FROM THE ARCHIVES
The Libraries of Sarajevo and
the Book That Saved Our Lives
by Kemal Bakaršić
This report and cri de coeur from besieged Sarajevo first appeared in the Autumn 1994 issue of The New Combat, then flew about the nascent public internet, introducing the author and his books to a wider world.
Few who met Kemal Bakaršić during those years will forget him. He articulated, in a charming and often playful English, what the wide world had surmised despite its willful blindness but would rather have ignored — that something precious and rare yet utterly universal was at stake in the Bosnian war.
The published piece was a composite of a short essay Kemal wrote for the occasion and extracts from the tape transcript of my first conversation with him in 1993, in his dim, dusty office
in the Presidency building in Sarajevo. Every word is his, and he approved the text before it was first published.
Besieged Sarajevo was a school of courage, most stirring for its refusal to join the aggressors in the surrounding hills in their hate and their crimes. This courage, demonstrated daily for more than three years by hundreds of thousands of Sarajlije — Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, Croats, Jews, Albanians and more — demonstrated the reality of what the world struggled so long to ignore. And Kemal in this was a paragon.
Kemal Bakaršić died of cancer on June 4, 2006. His beloved
wife Marina carries on.
— William Ney
IT IS NOVEMBER 1991 and my wife Marina and I have
been watching reports of the brutal destruction of Dubrovnik, on the
Croatian shore, by the Yugoslav Peoples Army. We cry.
We cry long into
the early morning hours. It cannot be true — but it is happening before
our eyes. It cannot be that bad. Yet the old town is in flame, the
city we both loved so much. We had spent many of our vacations, dozens
of weekends, and even a honeymoon, in Dubrovnik.
It is happening on
television. Will the pounding aggression ever knock on our door? This
night the question seems not a simple one to answer. Holding each other
in bed, we finally fall asleep, but only after promising each other
no matter what to stay together, and to protect ourselves, our parents,
our friends, our books, our memories and our consciousness of who,
as individuals, we are.
April 21, 1992. Afternoon shelling rudely interrupts
what had seemed to be a nice spring day in Sarajevo. In the early evening
the shelling resumes, and just before curfew (10 p.m.) the aggressors
shell and burn down the Museum of the 14th Winter Olympiad.
were really something fantastic here. Now, a beautiful old building
from the Austrian era and all the documentation of the Sarajevo games
have been destroyed.
April 22, 1992. Again the daily routine of bombardment
all across the city. At about 9:30 p.m., an 82mm mortar shell explodes
in our garden, shattering the windows of the living room where we sit.
Tiny particles of glass fill the air. We feel a warm blast, and smell
the intense smell of explosives and melted glass. Are we still alive?
For a moment, which seems to last about an hour, we do not know.
yes. We have survived.
The next morning we notice that the blast had
knocked a special book off its shelf: the letters of 1926 between Boris
Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva and Rainer Maria Rilke. It is the first
book I ever gave to my own Marina. Picking it up from the floor, we
are terrified to find a large piece of shrapnel embedded in the cover.
we are grateful, because a kind of miracle has occurred.
this morning on, we call this collection of poets letters The
Book That Saved Our Lives.
May 17, 1992. The aggressors have deliberately destroyed the Oriental
Institute in Sarajevo. The loss cannot be measured or ever repaired.
In less than two hours, 5,000 unique manuscripts, Turkish, Persian and
Arabic, over a hundred plat books from Ottoman times (books that can
no longer show that Slavs professing Islam have lived in Bosnia for many
centuries), other records of the Ottoman rule numbering some 200,000
pages, 300 microfilm files of Bosnian writings from other manuscript
libraries, the 10,000 volumes of the Institute's research library, and
300 sets of periodicals ... All lost in flame.
I hate to go on with this,
with this bibliometric accounting of the destruction of two years of
terrorism in the Sarajevo ghetto. I hate myself, and deeply regret that
the figures are not part of a program of recovery. They are, rather,
On August 27, 1992, in the early morning, the National
Library was deliberately attacked and burned. Twenty-five mortar shells
struck the building, launched from four positions in the surrounding
hills. In support of the attack, forty shells were dropped on adjacent
streets, preventing the fire brigade from coming into action. The odd
thing about this supplementary attack is that the aggressors had cut
off the water to the district before the attack, so there was no need
to bomb the fire brigade. But they did it anyway.
The attack lasted less than half an hour. The fire lasted into the
next day. The sun was obscured by the smoke of books, and all over the
city sheets of burned paper, fragile pages of grey ashe, floated down
like a dirty black snow. Catching a page you could feel its heat, and
for a moment read a fragment of text in a strange kind of black and grey
negative, until, as the heat dissipated, the page melted to dust in your
Approximately 1,200,000 book items and 600 sets
of periodicals were destroyed. Administrative documents and the card
catalog, computer equipment, microfilm and photograph laboratories,
the rare book and other special collections, and the university library,
which was housed in the same building.
It seems the Nazis burned about
twenty million books. But not in one place (rather, in about 45 different
places). August 27, 1992 in Sarajevo, then, may have been the biggest
book burning in history. In one day, and one night: a million and a quarter
So. We have to deal with these criminals. I dont know what the
best term is. “Aggressors?” But I think the aim of this kind
of aggres- sion, against museums, against libraries, is to erase our
remembrance of who we are. Why else would someone want to burn books?
Simply to create the situation where the people of a society have no
memory of their past.
Can Hölderlins famous verse lend us any comfort?
Where danger is,
There salvation also grows
Yes. But only if one can truly believe,
as Bulgakov insisted, that “manuscripts
do not burn.”
The National Library
BEFORE THIS “war” I was the chief librarian
of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was founded in
1888 as the Landesmuseum of B-H, as Bosnia came under Austrian rule.
We celebrated the centennial of the museum not long ago.
library is the oldest scientific library of the western type in Bosnia.
As kustos, I cherished and treasured about a quarter of a million books,
among them the most famous book of the Sephardic tradition in Bosnia,
the Sarajevo Haggada.
The Sarajevo Haggada contains poems, prayers and paintings about
Passover and the escape of the Jews from Egypt. It was made between
the 12th and 14th centuries, and was brought to Bosnia
by the Cohen
family in the 16th century, after Isabella expelled
the Jews from Spain.
It is perhaps the most beautiful and important haggada in existence.
Scholars from all the world come to see it.
But when people come now,
I show them a copy. The original
is safe and sound.
The Sarajevo Haggada
The aggression here began unexpectedly, and with a cruelness that was
unimaginable. When the first Serb barricades went up in March 1992, in
the Grbavica district, my colleagues and I realized the museum was in
danger. It had been built in 1914 on the edge of town, but today is in
the center, and unfortunately sits right on the Grbavica front line.
Not only mortar shells but snipers from the residential towers across the
street were a danger, so my colleagues and I were silent shadows as we
evacuated the collections. I was absent from home
for days at a time
over the course of many weeks, and whenever I
left the museum I kissed
the walls and doors, saying “Please God! Don't let my library
get burned! Not yet!” At home with Marina, I would describe for
her the books we had rescued, the titles and authors, the design, the
front covers, all in great detail, as if making the confession of the
last man who would ever see them.
About two kilometers of books were
evacuated. We didn't have many boxes. We just carried them. And after
several months they were safe. Then I said, “Okay. If you want to
burn it now, just try it. All this is yours. If you want to destroy it,
destroy it. You can't hurt me. You can't hurt me anymore. My books are
in a safe place.”
They did horrible things to the museum. As a building
it is almost totally in ruin. But my colleagues and I managed to preserve
all of the exhibits, some of which had been there 105 years. It is something
that I am proud of. I am the kustos, the custodian of the library.
My job is to keep things the way they are.
I AM A MUSLIM. I am an
atheist. I am a computer man. I think I am a cosmopolitan kind of guy.
Marinas father is a Croat from Sarajevo. Her mother is a Serb from Banja
Luka. We celebrate all the religious holidays, Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox.
Both my sisters are married to Croats. So we are mixed in every way.
And with most people in Sarajevo I think the story is the same.
Of course, we have problems now. Many Serbs have gone. Croats have been active on
both sides. But we simply cannot retreat into a Muslim ghetto in Bosnia.
It would destroy our tradition, our pattern, our way of life. We are
not forced to live together. We really live together.
The Serb nationalists
in Pale, the aggressors, say there is no way that Serb and Muslim can
live together. It is ridiculous. And it is not true. Or the Croat nationalists
say, “We want all of Mostar!
Or lets divide it into east and west, we can live side by side.” How
with my wife, in one bed? I want to live in something that is
dynamic and universal. That is the only intellectual atmosphere I can
live in. Our destinies are crossed. We have to treasure the common
tradition, a tradition of mutual understanding. This is the only hope
We are frustrated. We dont have any food. I am crazy
about cigarettes. I am crazy about running hot water, about electricity.
But one can get used to all this. The thing that is most important is
to communicate with the world, to exchange ideas. The debate, the dialogue.
This is the main thing we must secure to have a future.
We are suffering
from a total communications blockade: telephones, mail, convoys, buses,
trains and planes, computers, intellectual conferences, and so on. It
is something we must struggle for:
a new structure of communicating with
I have no political background, but am working now in the
government, until the aggression stops, and then will return to my work
as a librarian.
It is part of my job to rebuild the National Library.
A while ago we received from UNESCO the first check for reconstruction.
Its small, but the process
has begun. I have estimated that
it will cost about four million dollars. I also have to rebuild my museum.
We have to find sponsors who will help us get these things going again.
It is also my job to support the teaching in the university. Fifteen hundred
teachers are involved, in 24 faculties.
In current conditions, which
have lasted two years, it is difficult to organize a decent university.
Marina, for example, is a professor of linguistics and Russian literature.
Her monthly salary is three kilos of flour (and mine, too).
We have to
do something about it. We have many good ideas.
But one is most important:
to be connected, in many ways, with
STRANGE THINGS began to
happen during the evacuation of the museum library. Manuscripts not listed
in the catalog began to appear among known items. For example: a five-act
drama in verse by Moris Hornes, once a curator at the museum and a professor
of archaeology at Vienna University. I have also found a three-act play
by Svetozar Čorović, a famous poet and novelist from Mostar. Mostar
at the beginning of the century had three or four major poets. They published
a magazine called The Sunrise Saga and were famous in Bosnia- Herzegovina
This unknown drama by Svetozar Čorović is called In
the Darkness. And during night watches in the museum, I typed it into my
computer, and tried to discover how this manuscript happened to be in
Next to Svetozars play on the shelf were poems by a
writer named Avdo Karabegović, the most talented poet we have ever had.
He was born in the town of Modriča and died at age 22. I have found the
original manuscripts of about seventy poems that have never been published.
But here is the interesting story.
It seems that Avdo was very ill in the days of 1901. So Avdo, who is
Muslim, sent his manuscripts to Svetozar, who is Serb, and wrote: “My
brother Svetozar. I am very ill. Please, here are all my things. Try
to publish them.” And Svetozar did publish many of them, two years
after Avdo died. And now I have prepared a fifth edition of Avdo's writings,
with the poems that Svetozar did not include in the first.
That is the
answer. If anyone in the United States, or anywhere else in this world,
asks about the national differences between Serbs and Muslims, please
tell them this kind of story. We are really mixed in a very special way.
Like the books in my library. They have no ethnical background, no cultural
background, no racial or geo- graphical backgrounds. They are simply
one by one. Alphabetical, perhaps. The only differences are the size,
the cover, and the things they say. I think that is the story.
Even here and now miracles can occur. Precious manuscripts have come to light, and
the first book I ever gave to the woman
I love many years later has
saved our lives.
Do Marina and I have any reason to hope that a similar
miracle may somehow restore the burned books of Bosnia and Herzegovina?
Yes, if its true that what you love well is your true home, and if
sharing and cherishing are the milestones of your journey. We have
always believed, with Gaston Bachelard, that up in the sky there must
be a Heaven, and that Heaven must be something like a library. Someday
again a heavenly rain will fall.
Marina and Kemal in May 1994, before the
burnt-out shell of the National Library
Back to top
For more about Kemal and Marina, see here.
And for more about the siege as a whole, see here.
Comments are welcome and may be posted here.