Shavuot in Sarajevo and Seattle
8 June 2016
On June 7, 1992, a bag full of mail was delivered to the Jewish Synagogue in Sarajevo, then besieged capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The bag contained letters from friends, family and supporters of Sarajevo’s remaining Jewish community. At that time, Bosnia was in a state of war. The Jugoslav People’s Army had besieged the capital and other cities, and were shelling and shooting at residents who were captive within. Sarajevo’s Jews were no exception. While most of Sarajevo’s Jews had left the city through organized airlifts a couple of months earlier, several hundred Jews remained in the city, under total blockade.
At the synagogue where the mail was going to be distributed, there was a lot of excitement and keen interest in its contents. Each letter was addressed and community members had gathered at the synagogue to show their identification and pick up their post.
After the mail was distributed, a Jewish woman appeared to be disturbed; everyone thought it was because of sad news in a letter that she had received. When asked if she was okay, she explained that the day was actually the day of Shavouth (Shavout), a commemoration of the day when Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai.
On this day, it is Jewish tradition to eat dairy. But since Sarajevo was under blockade, and food supplies were not coming in to the city, there was a severe shortage of dairy products. Upon hearing this, everyone in the room suddenly became silent. There was a solemn acknowledgement and sense of despair that the day would be commemorated without dairy. The rest of this story from the war will be shared at Temple Beth Am at 2632 NE 80th St, Seattle, WA, on June 10th, 2016 at 8 pm sharp. Seattle’s Bosnian community and VOBG will present a copy of the Sarajevo Haggadah to the Jewish community. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/vobgseattle.
Some interesting facts about Sarajevo’s Jewish community. Jews took refuge in Sarajevo in the 15th century after they were expelled from Spain and Portugal. They brought with them a book of the Passover, that became known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. The city’s Jewish population numbered around 14,000 before the Second World War. Prior to the Nazi invasion of Sarajevo, the city proudly counted 15 synagogues within its municipal territory. Sadly, the Nazis and their Croatian allies, the Ustase, killed thousands of Sarajevo’s Jews, alongside thousands more from other parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina. With this catastrophic loss of life, Sarajevo’s rich Sephardic culture was lost. The Ladino language that could be heard in Jewish neighborhoods was no longer spoken. The synagogues were bombed to rubble, books on Judaica were burned.
The Nazis sent an officer to find the Sarajevo Haggadah to ensure it was also burned, but the priceless artifact was hidden out of sight and saved from destruction. During the 1992-1995 war, the Sarajevo Haggadah had to again be hidden, this time from Serb shelling of the national library where it was housed. Fortunately, it survived the war and is now the centerpiece in the national museum in Sarajevo. A copy of the Haggadah was given to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.