The Museum’s (almost) monthly Staff Book Club met up yesterday…outside! Yes, in a rare break from the moist monotony of the past couple weeks, the sun was shining and the spirit of book discussion was in the air. June’s selection was People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. I’ve read many great novels this year, but this was definitely one of my favorites. It tells the story of the Hanna Heath, an Australian rare book expert, who is called by the United Nations to analyze and conserve the recently rediscovered Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the earliest Jewish books ever to contain intricate images of the Passover story. The volume contains clues that hint at its own history and its owners, accidentally deposited in the book over the course of over 400 years—a butterfly wing from the Alps, missing clasps, a white hair, a wine stain, and a salt stain. Each of these items provides important clues to the history of the book, which are revisited in the narrative.
Something I liked about reading this work of fiction was knowing that it’s based (partially) in fact; while the stories related to the book and all the characters are products of Brooks’ imagination, the Sarajevo Haggadah is a real artifact. We do know something about the book’s history in Sarajevo—it was saved once during WWII by a Muslim scholar who risked execution by not handing the book over to the Nazis, and again in 1992 when a librarian (also Muslim) rescued it after Serb forces shelled the National Museum Library. After that, our own director David Marwell met with the president of Bosnia many years ago about putting the Sarajevo Haggadah on display in our very own galleries, but in the end it remained in Bosnia. Below, check out some of the amazing illuminations from this very remarkable artifact.