Venice and Sarajevo Haggadot recall the importance of Holocaust restitution and cherishing memory

On the occasion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe held an event on 24 January, to present two exhibitions on the Sarajevo and Venice Haggadot. The event gathered a round table of experts, who participated, both in-presence and virtually, stressing the importance of memory and education to combat denial and disinformation on the Holocaust.

The UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe hosted two exhibitions at Palazzo Zorzi, its premises in Venice, to mark UN Resolution 60/7, which established 27 January as the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. The exhibitions focused on the Venice and Sarajevo Haggadot as the epitome of the importance of transmitting memories to future generations through education and books. A number of contributions by experts from UNESCO, the local municipality of Venice, Cultural centres and Museums, reinforced the importance of remembrance not only in the Jewish history and culture but also for our collective memory and conscience.

As part of the “The three lives of the Sarajevo Haggadah” exhibition, organised by the UNESCO Regional Bureau, with the support of the US Embassy in Sarajevo, a noteworthy reproduction of the Sarajevo Haggadah was displayed in its original size, with the goal of highlighting the artistic and aesthetic uniqueness of the manuscript. The exhibition emphasised both the sophisticated visual exception and the cultural and historical importance of this manuscript, as well as the value of books in the Jewish spiritual life.

Similarly, “The book of liberation. Venice and the Haggadah of Pesach” exhibition, curated by Beit Venice, a ‘home’ for Jewish culture, in collaboration with the UNESCO Regional Bureau, reproduced some works by the artists of the “New Venice Haggadah” publication and intertwined different historical moments through narratives and artistic expressions. The exhibition demonstrated how the embodied experience of a living Jewish community resisted the attempt of annihilation, particularly during the Nazi-fascist persecution. It reminisces the religious and cultural memory by showing how the teachings gained through Haggadah, a book celebrating freedom from slavery, can be applied universally.

To complement the exhibitions, the teachings of the Haggadah and the memories of the Holocaust were further reflected in a roundtable discussion. The session was opened by the Chair, Ana Luiza M. Thompson-Flores, Director of the UNESCO Regional Bureau, who underlined the relevance of the exhibitions with UNESCO’s mission of building peace through the preservation of culture. She emphasised the role of the two exhibitions in conveying the message of uniting in tolerance and coexistence to prevent another Shoah happening ever again.

Following the opening remarks, Shaul Bassi, President of Beit Venezia, described the Haggadah as a book of remembrance in the Jewish culture, which is read every year during Passover and is, therefore, extremely important in the preservation of memories. Recalling the Jewish history of Venice through the Venice Haggadah, he also explained the reasons for the book’s uniqueness, “The Haggadah is the only important illustrated book in the Jewish tradition and its visual form has often been renewed over the centuries. This has resulted in thousands of editions, among which the versions of Sarajevo and Venice are the most renowned and valued ones. Another quality that makes the Haggadah exceptional from other books in the Jewish culture, is its capacity to be read at home with one’s family.

The significance of Haggadah is also witnessed through its relevance to today which allows us to make sense of yesterday and apply the lessons from the past to our present day lives. Therefore, the book is the perfect incarnation of the idea that memory is always connected to the past, but can be renewed in the present, which reflects the spirit of the Holocaust Remembrance Day.

More specifically, in context of the Sarajevo Haggadah, Mirsad Sijarić, Director of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, highlighted that its importance is also signified by its journey from the Medieval Kingdom of Aragona to Sarajevo, as a representation of the Jewish story and heritage. “The safeguarding of Haggadah through history represents the importance of transmitting traditions across generations. For this reason, the Sarajevo Haggadah was registered by UNESCO as documentary heritage to the Memory of the World Register, providing a great support to its preservation while also maintaining the standing of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Ermelinda Damiano, President of the Venice City Council, further iterated the importance of the memory of Haggadah by stressing that it is fundamental for institutions to raise awareness on the events of the past, especially in this period stained with remnants of history, where the seeds of hate and intolerance are still as prevalent as ever.

This intolerance has also infiltrated to online platforms, particularly on social media, where information is easily circulated without gatekeepers, leading to disinformation and distorted facts regarding the Holocaust. The concerns of online hate speech were raised by Karel Fracapane, UNESCO’s Programme Specialist for the Section of Global Citizenship and Peace Education, who highlighted the mission of the Organization in promoting education on the Shoah as he reiterated, “Education can play a pivotal role in connecting the past with the present, therefore it is imperative to foster critical thinking against dividing ideologies, since education sharpens our sense of responsibility.

An emerging issue that was raised at the opening event is the significance of memory and testimonials, especially in the current period when antisemitism is still present in the forms of denial or distortion of facts regarding the Shoah. A notable example is provided by Helena Jesurum’s publication “Un’indagine inaspettata,” which narrates the story of her husband who avoided persecutions in Italy for his Jewish identity by escaping to Switzerland and who found the courage to speak about his religious and cultural history when the Holocaust Remembrance Day was instituted.

Commemorating this day is substantiated further by such accounts to help us remember and to raise awareness about what happened, because knowledge is a key to fighting discrimination and avoiding the repetition of such heinous crimes. With the survivors at the end of the war gradually decreasing, this generation may fall silent. Fracapane recalled, “without memory there is no identity” which validates the importance of keeping the memories alive, above and beyond in the form of contemporary witnesses, to be conveyed to the younger generation.

Over the last two decades, UNESCO and the Sarajevo Haggadah have been closely connected. In 2000/2001, UNESCO supported the analysis of the well-known manuscript and restoration of its cover. This was the beginning of a cooperation that continues till date and has contributed in several projects such as: the restoration of the room of Sarajevo Hagaddah, thanks to the generosity of France; the elaboration of the study of Sarajevo Haggadah (2017-2018); and, the publishing of the Bosnian, English and French editions of the reprint of the manuscript and the related study (2018-2021), to name a few.

Proclaimed a movable national monument by Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2003, Sarajevo Haggadah is far more than merely an ordinary traveller through time and space. It is one of the most important witnesses of the natural need to preserve cultural diversity, for all people of all times. The value of its testimonial evidence has been acknowledged and validated by its inscription on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2017.