07 June 2019

The librarian who saved
a Sephardic ‘Haggadah’
and a family in Sarajevo

An exhibition in the Sephardic Museum in Córdoba tells the story of how the ‘Sarajevo Haggadah’ was saved (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

An exhibition in the Sephardic Museum in Córdoba tells the extraordinary story of the journey of a unique Sephardic book and the people who saved it.

The Haggadah recalls the Biblical story in the Book Exodus of how the enslaved people in Egypt were led into freedom with Moses. The Sarajevo Haggadah was made in Sefarad or Jewish Spain, possibly in Barcelona, around 1350.

When the Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella, some of them went first to Portugal, and brought with them this Haggadah. From Portugal, the book arrived in Venice in 1609, and its presence is noted at a later stage in Vienna.

The National Museum in Sarajevo, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, bought this book in 1896 from a Sephardic Jew, Joseph Cohen. It soon became the museum’s finest treasure.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is illuminated in silver and gold, and its extraordinary beauty is enhanced by the use of lapis lazuli, azurite and maluquite.

The ‘Haggadah’ recalls the Passover story in the Book Exodus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Before the Nazi occupation of Sarajevo, a young librarian and curator at the National Museum in Sarajevo, Dervis Korkut (1888-1969), was writing several essays criticising the worrying rise of antisemitism. He was a Muslim and he said antisemitism was alien to the Bosnian traditions of tolerance.

When the Nazis occupied Sarajevo on 16 April 1941, they began a systematic persecution of the city’s Jews, who were mainly of Sephardic descent, as well as Gypsies, Serbs and other ethic and minority groups of people.

They also set out to requisition the Sarajevo Haggadah as an important symbol of Jewish culture and demanded the Haggadah at the Sarajevo museum. However, the librarian Dervis Korkut had concealed the rare volume, hid it in his jacket and left the museum through a back door.

Korkut explained away the missing Sephardic Haggadah, saying a German office had already taken it. Throughout the rest of World War II, the book was kept in hiding in a small town in Bosnia until the end of the Nazi occupation.

Meanwhile, as Dervis Korkut was working at the museum in Sarajevo, he was introduced to Mira Papo, a young Sephardic girl in a desperate search for a hiding place. Her father Salomon Papo, a janitor in the Ministry of the Economy, had been arrested and had been sent with the rest of the family to an extermination camp.

Dervis Korkut took her into his home and told her to use the Muslim name of Amir. When he introduced her to neighbours and the local gossips, he told them she was babysitting his son Munib.

Through his bravado, Dervis Korkut had saved a valuable work of Sephardic Jewish culture, and a young Jewish woman.

When World War II was over, Mira Papo moved to Israel. Dervis Korkut died in 1969, and after his death Mira wrote a letter explaining how she had survived thanks to his bravery. Because of this letter, Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Memorial Centre in Jerusalem, declared Dervis one of the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ – a gentile who had saved a Jewish life during the years of the Holocaust.

Dervis Korkut’s daughter, Lamija, who was living with her husband in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, in 1994, when Serbian militias started to bomb and occupy the region, and began a programme of ‘ethnic cleansing’ that targeted Muslim people in the former Yugoslavia. Lamija and her husband now found they were refugees, and family contacts put them in touch with the Jewish community in Skopje in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – today’s North Macedonia.

On her arrival, Lamija presented a letter in Hebrew she did not understand to a member of the Jewish community in Skopje. When he read it he was deeply moved.

Some days later, Lamija and her husband received a letter telling them they had been accepted as refugees in Israel. When they arrived at Tel Aviv Airport, Mira Papo’s son, Davor Bakovic, was waiting to welcome them.

The Talmud says, ‘Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.’

‘Whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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