How did a book written in Hebrew, covered in gold and silver leaf, illustrated with pigments made from lapis lazuli, azurite, and malachite, and believed to originate in 14th century Spain, wind up in Sarajevo? This is just one of many mysteries of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a work whose very existence challenged scholars to reevaluate their belief that Jews forbid illustrations in sacred texts.
It’s estimated that the codex was created in the mid-14th century during the convivencia period in Spain, when Jews, Muslims, and Christians all coexisted. From there, the Haggadah somehow found its way to Venice, likely following Ferdinand and Isabella’s expulsion of all Spanish Jews. Although Jews still had to wear an identifying cap and could only live in Venice’s ghetto, they still had rights to property and legal protection— rights hard to find elsewhere in Europe. Yet it’s puzzling to conceive how the Catholic Priest Giovanni Domenico Vistorini saw fit to inscribe “revisto per mi”—surveyed by me, words of approval—underneath the final lines of Hebrew text. While most books written in Hebrew were destroyed by the Inquisition, amazingly, this remarkable Haggadah survived.
From Venice, the Haggadah’s whereabouts are unknown until 1894. At that time, a Jewish family named Kohen sold it to the Museum in Sarajevo. Sent to Vienna (the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s capital) for assessment and preservation, it was immediately recognized as a great work of art. Unfortunately, its greatness was somewhat diminished by the work of an incompetent conservator, who ruined the rebinding and accidentally cropped the parchments—discarding whatever ornate bindings it once had.
Back in Sarajevo, the Haggadah’s modern-day tale of survival continued as it was twice saved by Muslims. First, during World War II, the Bosnian National Museum’s chief librarian and Islamic scholar, Dervis Korkut, risked his life to ensure the book’s safety in 1942. When Korkut got word that General Johann Fortner, a Nazi commander, was visiting the museum’s director—presumably to take the famous Haggadah—he and the director quickly took action. After stuffing the codex underneath his shirt and tucking it into his belt, Korkut acted as translator for the General and museum director. When Fortner asked for the Haggadah, the director pretended to be confused telling the commander that one of his officers had already been to the museum and asked for it, which he had of course handed over immediately. When the angered commander asked for the officer’s name, the swift reply was brilliant: “Sir, I did not think it was my place to require a name.”
The Haggadah spent the remaining war years in a mountain village, where Korkut’s friend was the Imam of a small mosque. After the war, it returned to the museum. But in 1992, the building got caught in the damage of the Serb forces (they later burned the city’s library to the ground). Once again, the museum’s Muslim librarian, Enver Imamovic, secretly stowed the book away in a bank vault for safe keeping during the war.
Geraldine Brooks brings this rich, fascinating, and mysterious history to life in her fictionalized account of the Sarajevo Haggadah, The People of the Book which was a New York Times bestseller. Through the book, Merima Ključo has found musical inspiration to interpret the Haggadah’s incredible story.
About Geraldine Brooks, author of The People of the Book
Australian-born writer Geraldine Brooks’ journalism background laid the foundation for her novel The People of the Book. After she finished Columbia University’s journalism master’s program, she set about covering crises in the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans for the Wall Street Journal. While reporting from Sarajevo she heard about the 14th century Haggadah and was intrigued. But, given the circumstances, she only thought to follow up and learn more years later. After writing her 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel March (told from the perspective of the father from Little Women, as he serves as a chaplain in the Civil War), Brooks spent that same year as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University. During this time, she researched much the material for the various stories within People of the Book (such as scientific background and understanding for the fictitious clues in the Haggadah).
Brooks’ novel Caleb’s Crossing was a New York Times best seller. Her other novels, including Year of Wonders and People of the Book, are international bestsellers, and have been translated into more than 25 languages. She currently lives with her family on Martha’s Vineyard.
About Merima Ključo, composer and performer, The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book
Born in Bosnia and currently based in Los Angeles, concert accordionist Merima Ključo performs internationally both as a soloist and with symphonies. In addition, she composes and arranges for concerts, theater, opera, and film. Ključo seeks to share her love of music, particularly the music of Bosnia, with audiences around the world. Long fascinated by the wondrous and complex history of the Sarajevo haggadah, Ključo was inspired to create what would become the musical and visual The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book when she realized that it reflected her own life and “exodus.” Ključo notes, “I was forced to leave my own country under the strangest and heaviest circumstances and find a new country.” In her new work receiving its debut tour this spring, the Sarajevo Haggadah also seeks a new home in new countries over the centuries.