Linda Strauss Pens Children’s Book On The Sarajevo Haggadah

Shortly after 9/11, Linda Strauss decided to write a children’s book about the 600 year old Sarajevo Haggadah.

Originally from Spain, and carried elsewhere by a family fleeing the Inquisition, the Sarajevo Haggadah is one of the oldest surviving haggadot (the Jewish texts that organize the Passover seder) in the world.

Notably, the Haggadah narrowly avoided destruction at the hands of the Nazis during WWII, and Serbian and Croatian militants during the Bosnian war – thanks to the actions of Christians and Muslims intent on protecting the book.

In light of post-9/11 tensions and rising Islamophobia, Strauss felt the Sarajevo Haggadah’s tale was an important story to share.

“This would be a subject with Muslims helping to save a Jewish book – that would be really healthy, really healing at this point in time,” Strauss remembered thinking.

So Strauss started writing a middle school-level novel, but after struggling with that format, she decided to make a children’s picture book instead. But it took over 20 years for Strauss to finally publish the completed book, “Everybody’s Book,” with the help of a supportive agent and Minneapolis-based Kar-Ben Publishing.

“It really was great” to finally see “Everybody’s Book” get published in early 2024, Strauss said. “You always feel sort of justified in your faith when something like that happens…you just have to be patient.”

Strauss knows quite a bit about needing patience with the publishing industry. Writing children’s books grew out of keeping track of all the funny and silly things Strauss’ kids would say when young.

A friend of her mother-in-law told her to “write it all down, because if you don’t write it down, you’ll forget it,” Strauss said. “So I started [to write] in this little diary that our insurance people gave us. And obviously, there was not enough space…so I bought a notebook, which became a writer’s journal.”

That writing, plus regularly reading children’s books to her kids, combined into an experiment: Writing her own children’s book, “A Fairy Called Hilary,” about a family learning to live with a fairy and her playful magic.

But the book took 25 years to sell, and was only published in 1999. By that time, Strauss had almost given up on writing and gone to school for social work – but success made her rethink leaving a career path she was passionate about.

“I think writing was really what I wanted to do,” Strauss said.

But persevering with her book about the Sarajevo Haggadah was just part of the challenge. Writing it was complicated – in part because so much of the history of the Haggadah was the stuff of legend, rather than documented fact.

“A lot of it is almost word of mouth, so when it came to the point where they were talking about how, during WWII, the Haggadah was hidden, a whole bunch of people said that it was hidden under the floorboards of a mosque,” Strauss said. But other narratives existed: “Some people said it was hidden beneath an apple tree, some people said it was hidden among other sacred texts in the mosque, some said that it was kept safe by a peasant, and some said it was hidden under a display when the Nazis came.”

Strauss had to use a discerning eye for the story she would tell in her book, trying to get as close to the truth as she could manage.

In this case, she chose the narrative where the curator (a Muslim) and the director (a Croat Catholic) of the National Museum in Sarajevo hid the book from the Nazis – with the curator giving the Haggadah to an imam in a remote village who hid the Haggadah among Islamic texts.

“That was [the narrative] talked about the most,” Strauss said.

One part of the Sarajevo Haggadah’s history that Strauss found most impactful is when, during the siege of Sarajevo, the Sarajevo Haggadah was saved from the National Museum amid Serbian attacks and shelling by a Muslim professor.

The Haggadah was in hiding for the rest of the war, coming out only once, during Passover in 1995, for an interfaith seder with Christian Orthodox, Muslim, and Catholic leaders at Sarajevo’s synagogue.

In many ways, the Sarajevo Haggadah represents the ability to come together during difficult times, find common ground, and hope for a better future – a theme Strauss finds just as important today as it was after 9/11.

“Everybody’s Book” uses the story of Sarajevo itself to emphasize that all religions can learn to tolerate each other – and even be supportive of one another. The picture book notes that “on one Sarajevo street, there is a mosque, a Catholic church, an Orthodox Christian church, and a synagogue.”

The theme of coexistence wasn’t something Strauss explicitly made the book about. Rather, it was a theme that came naturally as she worked on the story.

“I think, unconsciously or consciously, I picked out the things that would appeal to children, and framed them in such a way that they would understand what I was talking about,” she said.

“But underneath it all was the fact that [the Sarajevo Haggadah] was valued by a really wide swath of people who have different values, different backgrounds, different religions.”