Dado Ruvic / Reuters / Landov

Bosnian home of a Jewish treasure reopens, as pressure sways politicians

Staff and activists fought to save Bosnia’s National Museum, home of famed 14th century Sarajevo Haggadah

The museum on its reopening, Sept. 15, 2015.
Haris Memija / Xinhua / Landov

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Three years ago, squabbling politicians in this ethnically divided country achieved what three wars and the collapse of two states never did: They forced the 127-year-old National Museum to close its doors.

But visitors are flocking back now that staffers and activists have won a dogged fight to reopen the museum. The institution’s revival is a triumph for Bosnian civil society and the latest chapter in survival story that echoes the history of the museum’s most famous treasure — a unique 14th century Jewish manuscript that was made in Spain, crossed Europe as its owners fled persecution and was protected from the Nazis in Sarajevo.

Established in 1888 when the mostly Muslim country was under Habsburg rule, museum has survived two world wars, the implosion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Bosnia’s occupation by Germany. The collapse of Yugoslavia hurled Bosnia into an interethnic conflict that lasted from 1992 to 1995 and killed 100,000 people — but even during that time, visitors were still welcome at the museum.

“In the 1992 to ’95 war, the museum was on the front line, and the street outside became known as Sniper Alley,” said Andrea Dautovic, the museum’s chief librarian and a staff member for 35 years. “But even then it was not abandoned and could still be visited. Museum staff were always active in the building, and small exhibitions continued to take place. Staff would sleep here because fighting made it impossible to leave.”

“The buildings and botanical garden were hit by hundreds of shells and suffered major damage,” she added. “A tank shell even went through the wall of the director’s office. But thankfully, the museum did not burn down. Everything except for one store of huge monuments was taken to a safe place, and we lost almost nothing.”

A U.S.-brokered deal ended fighting among Bosnia’s Muslims, Croatians and Serbs in late 1995 but imposed a fiendishly complex and cumbersome political system on the country’s 3.8 million residents.

The peace deal split Bosnia-Herzegovina into a Muslim-Croat federation and the Serb-run Republika Srpska, autonomous entities with their own leaders and vast administrations, linked by weak state institutions in the capital. Under the agreement, regional entities were put in charge of cultural matters, and no overarching state body was given responsibility for funding the museum — or any other national institution that represented Bosnia-Herzegovina as a unified country.

The museum in August 2015, when it was still closed.
AFP / Getty Images

By the fall of 2012, the National Museum and six other major cultural institutions in Sarajevo were in dire straits — they were deeply in debt and unable to cover their heating bills. At the museum, employees had not been paid in a year.

“From October 2011, the staff worked at full capacity on research, education, publication, visits — all without being paid,” Dautovic recalled. “There were no salaries and no money for maintenance. After 12 months of this, we decided to close for visits, naively hoping this would produce some reaction from the authorities. It didn’t, and we had to wait another three years to reopen.”

The museum was first orphaned by war and then by politicians who questioned Bosnia’s legitimacy as a multiethnic state. “We have our own gallery and museum,” Republika Srpska’s President Milorad Dodik declared in 2012 when refusing to help the National Museum. “Bosnia-Herzegovina is unacceptable as a unitary and centralized country. If big Yugoslavia couldn’t survive,” he said, “how can little Yugoslavia?”

Three years on, Dodik still runs Republika Srpska and continues to block Western-backed efforts to transfer powers from his Serb-dominated region to the state capital. He also refuses to offer any funding to national cultural institutions.

“They see this as a Muslim museum,” Dautovic said of Bosnian Serb leaders. “But by everything the museum possesses, this is really the national museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and our collections should be cared for on the state level. This is a museum of our state — if we have a state — and it should be a factor of coherence for Bosnia.”

Andrea Dautovic, the chief librarian at Bosnia’s National Museum, with a reproduction of the 14th century Sarajevo Haggadah.
Dan McLaughlin

The museum’s archaeological, ethnological and natural history sections chart life in the region from ancient times through the Middle Ages and four centuries of Ottoman rule. They continue through the incorporation of Bosnia into the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the 1914 murder of Habsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, which sparked World War I. From Iron Age weapons to Roman mosaics and ornate Ottoman jewelry, the museum’s 4 million artifacts tell of a rich and diverse history and of long periods of ethnic and religious cohesion periodically racked by conflict.

The museum’s greatest treasure is a Jewish book with a 600-year history of shattered social harmony and flight from persecution. The bleached calfskin manuscript is a Haggadah — a narrative of the Exodus told at Seder services during Passover — created in 14th century Spain during a time of relative peace among Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities.

The Haggadah is remarkable not only for its lavish gold and copper illustrations but also for breaking with tradition among such texts by depicting the human form and showing the world as round — a heretical notion during the Middle Ages.

This precious relic was once used as a family prayer book, and its pages are marked by wine and food stains and by a child’s scribbles. There are also notes that hint at its voyage across Europe, which began when its owners fled the Spanish Inquisition’s persecution of Jews in the 15th century. By 1609, the Haggadah was in Venice, where a censor noted on one of its pages that it was not heretical — a judgment that saved it from the book burnings held by the Catholic authorities of the time.

It is unclear when and how the manuscript reached Bosnia, but in 1894 a man named Joseph Cohen sold it for a small sum to the National Museum, where it has survived more than a century of turbulence. Local lore says the Nazis hunted for the Haggadah when they occupied Sarajevo in 1941 but were tricked by the National Museum’s Catholic director and Muslim librarian, who spirited the book into the mountains for safekeeping in a village mosque.

Another legend holds that in 1992, as Serb shells were raining down and soldiers were firing from the botanical gardens, the museum’s then-director and several police officers broke the Haggadah out of a safe in the museum basement and took it to a secure vault in the National Bank. Whether or not these accounts are true, it is remarkable that the museum has held on to the Haggadah through times of conflict, chaos and corruption, especially considering the enormous sum it might have demanded.

A page from the Sarajevo Haggadah. The top image depicts Moses and the burning bush.

The Haggadah and the rest of the museum’s vast trove of exhibits could have continued to languish behind locked doors, however, if staffers and civil society — led by a group called Akcija — had not united to call attention to the institution’s plight and press reluctant politicians to act.

Akcija’s recent project I Am the Museum included a photo exhibition of portraits of museum employees and an open invitation for Bosnians to do a shift for the museum, in which visitors could tour the closed buildings, see staffers at work and remind themselves of the treasures hidden from view.

“In a little over a month this summer, more than 3,000 people did a shift,” said Akcija member Ines Bulajic. “People saw their favorite celebrities and sports people taking part, and it became in to support the museum. We put it at the top of the political and media agenda in the country, after it had been at the bottom for many years.”

Thanks to their efforts, in September, an agreement was struck among various layers of Bosnian authorities to finance the museum and six other national cultural institutions in Sarajevo until 2018. The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo agreed to help fund renovations. Republika Srpska, however, refused to play any part in the deal, and doubt still clouds the long-term future of one of the Balkans’ great cultural treasures.

“We are still here, and I hope we will never be forced to close again. This was the darkest period in the long history of this institution,” said Dautovic, now back at work with colleagues still owed more than 40 months of pay. “In 127 years of the museum’s history, only for these three years was it completely closed — not in any war but during a period of peace.”

Some 7,000 people visited the museum in the month after it reopened, and school groups are once more a constant, curious presence. “To hear children going round again, after three years of silence, is really something magical,” she said in her office.

On a sunny fall day in the museum’s tranquil botanical garden, 8-year-old Ilhan Habul was exploring with his grandmother, Esma Habul. “It was such a shame they closed the museum, just after the war, when life was just starting again,” she said. “I only hope it never happens again. But here in Bosnia, you never know.”

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