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A Passover Story for Everyone in a Time of Lockdown

How a multi-ethnic city under siege turned to a legendary Jewish book for guidance

We've told this story before; it's time to tell it again. After all, when Jews celebrate Passover, one of the first things they read in their Haggadah is: "All who are hungry, let them come and eat. All who are in need of fellowship, let them come and celebrate Passover with us." In the photo above, you see most famous Haggadah of them all. Created and painted by hand on the finest leather in Spain in the 1300s, it was discovered in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo in 1894. How it got there, no one knows, but an Italian church censor decided not to burn it in 1609 when he scribbled in its margin, and in 1942, a Nazi general went looking for it while a Muslim scholar was hiding it. Then, when Sarajevo was besieged in 1992, the great book vanished - all while a band of Holocaust survivors turned their synagogue into a humanitarian aid agency. Their city was cut off from the world, and by the time the siege ended nearly four years later, 11,000 men, women and children had been shot down by snipers or blown up by mortars. Another 50,000 were wounded.

Who in their right minds would brave the shooting every day to come to the synagogue to hand out food and mediicine? Jews and Bosniak Muslims, Serbian Orthodox and Croatian Catholics. "All who are hungry...all who are in need of fellowship..."

These three films below highlight this inspiring story. Survival in Sarajevo is available in seven languages (just be in touch with us). El Otro Camino: 1492, narrated in Spanish, has been seen over 340,000 times. And in Searching for Hope we will take you on a journey to see if, by a miracle, our correspondent could actually get to see the legendary book. 

 
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A short history of the Balkan Sephardim

The word Sepharad means Iberia in Hebrew, and Jews began arriving in Spanish territories from the Holy Land sometime in the fourth century. In the early 700s, the Moors swept across the straits of Gibraltar and established the kingdom of al-Andalus in southern Spain. Over the coming centuries, Jews found their role in both the Catholic provinces and the Moorish territories; aside from diplomacy, they specialized in skills such as medicine and pharmacology, leather working and metal work, textiles and trading.


Starting in the eleventh century, Spain’s Catholic rulers launched the Reconquista and began taking back its territories from the Moors. In 1479, Ferdinand V of Aragón and Catherine I of Castile married, combined their kingdoms, and unleashed a torrent of religious intolerance through its Inquisition. Jews were arrested, robbed, and burned at the stake, all while the last Muslim-held province of Granada continued to shrink. The monarchs signed an expulsion order in March 1492, giving every Jew in their kingdom until August to either convert or leave. The Muslims were also to be expelled.

 

Survival in Sarajevo

Friendship in a time of war

This 12 minute multimedia film will tell how, when Sarajevo was besieged, a small band of Holocaust survivors turned their synagogue into a free and open house for everyone. Who worked there? Jews and Bosniak Muslims, Croatian Catholics, and Serbian Orthodox. If you need a link to watch this film in Hebrew, German, French, Polish, Hungarian, Bosnian or Romanian, just be in touch at office@centropa.org

 

The Sarajevo Haggadah

A reporter's search for the most famous Haggadah of them all

When the Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492, one family brought with them their exquisite, illustrated Haggadah. This is the book that passed from family to family, country to country, century after century until it was discovered in Sarajevo in 1894. During the Second World War, a Nazi general was looking for it. A Muslim scholar was hiding it. And when war returned to Sarajevo in 1992, the book vanished--while becoming a symbol of of hope for everyone. Would it ever be seen again? No spoiler alert here, friends. Just watch the film!

 

El Otro Camino 1492

500 years of the Balkan Sephardim - in Spanish and in 12 minutes!

 In 2012, Wendy Warren was teaching a Holocaust course to Hispanic-American teenagers in Houston, and Wendy worked with us to create a narrative that would speak to them. This film has now been viewed over 350,000 times and teachers in the US, Mexico, Colombia, and especially Spain regularly use it.

 
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The Death of Yugoslavia

A six part series by BBC

We highly recommend the documentary series: The Death of Yugoslavia, a 6 part series by BBC.
Based on the book by Allan Little and Laura Silber, it was filmed in 1995, when several of those interviewed thought they had gotten away with their crimes They were wrong.

The Siege of Sarajevo

Historical background

The siege of Sarajevo. For 44 months, from May, 1992 until February, 1996, the multiethnic city of Sarajevo was cut off from the world. More than 11,000 of its citizens were shot by snipers or blown up by mortars. Here are the legally adjudicated facts of the siege, as accepted by the Hague War Crimes Tribunal.

Righteous Gentiles in Sarajevo

Two remarkable stories of bravery

When Zeyneba Hardaga, a Muslim, rescued her Jewish friend in 1942, she had no idea she would need to be rescued in 1992.
Dervis Korkut, a Muslim, is mostly known for saving the legendary Sarajevo Haggadah. He also saved something more precious: a Jewish friend

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From the Front Lines

War reporting at its best (1)

A war reporter, a Spanish photographer, and a journey out of Sarajevo. Maggie O’Kane filed this hard hitting piece on 21 May, 1992.

Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo

War reporting at its best (2)

Kurt Schock, Reuters bureau chief in Sarajevo, filed this piece on 23 May 1993. During the 44 months of the siege, Kurt Schock never left Sarajevo—even for a day. He was killed in an ambush in Sierra Leone with another journalist in 2000.

Milton Wolf Prize

A project for students and teachers

During the Bosnian war of the 1990s, Milton Wolf reached out to help Zeyneba Hardaga. He was a Jew. She was a Muslim. He lived in America. She was in Bosnia. She needed visas, medical help, and a new home. Milton Wolf did not stop until he made it all happen.

 

Our recommended reading list

You're in lockdown. You need some book tips, right? Here are just a few books on the Balkans, the Sephardim, and the siege of Sarajevo we recommend.

Mark Mazower - City of Ghosts

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A masterful history of the great port city of Salonica--now known as Thessaloniki to Greeks. Before 1912, when the city was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, the three great faiths--Judaism, Islam and Christianity--lived side by side. Mazower charts the city's history, and how the turbulent  20th century brought it all to an ugly, murderous end.

Sarah Abrevaya Stein - Family Papers

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The Economist named it one of the best books of the year, and Stein has used a treasure trove of letters from the Levy family of Salonica, who had once been publishers and editors. Stein traces their trajectory through the 20th century and her research takes her, and her readers, through nine countries on three continents.

Devin E. Naar - Jewish Salonica

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Winner of the National Jewish Book Award in 2016, Naar spent years in Salonica digging through archives to come up with his study that shows how Jews lived through a time that witnessed the Ottoman Empire crumble and the modern Greek state take Salonica for the first time in 500 years. The book's final chapter, on the history of what had been the largest Jewish cemetery in the world, is especially heartbreaking.

Emily Greble - Sarajevo 1941-1945

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Emily Greble's research into the archives of Sarajevo has netted a fascinating study of how Jews, Muslims, Serbs and Croats interacted--and didn't--during the Second World War in this multi-ethnic city. Ruled by the fascist Croatian Ustasha, Greble shows how the ideologues from Zagreb made as many enemies out of Sarajevo's Croats as friends, and how some Muslims refused to take part while others joined the SS. Invaluable for both the serious researcher as well as the general reader.

Mark Mazower - The Balkans

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Published in 2000, just as a decade of Yugoslav wars was coming to an end, Mazower presents us with a highly readable overview of Europe's troubled southeast region. In 135 pages, Mazower dispenses with western prejudices and misconceptions and provides a solid history of this fascinating region. Belongs on every bookshelf.

Tim Judah - The Serbs

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A longtime Balkan hand, Judah has written for the Tines of London and still files for The Economist from the Balkans. With scores of interviews conducted in Serbia as well as the rest of the region, Judah provides the general reader with an overview of Serbia's history, and, as he sees it, her inexorable slide into nationalist wars. First published in 1997, Judah has updated the book twice more, and we recommend its third edition.

Chuck Sudetic - Blood and Vengeance

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New York Times stringer Chuck Sudetic  produced this gripping study, in which he traces a single family in Srebrenica, from their arrival over a hundred years ago to July, 1995, when they were running through the forests, hoping to escape the Bosnian Serbs, who were slaughtering thousands of men and boys. Unique in the annals of war reporting, it is little wonder that Sudetic then became an investigator for the Hague War Crimes Trial. Along with Barbara Demick, we feel this is the best book to come out of the Bosnian war (and there were many good ones).

Barbara Demick - Besieged

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Barbara Demick was working for The Philadelphia Inquirer in Berlin in the 1990s when her editor suggested she simply move to Sarajevo and get to know all the families on a single street--all while the city was being bombarded, day after day, week after week, month after month--for forty-four months. A skilful reporter who writes with insight and compassion, Demick shows how neighbors and friends turned into the bitterest enemies while others stood proudly with each other. Published to great acclaim and several awards in 1995 as "Logavina Street," Demick added a new chapter twenty years later and the book is now sold under the title Besieged.

 

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