When done right, historical fiction broadens our understanding of things past, reminding us of the power of evocation. In our days of social media tribalism and calls to cancel people or books we don’t agree with, some stories from the past offer valuable teachings of the intricate causalities determining the miseries and victories of human values.
Geraldine Brook’s People of the Book raises the feeling we experience when a novel opens for us an entire page of history we weren’t aware of. In this case, the feeling is literal since it manifests itself from the initial pages when the protagonist, an Australian researcher, is handed a book kept at a bank’s safe after miraculously surviving the Siege of Sarajevo during the Yugoslavian Wars:
“As many times as I’ve worked on rare, beautiful things, that first touch is always a strange and powerful sensation. It’s a combination between brushing a live wire and stroking the back of a newborn baby’s head.”
“No conservator had handled this manuscript for a century. I had the forms positioned, ready. I hesitated for just a second—a Hebrew book, therefore spine to the right—and laid it in the cradling foam.”
Itinerancy of a book
Geraldine Brooks’ story is fiction. However, the book handled to the protagonist does exist, and its symbol has endured mighty forces against its survival for seven centuries. It’s the Sarajevo Haggadah, a carefully illustrated Jewish religious book used during prayers. A haggadah, a Jewish Passover text, is a narrative of the Exodus, a story resonating with those expelled from the land that had been their home in Iberia.
Centuries ago, Andalusian cities such as Córdoba flourished as prosperous, sophisticated and multicultural centers where Christian, Muslim and Jewish populations didn’t merely coexist but pushed the boundaries of knowledge in philosophy, mathematics, architecture and more.
Many generations later, once the Catholic Kings conquered the last Muslim stronghold in Iberian Peninsula, the kingdom of Granada, the rationale of Medieval Europe extended to the whole territory, imposing one religion for the entire population through the Alhambra Decree, which effectively translated into the expulsion of practicing Jews from the Crowns of Castile and Aragon.
Those who refused to convert to Catholicism abandoned Iberia through France, Italy, the Netherlands and Northern Africa, often settling within the vast boundaries of the Ottoman Empire: Bayezid II, sultan between 1481 to 1512, was so gladly surprised by the good fortune that he made sure his invitation to the wealthy and educated Sephardic Jews to settle in Ottoman lands wasn’t only words, sending out his Navy under admiral Kemal Reis to Spain in 1492 to evacuate the expelled population.
Bayezid II also ridiculed a country willing to expel some of the most educated families:
“You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler,” he said to his courtiers — “he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!”
Revisiting events from the driver’s seat
Like reality, good fictionalized accounts of events like the ones triggered by the Alhambra Decree and the subsequent prosecution of those Jewish families who remained by converting to Christianism, accused of crypto-Judaism, explain the consequences faced by the thousands of families who found themselves evicted from what they considered their home country.
Their struggles during the Sephardic diaspora remained in the memory of communities that flourished thanks to them, like two cosmopolitan and prosperous cities of Ottoman Europe: Sarajevo and Thessaloniki. In these places, medieval Spanish (Ladino) was widely spoken until the Holocaust, which obliterated the Jewish population of both cities.
Like in Córdoba centuries before, the Sephardic community found protection among the Muslim majority of Sarajevo, a historically prosperous and diverse city on a verdant valley surrounded by the Dinaric Alps, once called the Jerusalem of Europe. Sarajevo was the second city after San Francisco to have an electric tram network and one of the few European cities where one could find a mosque, a Catholic church, an Eastern Orthodox church and a synagogue without leaving one’s neighborhood.
The survival of the Sarajevo Haggadah is a matter of pride for Bosnians of all confessions; a Catholic priest in Italy’s 17th century and a series of Muslim custodians from Sarajevo preserved it in dire moments of ethnic intolerance
Sarajevo also shares its deal of trauma: World War I started after a local activist, Gavrilo Princip, killed the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand —a good excuse to start a conflict in the making. World War II saw the Nazi occupation and the obliteration of the local Jewish community. Yugoslavia, still nominally Communist albeit with a more open economy and society than its neighbors, benefited from Sarajevo’s 1984 Winter Olympics, but a few years later, the same mountains that had hosted the games became the dangerous strongholds of the Serb forces bombing the city.
Gestures that matter
The city suffered the longest siege in the history of modern warfare during the Yugoslav Wars: from April 1992 to February 1996. The cruelty and ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian War left an enduring scar, although some symbols are helping the city overcome its share of trauma.
One of them is the survival of the Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated Jewish manuscript made in Barcelona around 1350 that Sephardic Jews brought to the city from Spain after their expulsion. The book surfaced first in Italy in the 16th century and then reached the Balkans with the families that relocated there in search of a more tolerant environment beyond the reach of the Inquisition.
It endured a long service in private hands, as shown by the stains of wine from centuries of use during Passover Seders and infant drawings. It passed to public hands when, in 1894, the National Museum of Sarajevo bought it from a man called Joseph Kohen, who paradoxically put its survival at risk during the most convoluted moments in the city’s twentieth-century.
The survival of the Sarajevo Haggadah is a matter of pride to the whole city’s population, which identifies with those who defied authorities and occupying armies during moments of distress to prevent its destruction.
First, when it was taken out of the Iberian Peninsula after the Alhambra Decree, but when in 1942 two Nazi officers showed up to get the book, its chief librarian, Derviš Korkut, risked his life lying to them. “Another German officer came before and asked for it, so we give it to him,” he told one of them, General Fortner, chief of the Croatian Fascist regiment known as Black Legion. In reality, the book was in his coat’s pocket.
With the help of Korkut, a Muslim cleric from Bjelasnica, a nearby mountain, hid the book inside the local mosque. The episode entered Sarajevo’s legend, paying tribute to centuries of coexistence, if not tolerance, of different communities: with the help of Catholic civil servants and Muslim scholar Derviš Korkut, an old Jewish text had been saved from confiscation and destruction.
Friends that help friends when it really matters
Korkut’s wife, named Servet, an ethnic Albanian that was only sixteen years old when they married right before the invasion of Yugoslavia by Nazi troops in 1940 (Dervis was thirty-seven years her senior, which explains how Geraldine Brooks could talk to her when working on her book). She explained in an article for the New Yorker Servet’s account of that risky day of 1942:
“Servet remembers very clearly the day her husband came home for lunch with the Haggadah still under his jacket. “I knew he had a book from the library, and that it was very important,” she recalled. “He said, ‘Take care, don’t tell. No one must know or they’ll kill us and destroy the book.’ ” Over the midday meal, he pondered what to do with the Haggadah. That afternoon, he drove out of the city, to Visoko, where one of his sisters lived, on the pretext of visiting her. From there, he took the book to a remote village on nearby Trescavica, where his friend was hodza, or imam, of the small local mosque. There, Servet said, the Haggadah was hidden among Korans and other Islamic texts for the duration of the war. When it was safe, “the hodza brought it back to us, and Dervis returned it to the museum,” she said.”
Those interested in numbers should notice that the Alhambra Decree dates from 1492, and the Haggadah was saved in 1942; same numbers, different position —a permutation for all those similar stories untold or forgotten to History as a testimony of injustices.
It wasn’t the first time that the book had been saved by a notable student of another faith: in 1609, Giovanni Domenico Vistorini, a Catholic priest, examined the book and found nothing objectionable on it, hence saving it from condemnation. He just confirmed his revision with one inscription in Latin, Revisto per mi (“Surveyed by me”).
Also in 1942, Korkut had saved Mira Papo, a Jewish girl, by bringing her into his family and hiding her true identity.
People of the Book
After World War II, the contradictions of the Tito regime played at least the role of substitution of a real cohesion within a complex, multi-confessional country struggling to keep an equilibrium between Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and big minorities such as Bosnian Muslims and Albanians living in Kosovo, Serbia or Macedonia. The 1990s conflict physically devastated Sarajevo, erasing the pride from the 1984 Olympics and engraving the trauma inflicted by bombings from the nearby hills and stray sniper bullets targeting civilians.
The Serb siege during the Bosnian War represented the end of a multicultural raison d’être for a city that had defined itself as multi-ethnic and multi-confessional, a place where the symbolic remnants of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires could find a respite. After 700 years of survival, the Sarajevo Haggadah seemed poised to succumb to any hope of survival.
Top: Moses and the Burning Bush. Bottom: Aaron’s staff swallows the other magicians’ wands (Book of Exodus)
This is the context where Geraldine Brooks starts her novel People of the Book, in which the protagonist, the Australian rare books researcher Hanna Heath, takes the commission to save it from the intense Serb bombing of the city in the mid-nineties. Hanna has to confront the reality of tribal hatred and ethnic cleansing amid one of the last places of centuries-old tolerance in Europe:
“The wide avenues of Austro-Hungarian Sarajevo had gradually given way to the narrow, cobbled footpaths of the Ottoman town, where you could stretch out your arms and almost touch buildings on opposite sides of the way.”
“I had to remind myself that Islam had once swept north as far as the gates of Vienna. That when the haggadah had been made, the Muslims’ vast empire was the bright light of the Dark Ages, the one place where science and poetry still flourished, where Jews, tortured and killed by Christians, could find a measure of peace.”
Inside the Jerusalem of Europe
Hanna Heath finds a city in distress, fighting for its very survival, but at the same time concerned about preserving the symbols of tolerance that had guided the very idea of its existence at the crossroads of European history. The present blends with discovering the Haggadah’s fascinating parkour and endurance.
The binding’s meticulous study serves Geraldine Brooks to reveal to the reader the genuine mysteries of a book carrying the hopes and suffering of generations: an insect wing fragment, wine stains, annotations, a hair… The book’s past, and that of its custodians, unlocks before the reader.
The Sarajevo Haggadah is very real, and it remains the symbol of one idea of religious and ethnic tolerance in Europe and across the Mediterranean. If the book survived the Nazi occupation thanks to a Catholic and a Muslim aware of their local and universal value, it was rescued from the siege of Sarajevo by Serbs in the nineties. First, it endured a museum break-in, discarded by the thieves. Then, when the shelling from nearby mountains became too intense, it was kept in an underground bank vault, which signals the beginning of Geraldine Brooks’ novel.
As the novel advances, we go back in time to the book’s custodians in Central Europe, Italy, and finally, the Jewish families living in Catalonia, the Edict of Expulsion of those refusing to convert to Catholicism in 1492, and later prosecution of those who had accepted forced religious conversion.
That’s how we can see families from Tarragona being forced to sell their belongings at a loss and either leave or abide by the religious laws, which they already knew too well that they would not protect them if they rested. Some of them die, but others plan their escape, deciding to carry the essentials, among them the book that now all Bosnians celebrate as a national treasure and one of the vestiges of the times when their city on a valley surrounded by mountains, the charming Sarajevo, had been considered the Jerusalem of Europe.
Back in 1492
We also borrow her eyes to experience what’s happening to their community across Iberia in 1492, from a walk to the market in Tarragona:
“David Ben Shoushan was not a rude man, it was just that his mind was on higher things. His wife, Miriam, often chastised him for this, for passing within feet of her sister in the marketplace without a nod of acknowledgment or failing to hear when the mackerel sellers were hawking their fish at half the usual price.”
“The youth had claimed a small patch of ground at the edge of the market, hemmed in by the city wall. It was a damp, windy spot at this time of year; a poor place to attract customer, which was why the local merchants left it for the itinerant peddlers or the ragtag of war-fleeting Andalusians who drifted through the city. The wars in the south had set so many adrift. By the time they reached this far, what little they’d had of value was already sold. Most of the refugees who found places on the market’s edges were attempting to sell worthless things: threadbare cales and surcoats of a new worn-out household goods. But the youth had a piece of leather unrolled in front of him, and on it, bright and arresting, was a collection of small painted parchments.”
Brooks speculates about the book’s origin; made around 1350, it’s believed to have been created in Barcelona or somewhere else in Catalonia, but the writer prefers to link it to a deaf-mute boy of Jewish origin leaving the warzone of the Kingdom of Granada, conquered that same year of 1492 by the Catholic Kings, who also unified the crowns of Castile and Aragon within the same kingdom, giving birth to modern Spain.
So David Ben Shoushan, a Jewish sofer (holy book writer) from Tarragona, recognizes right away the Haggadah facsimiles’ value and originality, given the precious character of the skillful illustrations. So he asks (Chapter 8 of People of the Book):
“Who is he?”
The man shrugged. “The slave told some wild tale—claimed he’s the son of a physician who served the last emir. But you know how it is with slaves, they like to make up tales, eh?”
“Is the boy a Jew?”
“He’s circumcised, so he’s not Christian, and he doesn’t look like a Moor.”
“Where is this slave? I’d like to know more about these pictures.”
“Slipped off one night not long after we reached the coast at Alicante. Trying to get home to Ifriqiya, no doubt. My wife’s taken a liking to the youth; he’s a willing soul, and he surely doesn’t give her any backchat. But when we got here, I made him understand that he’d have to sell something to pay his way. The pictures are all he had with him. That’s real gold on them, you know. You want one?
“I want all of them,” said Ben Shoushan.
David Ben Shoushan, the poorest of a notable family of the Jewish “call” (medieval borough) of Tarragona, was in charge of making a haggadah shel Pesach for an important wedding in the community, so he decides to acquire the illustrations. He tells his spouse, Miriam:
“I can have the quires with these pictures bound into the book, and then we will be able to give a gift of substance.”
A sofer from Tarragona like the imaginary Ben Shoushan might have saved the images and consolidated them into a single binding, hence saving it from obliteration. We can only guess about the countless artifacts and belongings that didn’t manage to survive prosecution.
Scene from the Sarajevo Haggadah, produced in Catalonia (likely Barcelona) around 1350
Ben Shoushan had chosen a rather humble life, dedicated to his task of scribe within the community. However, his lack of social clout doesn’t prevent him from perceiving the danger to Muslims and Jews in a unified Christian Spain:
“There were many in need this year, thanks to the taxes imposed by the king and queen for their interminable wars in the south. Ben Shoushan tried to rein in his racing thoughts. A sofer must fill his mind with only the holy letters. He could not be distracted by daily things (…). His hand formed the letter shin —the letter of reason. What reason could there be in this constant fighting with the Moors? Had not the Muslims, Jews, and Christians shared these lands in contentment—in convivencia—for hundreds of years? What was the saying? Christians raise the armies, Muslims raise the buildings, Jews raise the money.”
A painful present tense in Gaza
Most Sephardic families settled in the area centuries before had traveled to other parts of Europe and the Americans. Most of those who had rested were victims of pogroms and the Shoah.
Most of those who survived left either for the United States or Israel. Yet the Sarajevo Haggadah also talks about inter-faith respect and humanism, surviving intolerance across the centuries thanks to people who usually weren’t Jewish but decided to risk their lives to preserve it.
Can such a book help us reflect on the painful present, when the immediacy and disinformation bias of social networks transforms us into commentators of a painful, complex conflict between Israelians and Palestinians? Which symbolic steps could help them and us all to start thinking about true peace and fruitful, safe cohabitation in the Levant?