When you hear the name “Sarajevo”, what comes to mind?  My guess is for most people, it is often something negative, such as the assassination of ArchDuke Ferdinand at the hand of the Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip that started World War I, or the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s.  On a more positive note, some of you may recall the 1984 winter Olympics.

What is generally less well known is that Sarajevo was for centuries a model of tolerance and inter-cultural living.  Jews, Muslims, and Christians of eastern and western churches all lived side by side. Unlike most cities that allowed Jews in the late medieval and renaissance period, the Jews of Sarajevo did not live in ghettos, but amongst their neighbors.  Today the old Sephardic synagogue (from the majority of the Jewish population who came here from Spain after 1492) is now a Jewish museum, but the Ashkenazi synagogue (founded by the Austo-Hungarian Jews who came here in the 19th Century) is still in operation.  Of special Jewish interest is the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the oldest surviving illuminated Jewish manuscripts, most likely made in Spain around the 13th Century and carried to Sarajevo sometime after the expulsion in 1492.  Apart from the magnificence of the manuscript itself, its history is fascinating – including numerous brushes with destruction at the hands of the inquisitors, the fascist Ustaše in WWII and the siege in the early 90s.  In the latter two instances it was due to the heroic actions of muslim curators that we still have this priceless treasure.

If you have about 7 minutes, the following video is well worth watching.  I am pleased to report the National Museum re-opened in late 2015.  However, whether due to low levels of staffing or security concerns, the Haggadah can only be seen from afar and it was quite a disappointment not to be able to view it close up.

We got in to Sarajevo early enough to visit the Franz Ferdinand Assassination Site & Museum at the corner where Gavrilo Princip, a 19 year old Bosnian serb shot and killed both the heir to the Austo-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife, Sophie.  I learned a number of things of which I was not aware.  First, this was part of a wider conspiracy to kill first the governor of Bosnia, but instead the target changed to the Archduke.  Serbian conspirators in Belgrade supplied and trained a gang of young men, most of whom were members of a secret society called the Black Hand.  On the day of the assassination, one of them threw a bomb at the open topped car, but it bounced off and blew up under the following vehicle.  The Archduke and his wife sped on to their destination, too fast for Princip to shoot at,  but remarkably, after making a presentation, continued with their visit.  Just imagine what would happen if there was a modern attempt on a head of state or senior diplomat’s life – they would rush them out of the city as fast as possible.  The governor, who was travelling with the Archduke didn’t want to deploy a large contingent of troops in the city to further protect the royal party as they were just back from maneuvers and not kitted in the appropriate dress uniforms. 

A decision had been made for the royals to visit the injured from the earlier explosion and therefore the return route was altered, but somehow the instructions did not get passed on to the driver of Ferdinand and Sophie’s car, and so he continued straight along the quays rather than taking the needed right turn.  The governor stopped the driver and told him to back up – exactly where Princip was standing, so the car was essentially stopped and he was able to fire from a very close distance at stationery targets, first hitting the Archduke and then his wife.  Princip later claimed that he was aiming for the governor and not Sophie and whether his hands were shaking or he missed because he was grabbed, or he was indeed aiming for Sophie will never be known for sure.  Sophie was from a Czech noble family and almost persona non grata with the Austo-Hungarian Archduke’s family, and so there are all sorts of conspiracy theories, including that the Archduke’s own family might have been behind the killing.

Princip was only 19 and so too young to be executed, so he received a 20 year jail sentence instead.  However some of the Serbian officers who planned and equipped the attacks were executed.

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