Prized Bosnian cultural relic won't show in NYC

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Associated Press

Posted on February 6, 2013 at 9:02 AM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 6 at 1:31 PM

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Officials in charge of Bosnia's national monuments said Wednesday they rejected an offer by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to exhibit one of Bosnia's most prized relics, a 600-year-old Jewish manuscript that remains locked in a museum which closed because of a lack of money.

Ljiljana Sevo of Bosnia's National Monuments Preservation Commission said that the Sarajevo Haggadah could not be loaned because of the unresolved status of its home, the Bosnian National Museum. The rejection puts pressure on the government to try to step in and save the museum.

The manuscript's trip to New York requires special conservatory preparations. Sevo said Bosnia has experts who could do it, but there is nobody who would pay them.

The National Museum and six other institutions that are the custodians of Bosnia's national heritage — and care for precious medieval manuscripts, religious relicts and natural history artifacts, among other items — are victims of the 1995 peace agreement that ended Bosnia's war. The deal split the Balkan nation along ethnic lines into two semi-autonomous parts linked by a weak central government and guided by a constitution that did not envisage a culture ministry.

This left the seven cultural institutions without a guardian and without funding. For years, the museum survived from ad hoc grants and donations.

Museum staff worked for a whole year without pay before they lost every hope last October, gathered one more time at the fountain in the museum's botanical garden, threw a coin into it and made a wish that the institution will reopen soon. Then, they left the building and nailed wooden boards that read "closed" across its front door. Many cried.

Sarajevo's students tried in vain to chain themselves to pillars inside the building, but eventually lost the battle with the police and hung a banner on the building with a message to Bosnia's politicians: "Shame on you."

Since then, no progress has been made toward solving the problem.

Locked inside remains Bosnia's cultural heritage, including the Sarajevo Haggadah.

Handwritten on bleached calfskin, the manuscript dates to the once-thriving Jewish community in Spain and describes events ranging from the Creation to the Jewish exodus from ancient Egypt to the death of Moses.

A Haggadah is a narrative of the Exodus read at the Seder service during Passover. The 109-page text known as the Sarajevo Haggadah was presented as a wedding gift in the 14th century to a young couple in Barcelona, Spain.

In 1492, when Spain expelled the country's Jews, a refugee brought the book to Italy. A rabbi later brought the Haggadah from Italy to Bosnia and passed it down through his family until a descendant, Joseph Kohen, sold it to the National Museum in 1894.

The Metropolitan offered in November 2012 to host the relic for three years, but the country's Commission for the Preservation of National Monuments — the only institution that could approve such a trip — conditioned the trip to New York with Bosnia solving the legal status of the museum.

The commission said it "appeals for the immediate resolution of the status and the functioning of the museum which would end the jeopardy Bosnia's heritage has found itself in."

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