February 15th, 2009


February Books 16) Sarajevo Rose, by Stephen Schwartz

This book was sent to me by the author some time back. It's a collection of essays of varying lengths about the Jewish traditions of Bosnia (Sarajevo in particular) and of the "Albanian lands". Most of the essays explore the history of the Sephardim exiled from Spain and Portugal in 1492: while of course the majority ended up further south and east, in Istanbul and especially Thessalonica, Sarajevo and the other major Bosnian towns also became smaller focuses of settlement, and Schwartz looks at the major historical figures and the surviving architectural traces - in one piece, he and a friend attempt to locate the tomb of the apostate false Messiah, Sabbetai Zvi (1626-1676) in Ulcinj in southern Montenegro (Ulcinj is the centre of Montenegro's Albanian population).

It is a subject about which I knew very little - I've met once or twice with Jakob Finci, the leader of Bosnia's Jewish community, and also sympathised with Ivo Andrić's Jewish narrator in his short story "Letter from 1920", who flees the small-mindedness and ethnic divisions of his home town for a life elsewhere. Schwartz is not an Andrić fan, and has a short piece on five great ex-Yugoslav writers in which he ranks Danilo Kiš, Meša Selimović, Miroslav Krleža and Miloš Crnjanski as better than their Nobel-prize-winning conpatriot - I confess I had heard only of the first two, and only knew of Selimović because he features on banknotes from both sides in Bosnia and shared my birthday (though 1910 rather than 1967). More for my reading list...