That the Sarajevo Haggadah survives today is a miracle befitting the Exodus story. An illuminated manuscript with full-page illustrations rich in red, blue, and gold, the book left Spain with Jewish refugees expelled in 1492. It traveled through Italy to Sarajevo, where Jews, Muslims, and Christians coexisted peacefully. Over the centuries, it acquired wine stains but withstood genocides and refugee migrations, because Muslims and Jews took enormous risks to save it. Priceless, it sits in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
When Irfan Mirza acquired a copy, his reasons were sentimental. But Mirza, a member of the Seattle-area organization Voices of the Bosnian Genocide, soon reconsidered his approach to collecting. “It occurred to me that my interests in preserving important artifacts would be better served by gifting them to institutions that would value them and help preserve them,” he says. That’s how the haggadah ended up at Temple Beth Am.
At a Shabbat service in June, Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick invited Mirza up to the bima to speak. When the Nazis came for the haggadah in 1942, Mirza said, the museum’s librarian, a Muslim scholar named Dervis Korkut, was intent on protecting the book. Risking his life, Korkut hid the haggadah in his coat as the museum director convinced a Nazi general who came to confiscate the book that another officer had already taken it. Under pretense of visiting a sister, Korkut rushed the haggadah to a countryside mosque, where an imam hid it like an afikomen among copies of the Koran. The haggadah survived the Bosnian war, overlooked and then hidden in a vault. Later, copies were made by the regime of Yugoslavia’s first president, Josip Broz Tito. One was given to Yad Vashem. One now resides at Temple Beth Am.
The crowd of Jews and Bosnian Muslims looked at Mirza. Light shone through the wood-framed windows of the sanctuary remodeled more than 20 years ago, in August 1993 — the month the synagogue welcomed another new addition: the Kandzics, a family of Bosnian refugees.
In January 1993, Rabbi Norman Hirsh, who had a passion for social justice and Jewish-Muslim dialogue, asked temple member Ginny Shulman to attend an interfaith meeting on sponsoring Bosnian refugees. When the Kandzics arrived, members spent months helping the family with housing, housewares, English classes, and appointments. Fatka Kandzic was pregnant and — with Shulman as her Lamaze coach — gave birth to a daughter, Medina. The communities grew closer as the Kandzics settled in, bought homes, became citizens, and had children. Temple members joined Bosnian celebrations. “Jews have food events for everything, and so do Bosnians,” Shulman says. She continued attending meetings about refugees, where she met Irfan Mirza, who had returned from a wartime humanitarian mission in Sarajevo. “He is truly a mensch,” she says.
From the bima, Mirza told a story: in 1992, with Sarajevo under siege and the Serbian army blockading food supplies, he was delivering mail to Jews taking refuge in a synagogue. As people pored over letters and documents, a woman sat crying. It was Shavuot, traditionally celebrated with dairy, she said, but no one had seen milk products in a long time.
Mirza had brought personal rations, including milk chocolate and wheels of cheese. “Would these count?” he asked. The woman felt she couldn’t take the gifts, so Mirza concocted a story about heading to Italy the next day, where he’d be eating at fine restaurants. She accepted, and the community celebrated the holiday. “It was my first Shavuot,” he recalled, “and I can never forget how rewarding it was to spend such an important holiday with a handful of people who had been through so much. Most of the older Jews in Sarajevo survived the Holocaust and were now facing what turned out to be a second genocide.”
He carried something else: the Holocaust survival story of a Jewish woman he’d been close with, who asked him to guard it until her death. She didn’t survive the Bosnian War. He recently began writing her story — a forthcoming novel.
These sentiments and experiences stuck with Mirza as he considered his copy of the Sarajevo Haggadah. “On the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, Temple Beth Am’s board wrote a moving letter to the Bosnian community; so it was time to reciprocate. I offered the haggadah as part of the package,” he says. “There is no better place for such a gift than a progressive synagogue whose membership will ensure its longevity.”
Synagogue members were thrilled. “It is quite the privilege to receive such a gorgeous representation of the historic Jewish community of Bosnia, not only for its historic and cultural value, but, more importantly, as a symbol of the relationship that has been forged by Temple Beth Am and the Bosnian community of Seattle,” Rabbi Jason Levine says.
The ceremony took place just before Shavuot and during Ramadan. The Kandzics and other Muslims attending — including Medina Kandzic, now grown up — were fasting, but many stayed into nightfall for the Shabbat service. Giving the gift during Ramadan, Imam Begzudin Jusic of the region’s Bosnian community told Mirza, was a great blessing.
To this interfaith congregation, Mirza concluded, “An imam saved the Sarajevo Haggadah during the Holocaust. And so it’s significant that” — he paused and began to weep — that a Bosnian imam would present it today, he finished quietly. Imam Jusic presented the haggadah to Rabbi Zlotnick. Shulman was crying. “I have lived through wars and seen horrors, yet never lost composure,” Mirza later said. “Guess I must be getting soft.”
The gift’s historical roots are deep. “The idea of communities giving each other gifts, especially symbolic and sustainable gifts, goes back to Neolithic times in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” laying a foundation for close-knit and egalitarian societies, Mirza says. But hard work lies ahead. With genocide denial in Bosnia, and Islamophobia and anti-Semitism at home and abroad, “there is this genuine fear of repercussions because you practice your faith in some way,” he says.
To counter this, “We will use this haggadah as a learning tool to educate our community, both young and old, in the importance of how we live our values daily, how we must support all those who cry out for help, and how we can build friendships across many borders,” Levine says.
“My hope and wish is that sharing gifts will lead to sharing ideas, which could be cause for collaboration,” Mirza says. “So the haggadah is the beginning of this aspiration. Let’s start by ensuring that hatred and racial, ethnic, or religious animosity doesn’t creep into our communities — then join forces to help others achieve the same.”