People of the Book
Issue: 12.04
April 18, 2011
Geraldine Brooks

When an Israeli colleague calls Sydney at 2 a.m. to tell Hanna Heath that the Sarajevo Haggadah has resurfaced in war-torn Bosnia, she is surprised and curious.

When her colleague says he has recommended she be the one to assess and stabilize the ancient manuscript, she is overwhelmed.

When she sees the book, set free of its wax-sealed, metal box and silk paper wrappings, its scuffed soiled cover turned back, she is dazzled. Seven centuries notwithstanding, its pages glow with lavish illuminations in lapis lazuli blue, autumn crocus saffron, malachite green and vermillion red.

Equally intriguing is Ozren Karaman, the Muslim chief librarian of the Sarajevo museum, who rescued the book in the midst of intense shelling. His wife had been shot by a sniper a year earlier. His three-year-old son, Alia, had sustained severe brain injuries and remained in a coma in the hospital on life support.

As she does her first inspection, she finds small signs of its long journey: A bungled rebinding with channels that should have held clasps; a 160 inscription by a Papal censor; a wine stain; a fine, white hair; a bit of insect wing; and signs of salt water.

Just as any Passover haggadah tells the story of the exodus from Egypt, Brooks' narrative tells the story of the Haggadah and Hanna Heath's investigation of it side by side with her engagement with Ozren and Alia Karaman and her relationship with her neurosurgeon mother –and ultimately herself.

“People of the Book” is a fictional overlay of the real Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the oldest Sephardic Haggadahs in the world, created in Barcelona around 1350. It is owned by the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, where it is on permanent display.

Illuminated in copper and gold with gem stone pigments, its survival is miraculous. It is believed that it was taken out of Spain when the Jews were expelled. Margin notes place it in Italy in the 16th century. In 1894, it was sold to the Sarajevo museum by Joseph Kohen.

The haggadah was protected from the Nazis and the Ustashe during World War II by the museum’s chief librarian, Dervis Korkut. At risk to his own life, Korkut smuggled it out of Sarajevo to a Muslim cleric in Zenica who hid it.

In 1992, during the Bosnian War, the haggadah survived a museum break-in and was discovered on the floor by the police. It was kept in an underground bank vault during the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb troops.

To dispel rumors that the government had sold the haggadah to buy weapons, the Bosnian president presented the manuscript at a community seder in 1995. The United Nations and the Bosnian Jewish Community funded a restoration of the manuscript in 2001 and it went on permanent display at the museum in 2002.

Brooks worked in Bosnia, Somalia and the Middle East as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Like Hanna Heath, she is Australian by birth. She is the author of the novel “March,” for which she won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006, and the novel “Year of Wonders.” Her non-fiction works include “Nine Parts of Desire” and “Foreign Correspondence.

© Jeannette M. Hartman 2011

Reviewed by: Jeannette M. Hartman
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