Vijecnica recovers its splendour

After 18 years of conservation works, Sarayevo's library returns to the martyred-city and to Europe

“Blazes raise to the sky, blazes raise in gloomy flames… Suddenly the night comes, a biting cold roughly pierces through the town thrills, like a living being, the library is burning, the handwritten and copied books…”. Perhaps there is no better time to listen again to “Cupe Vampe” (Gloomy Flames) a song by the Italian Rock Band CSI, on the bombing of Sarajevo, when the library of Sarajevo, Vijecnica, was set to fire by Serbian-Bosnians who besieged the city the night of August 25 1992, and who kept it in the grips of the flames until February 29 1996. The human chain that formed spontaneously to try to save the library from the flames was forced to succumb because snipers had no qualms shooting anyone who drew near. In thirty hours hundreds of thousands of precious books, incunabula, books, maps, or all the historical memory of a century-long multi-ethnic city, the meeting place of peoples and cultures was burned to ashes. The Vijecnica library was the highest symbol of co-existence, and that was why it had to be destroyed. Now, after twenty-two years, the completely renovated building was reopened and returned to the city on May 9, the feast day of Europe. The ancient Jewish document. The building in neo-Moorish style was built in 1892-94, under the Austrian-Hungarian regime. At the time is hosted the Town Council. Only after World War II it became the “national and university library of Bosnia Erzegovina”. Vijecnica is in the city centre, in front of the placid flow of the River Miljacka. Within its walls was kept, among other things, the Haggadah of Sarajevo, the most ancient Jewish document of Europe, brought by Sephardi Jews expelled from Spain. For this reason, at the beginning of the war (1992) the volume was hidden in the safe of the national Bank of Bosnia, and thus it survived the flames. It wasn’t the first time that it was spared destruction. Already in 1941 the Nazis tried to take possession of it and it was saved by its Albanian Muslim librarian, Dervis Korkut, who according to accounts of the time – entrusted it to the care of an Imam in a village of rural Bosnia. Today Korkut is a “Righteous of Israel”, and thanks to him the manuscript survived the time when six million Jews were put to death. Living memories. On the day of the Feast of Europe the library got rid of the heavy scaffolding and its beautiful walls are once again facing Bascarsija, the bazaar, the Christians’ neighbourhood, Latinluk and that of Bistrik. It is surrounded by efflorescing minarets, mosques, churches and the Ashkenazi synagogue of the few Jews still left, libraries and shops divided only by narrow streets. The memories of the siege, when the city was defended by all of its inhabitants, of every faith and ethnic groups, not only with arms but also with culture, art and music, continue to thrive. Today Sarajevo recovers a chapter of its own history and its cultural and human heritage needing to be rebuilt and reunited. Vijecnica is restored to its original function as a university library and as the representative seat of the city. Little by little, the exterior marks of the war start to wane, but the deep scars still remain in the hearts and minds of the Bosnians. It took 18 years of conservation works – amounting to 16 million euro, half of which allocated by the European Union – to return the library to its former glory. How many years will it still take to reassemble the heart of Bosnia? The Dayton Peace Accords of 1995 decreed the division of the country on ethnic grounds, erasing, as the fire in Vijecnica, a treasure of century-long coexistence. Appointment on June 28. Nonetheless Sarajevo stands out as a warning for all of Europe, against fundamentalist and nationalistic drives, a warning for the whole of Europe against fundamentalism and nationalism, a symbol against the closures of identity that more and more vigorously are re-emerging in the Old Continent, marked by a crisis in values, in the economy and finance. It is no coincidence then, that the first major event hosted in this symbolic place in Sarajevo will be a ceremony to be held on June 28, the centenary of the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which sparked off the First World War. Once again, today, Sarajevo is confirmed as the Jerusalem of Europe.

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