Geraldine Brooks’ “People of the Book,” a historical fiction, charts the journey of one of the most valuable Jewish scared texts: the Sarajevo Haggadah.
The Haggadah, literally “telling” in Hebrew, is a prayer book that tells the story of the Jewish Exodus—the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt and their envisioned odyssey to the Promised Land.
The Haggadot (in plural) are the commonest of Jewish books, and are read aloud during the ceremonial dinner at Passover.
One of the oldest, “illuminated” (decorated with rich illustrations) Jewish manuscripts, it’s more than 600 years old.
That it has endured the wear and tear of the passage of time, is in itself, a remarkable fact, but that it survived pilferage, rough seas, Roman Inquisition, burning, Nazi officers, and shelling, is nothing short of miraculous.
The book came first came to light, in Sarajevo, in 1894, when a poor Jewish family sold it to the National Museum of Sarajevo.
Its discovery caused a frisson of excitement among scholars. “It called into question,” Brooks writes, in the afterword, “the belief that figurative art had been suppressed among medieval Jews for religions reasons.”
Though the precise details of the book’s scribe and illustrator are lost to history, it’s believed, it was created in multiethnic Barcelona, around the 1350s, towards the close of the period known as “La Convivencia,” when Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived in relative harmony.
In all likelihood, it was commissioned as a wedding gift for a prominent Jewish family. But, the patches of wine stains on the bleached calfskin parchment indicate to its domestic use, at many Passover tables, over generations.
The Alhambra Decree, issued by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, in 1492, ordered the expulsion of all Jews from Spain and its territories.
At the time, the book may have been carried out of the country by a Jewish family, fleeing persecution from Catholic monarchs.
After leaving Spain, displaced Jews resettled in several enclaves across Europe. Around the 1500s, the Haggadah surfaced, in the Jewish ghetto, in Venice. How it traveled there, is not known.
Venice, in the Dark Ages, wasn’t a congenial place for Jews (just as many others weren’t).
They were corralled in a small area, in an abandoned section of the city, where once stood a metal smelting factory. They were banned from the trade of publishing. They had to put up with the jeers, the taunts, and the spittle of the Gentiles (non-Jews).
In 1589, Pope Sixtus V proclaimed a ban on any book by Jews or Saracens (Arabs) that challenged the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church. And any work that did, was burned. The ensuing years, which saw a clash between state and religion, were tumultuous, both socially and politically.
The church, with its Ptolemaic, geocentric view of the universe destroyed any work that espoused a Copernican, heliocentric model.
In 1609, the Catholic priest and censor, Domenico Vistorini, spared it the flames, however, and let the Haggadah live.
His inscription on the last page, “Revisto Per Mi” (Reviewed By Me), attests to that. Whether he did so, because he was a Jewish convert to Catholicism, or for the codex’s resplendent beauty, is unclear.
More than 200 years later, it mysteriously reappeared in Sarajevo, in 1894. A man named Josef Kohen brought it to the museum. Since Sarajevo was under Austro-Hungarian rule at the time, the book was shipped off to Vienna for restoration.
If anything, the Haggadah came back in a worse shape than it left. Its original, ornate, silver clasps were removed and were replaced by cardboard covers. The inside pages remained intact, however.
After its return, it remained in the museum vault, until the Nazi occupation of Sarajevo during World War II.
It was astoundingly rescued from the Nazi clutches by the museum’s chief librarian, Dervis Korkut, a Muslim. He transported the Haggadah to his friend, in a remote mountain village, where he hid it among the Quran, in his mosque.
It was saved by another Muslim librarian, Enver Imamovic, during the Bosnian War, just days before bombs rained on the museum.
How does one explain the fact the Sarajevo Haggadah has lived through expulsion, persecution, destruction, two World Wars, and one civil war? Maybe because it’s a holy book.