Survival in Sarajevo: Remembering Passover in a War Zone

How the most famous Haggaddah in the world survived Seders in a war zone.

Edward Serotta

It was an April morning in my Berlin apartment 20 years ago and the tiny thermal paper fax machine sputtered to life, coughing out a single page. I tore it off its roll and read: “Special guest coming for Seder. You want to be here.”

The fax had been sent by Jakob Finci and Ivica Ceresnjes, who were heading the Sarajevo Jewish community’s non-sectarian humanitarian aid agency La Benevolencija. The agency had spent the past three years of the horrid siege of Sarajevo bringing in food and medicine, which they gave away to everyone, while shipping out Jews and non-Jews whenever they could get the warring parties to let them. A humanitarian aid agency founded by Holocaust survivors, funded mostly by American and British Jews (through the Joint Distribution Committee and World Jewish Relief) and run by Sarajevo’s Jews and Muslims, Serbs and Croats — now that was a story, which I turned into a book in 1994, "Survival in Sarajevo."

But in the spring of 1995, there was no way I was going back. I was at work on another book and besides, Sarajevo was under a tight blockade by the Bosnian Serbs. The airport was closed to United Nations cargo flights and the only way into the war-ravaged city was along the treacherous dirt “road” that clung to the side of Mt Igman, where Serb gunners occasionally — just for laughs — blew away the cars and trucks that traversed it. In my previous four trips into the war zone, I had flown in on UN transport flights from Zagreb or Ancona. Only idiots, I thought, would chance the Igman road when they didn’t have to. And I didn’t have to.

Two days later, high atop Mt. Igman, I watched the driver I had hired turn back toward the Croatian port city of Split — and safety. I looked over Sarajevo, already turning verdant that spring and not looking at all like a dying city, even though more than 10,000 people had been shot down or blown up by that point. I approached the makeshift shed amanned by few bored looking Bosnian soldiers. I could walk down the Igman trail, they told me, and crawl through the narrow tunnel that had been dug underneath the airport, or I could wait and see if anyone was going to drive in. Three hours later, a Spanish journalist in a rickety Land Rover rumbled up from the direction of Split and asked if I wanted a ride down into the city.

He gunned the engine and we tore down the path, gravel flying as he took the curves, and finally into the relative safety of the city. Sort of. A French armored personnel carrier was standing on the street known as Sniper Alley with blood splattered across its turret. A young soldier, wearing his helmet, had been shot through the neck. The sniper’s bullet had come from the Serbian-held side of town

The Jewish community center was just as I had left it fourteen months before. Dozens of people were lined up at the La Benevolencija pharmacy, where they were giving away prescriptions at no charge. Upstairs, a dozen families stood outside the two-way radio station, waiting to talk with their loved ones at similar stations set up in the Jewish community centers of Belgrade and Zagreb.

In the soup kitchen, Tzitzko the cook worked from three ranges — one was powered by electricity, which he did not have that day, another was fueled by gas cannisters, which he was using, and a wood-burning stove, which was there, just in case. There was even the Jewish Post Office of Sarajevo, which operated when the real post office couldn’t. None of the warring sides stopped the white panel truck with the blue menorah that puttered between Sarajevo and the La Benevolencija logistics center down in Split, and often it was laden with sacks of mail.

The following day, Friday 14 April, 1995, the seder was set for noon; with no electricity in the city, Sarajevo was as black as tar when the sun went down.

The synagogue had been swept, tables and place settings were laid out and 50 community members made their way to the synagogue.

Precisely at noon, Alija Izetbegovic, President of Bosnia, accompanied by Prime Minister Haris Sziladjic, entered the synagogue. Accompanying them was a man in a burgundy suit with a small black metal box. He placed it on the reader’s pulpit of the synagogue and drew out from it one of the most famous Jewish books in the world: the legendary Sarajevo Haggadah.

Here’s why this Haggadah is different from all other Haggadahs: In 1894 a boy by the name of Kohen brought the book to the Landesmuseum of Bosnia and offered it for sale. Bosnia was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its curators sent the colorful illuminated manuscript to Vienna, where it made its way up the curatorial food chain until it reached the desk of DH Schlosser, head of the Fine Arts Museum. Working with a Hungarian rabbi and a specialist in medieval art, they proclaimed this small book — with its dozens of hand-painted scenes from the Bible — as a medieval masterpiece from Spain.

Jews began arriving in Sarajevo in 1566, following the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Sephardim starting in 1492. Somehow, some family, at some point, had brought that book with them. Schlosser returned the medieval codex to Sarajevo, where, in 1941, one Johann Hans Fortner, a Wehrmacht general, went looking for it at the same time that Dervis Korkut, a Muslim scholar, was spiriting it away. Where had it gone? Where was it hidden? Serbs will tell you in a church. Muslims say in a mosque. It is now known that Korkut squirreled it away in the National Bank.

At war’s end, the book was returned to the National Museum, where it slept — like the good version of Sauron’s ring — until it was needed by the city that had protected it all those years.

In May 1992, as Bosnian Serb forces swept across the outer suburbs of Sarajevo and were approaching the National Museum, its director, Enver Imamovic, snatched the book from its hiding place and took it to safety. From that moment on, no one knew where the Haggadah had gone. Some said it had been sold off for arms. One rumor said it was in a bank vault in Israel. All that was known was that while most Jews had fled Sarajevo in the early days of the war , a tiny band of Holocaust survivors and their offspring took the opening words of the Sarajevo Haggadah — and every other Haggadah — and put them to work: “All who are hungry, let them come and eat. All who are in need of fellowship, let them come and celebrate Passover with us.”

As these words were read out, Bosnian President Izetbegovic, standing next to Finci and Ceresnjes, craned his neck a little to look at this small book, which bore the name of his beloved city, and had become a symbol of hope for everyone, no matter what their religion. He shrugged, he sat down, and the seder commenced.

Until that day, I had always believed that Passover lasted eight days. During the siege of Sarajevo, in that faded old synagogue, it lasted more than three years.