Sava Peić obituary

Other lives: Serbian curator who helped to develop the British Library’s Balkan collections

My friend Sava Peić, who has died aged aged 81, played a big part in the development of the British Library’s Balkan collections. He also spent much of his career as a librarian promoting links between the British Library and similar institutions in south-east Europe.

Sava was born in Subotica, Yugoslavia, which is now in Serbia, and arrived in London when he was in his mid-20s. He soon got a job as a cataloguer in the library of London University’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, where his knowledge of Cyrillic script was invaluable. This proved to be a stepping stone for his move to the British Library’s Slavonic and East European branch, which he joined in 1985.

Initially he was involved in acquiring books and manuscripts for the Balkan collections and after a year he was appointed curator in charge and head of its south-east European collections – a post he held for 13 years until his retirement in 1998. During that time he was responsible for three major historical exhibitions at the library – Vuk Stefanović Karadžić (1787-1864), The Eastern Question: Gladstone and Bulgaria, and Christianity in Eastern Europe.

He was privately outraged and incensed by the conflict in his country of birth which led to the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and the destruction of many valuable collections of books and documents, often deliberately. After Bosnian Serb forces attacked the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, destroying about 80% of its contents, he helped the British Council and the British Library to replace much of the material that had been lost.

After his retirement Sava spent time working for the international criminal tribunal at The Hague, investigating war crimes during the Yugoslav wars and cataloguing the deliberate destruction of cultural items. His work required him to visit the sites of massacres and mass graves, and to interview witnesses and collect evidence. He later admitted that he was not prepared for the effect this would have on him psychologically.

Sava’s great ambition had been to stage an exhibition at the British Library on medieval Serbian culture, but this was stymied by the war. Instead he used the material he had assembled to produce a beautifully illustrated book, Medieval Serbian Culture (1993), covering its art, literature and architecture. It was a fitting memorial to his efforts to promote an appreciation of Serbia’s culture.

He is survived by his partner of 55 years, Martin Sutton.

Mary Raine

The GuardianTramp

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