and lock it into the city’s central bank vault for the rest of the war. It was later returned to the National Museum.
From there it will now travel to safekeeping in Jerusalem, the world capitol of the three religions.