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The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book

15Apr6:00 pm8:00 pmThe Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book6:00 pm - 8:00 pm(GMT+00:00) 225 Madison Avenue at 36 Street, NY 10016

Event Details

Merima Ključo, composer and accordionist, Bart Woodstrup, artist, Seth Knopp, pianist

A multimedia work composed by Merima Ključo.

Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book traces the incredible journey of this most treasured 14th-century Hebrew illuminated manuscript. Inspired by the musical traditions of Spain, Italy, Austria, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ključo collaborates with artist Bart Woodstrup and pianist Seth Knopp to present a multimedia performance exploring the Sarajevo Haggadah as a symbol of diaspora and return. A discussion with Merima Ključo and Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and author of People of The Book, the historical novel that inspired this production, will follow the performance.

The exhibition Hebrew Illumination For Our Time: The Art of Barbara Wolff will be open at 6 pm for concert attendees.

The Book of Exodus

A double rescue in wartime Sarajevo. Geraldine Brooks, The New Yorker, December 3, 2007

When the Axis powers conquered and divided Yugoslavia, in the spring of 1941, Sarajevo did not fare well. The city cradled by mountains that Rebecca West once described as like “an opening flower” suddenly found itself absorbed into the Nazi puppet state of Croatia, its tolerant, cosmopolitan culture crushed by the invading German Army and the Croatian Fascist Ustashe. Hitler’s ally, Ante Pavelic, who had headed the Ustashe through the nineteen-thirties, proclaimed that his new state must be “cleansed” of Jews and Serbs: “Not a stone upon a stone will remain of what once belonged to them.”

The terror began on April 16th, when the German Army entered Sarajevo and sacked the city’s eight synagogues. The Sarajevo pinkas, a complete record of the Jewish community from its earliest days, was confiscated and sent to Prague, never to be recovered. Deportations followed. Jews, Gypsies, and Serb resisters turned frantically to sympathetic Muslim or Croat neighbors to hide them. Fear of denunciation spread through the city, penetrating every workplace, even the imposing neo-Renaissance halls of the Bosnian National Museum.

The museum’s chief librarian, an Islamic scholar named Dervis Korkut, was an unlikely figure of resistance, but he had already made his anti-Fascist feelings clear, in an article defending the city’s beleaguered Jews. A handsome, dapper man with a neatly trimmed mustache, he wore well-tailored three-piece suits complemented by a fez. In early 1942, when Korkut heard that a Nazi commander, General Johann Fortner, had arrived at the museum to speak to its director, he immediately feared for the museum library’s greatest treasure, a masterpiece of medieval Judaica known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. A Haggadah, from the Hebrew root “HGD”—“to tell”—relates the story of the exodus from Egypt, which Jews are commanded to tell to their children. It is used at the table during the Passover Seder. (Wine stains on the parchments of the Sarajevo Haggadah testify that this book, though lavishly designed, was read at such family feasts.)

There were rumors, at the time, of Hitler’s nascent plan for a “museum of an extinct race.” Synagogues and community buildings in Josevof, the Jewish quarter of Prague, had been spared destruction so that, when all of Europe’s Jews had been obliterated, it could become a caricature “Jew Town” for Aryan tourists to visit, populated by Czech actors in Hasidic garb. The museum’s future exhibits would eventually fill fifty warehouses. The best of Europe’s Judaica was being amassed as part of the general plunder under the authority of Alfred Rosenberg, the Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories. Rosenberg’s collection was intended to facilitate a new branch of scholarship: Judenforschung ohne Juden (Jewish studies without Jews). Hitler admired Rosenberg’s impeccable Fascist aesthetics (Rosenberg had decried Expressionism as “syphilitic”) and in 1940 had directed the Wehrmacht to extend all possible assistance to his unit. By the war’s end, the Germans had looted more than thirty thousand items of Judaica—silk Torah mantles, prayer shawls, silver ritual cups and dishes, and portraits, kitchenware, and other domestic items that reflected centuries of Jewish life. And there were more than a hundred thousand Yiddish and Hebrew books. The Sarajevo Haggadah could easily have been one of them.

Korkut probably hadn’t heard of Hitler’s museum, but he had seen ancient Torah scrolls destroyed in Sarajevo’s streets. When the museum’s director, a respected Croatian archeologist who did not speak German, called for Korkut to act as a translator, a few minutes before his meeting with Fortner, Korkut pleaded to be allowed to take the Haggadah and keep it out of Nazi hands. The director was reluctant. “You will be risking your life,” he warned. Korkut replied that the book was his responsibility as kustos—custodian of the library’s two hundred thousand volumes. So the two men hurried to the basement, where the Haggadah was kept in a safe whose combination only the director knew. He took the book from a protective box and handed it to Korkut. Korkut lifted his coat and tucked the small codex, which measured about six by nine inches, into the waistband of his trousers. He smoothed his jacket, making sure that no bulges broke the line of his suit, and the two men made their way back upstairs to face the General.

The man so determined to protect a Jewish book was the scion of a prosperous, highly regarded family of Muslim alims, or intellectuals, famous for producing judges of Islamic law. Dervis’s brother, Besim, a professor of Arabic, made the first good translation of the Koran into Serbo-Croatian. Dervis, born in the old Ottoman capital of Bosnia, Travnik, in 1888, aspired to be a doctor, but his father insisted that he continue the family tradition of religious scholarship. He studied theology at Istanbul University and Near Eastern languages at the Sorbonne. He spoke at least ten languages and served for a time as the senior official in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia’s ministry of religious affairs and as an honorary consul for France.

His interests were wide-ranging. He wrote papers on history and architecture, and a tract against alcohol abuse. But his abiding interest was the culture of Bosnia’s minority communities, including Albanians and Jews. In 1941, after Yugoslavia tried to appease the Nazis by passing anti-Jewish laws, Korkut wrote a paper titled “Anti-Semitism Is Foreign to the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” in which he explored the benign history of Bosnia’s intercommunal relations and pointed out that the Jews, rather than being the predatory financial manipulators of propaganda, were more likely to be found in the Bosnian underclass.

As a prominent Muslim intellectual, Korkut had come under intense pressure to join a Fascist-leaning group known as the Young Muslims, which served as a kind of proving ground for the Handjar, a Muslim division of the S.S. He refused. Later in the war, he also refused an order signed by Ante Pavelic, requiring him to relocate to “the Croatian People’s Liberated Zagreb” to take charge of the library under the Ustashe government’s control.

Korkut’s passionate interest in Bosnia’s cultural diversity manifested itself in his studies of the region’s art and literature. He was fascinated by the myriad influences in Sarajevan writing—how a lyric poem composed by a Slav might use classical Arabic and yet echo Latin verse forms carried to Sarajevo from the court of Diocletian on the Dalmatian coast. Of all the treasures in his care, none embodied the possibilities of diversity—or the fragility of intercultural harmony—as exuberantly as the Sarajevo Haggadah. The little parchment codex, rich in gold and silver leaf, lavishly illuminated with precious pigments made from lapis lazuli, azurite, and malachite, was created in Spain, perhaps as early as the mid-fourteenth century, during the period known as the convivencia, when Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities lived in the sol y sombra—sun and shadow—of a shared existence. The illustrations resemble those of medieval Christian Psalters, but some of the decoration calls to mind an Islamic style of ornamentation. Quite apart from the opulence and artistry of the illustrations, the fact that they exist at all is extraordinary. Until the codex came to light, in 1894, art historians widely believed that figurative painting had been entirely suppressed among medieval Jews because of the injunction in the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or likeness of any thing”—a proscription echoed in many Islamic, and some Christian, societies. The content of the illustrations is often intriguing. In a scene that has mystified scholars, a depiction of a Spanish Seder includes a woman whose black skin and African features are in stark contrast to those of other family members around the table but who holds a piece of matzo—unleavened bread—and wears the costume of a wealthy Spanish Jew of the era.

The book’s survival is remarkable. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree expelling all Jews from Spain. If, as seems likely, the book left Spain with a Jewish family at that time, it was one of very few religious texts of its kind to escape confiscation and destruction. In Portugal, where many Spanish Jews found a brief refuge before being expelled a second time, ownership of Hebrew books became a capital offense. One man’s account, from Lisbon in 1497, tells how he “dug a grave among the roots of a blossoming olive tree” to hide his books, knowing that it was unlikely he would ever return to unearth them: “Yet, although a tree flourishing with lovely fruit stood there . . . did I call it ‘Tree of Sorrow.’ ”

Sometime in the following century, the Haggadah found its way to Venice, where a polyglot Jewish community thrived on a tiny island that had previously served as the city’s foundry, or ghetto. The first Jews, German loan bankers among them, had arrived in the early sixteenth century. Next came Levantine Jews, whose ties to the Ottoman Empire were valuable to the city’s vast trading enterprise. The exiles from the Iberian Peninsula gradually increased the population, and the ghetto’s tight-pressed multistory dwellings became the tallest in the city. Venice offered Jews property rights and legal protection rarely matched elsewhere in Europe at that time. Still, they had to wear a colored cap to identify themselves when they left the ghetto, and the ghetto’s gates were locked each night. They were banned from most trades, including printing, and any Hebrew books that were not approved by an ecclesiastical censor of the Pope’s Inquisition were destroyed in public burnings. Books could be destroyed or defaced for many perceived heresies—such as suggestions that the Messiah was yet to come, or arguments against the use of saints or any other intercessors as mediators between humans and an indivisible God, or any reference to Jews as “holy” or “pious.” A Catholic priest, Gio-vanni Domenico Vistorini, inspected the Haggadah in 1609. Nothing is known of him beyond the books that bear his signature, but many of the Ca-tholic Hebraists of the time were converted Jews. Vistorini apparently found nothing objectionable in the Haggadah. His Latin inscription, Revisto per mi (“Surveyed by me”) runs with a casual fluidity beneath the last, painstakingly calligraphed lines of the Hebrew text.

How or when the book left Venice and came to Sarajevo is a mystery. Read

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