Interview with Rosie Gojich Stephenson-Goodknight: Everyone in Serbia made me feel like “this is your home”

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Author: Vanja Kovačev

The streets of Belgrade neighborhood Dorćol, still echo with steps of the man who was the Strongest tie between Israel and Serbia – David Albala.

Granddaughter of David & Paulina Albala, Mrs. Rosie Gojich Stephenson-Goodknight, MBA, visited recently the home town of her grandfather and D&C had the honor to speak with this remarkable woman who is the Visiting Scholar at Northeastern University, Boston, US and the Vice President of Wikimedia District of Columbia.

David Albala was a Dorćolac who was the strongest tie between Israel and Serbia. ​Serbian doctor and a diplomat, Sephardic Jew, Zionist, an army captain and a mason – and the rest is history

On December 14th 2017 you were the honored guest on the ceremony dedicated to the 25 years of diplomatic relations between Republic of Serbia and the State of Israel – the event hosted by H.E. Alona Fisher Kamm, Ambassador of Israel in Belgrade. You have presented the fascinating tale of your family history which captured the attention of the audience. Can you please share the most important details about the man you are so proud of – your grandfather David Albala for the readers of Diplomacy&Commerce magazine.

My grandfather was a multifaceted man: a son, brother, husband, father. He was a Serb, a Sephardic Jew, a Zionist, a physician, a military officer, a polyglot, a community leader and organizer. He died in 1942 in Washington DC before I was ever born so I never got to meet him, but I feel as if I have a special bond with him.

Do you think people in Serbia and in Israel know about the importance of your grandfather’s diplomatic missions and significance of his work in regards to the Balfour declaration and Serbia being the first country in the world to openly endorse this important Declaration? Can you tell us more about the contribution of your grandfather to this event – very important both for Serbia but perhaps at that time, in 1917, more important for the nascent State of Israel.

I am not aware of what is taught in Serbian or Israeli schools so I am not sure if David Albala is known to the general public. I think there has been a lot of press in the last couple of months regarding the 100 year anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, so people who had never heard of him may have read about him more recently. I think “The Jerusalem Post” wrote a nice synopsis regarding my grandfather’s role with the Balfour Declaration so I share it here: “On November 2, 1917, the Balfour Declaration was issued, in which British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour stated clearly and unequivocally that Britain’s leaders ‘view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.’ While Jews everywhere rejoiced, and the Arabs were furious, governments around the world remained silent. If the Balfour Declaration were to have a lasting impact, it was imperative that it garner widespread international backing. And that is where Albala came to play a crucial part. Utilizing his close relations with the Serbian leadership, he suggested that they declare their formal support for the Declaration and its goals. Shortly thereafter, on December 27, 1917, Serbia did just that, becoming the first country in the world to openly endorse the Declaration.”

Do you have the feeling that he who helped increase international support for the Declaration and its aims and his contributions is a bit overshadowed in Israel despite the key role he played?

I don’t have a particular feeling about this. I do have a hope that my grandfather’s role is the Balfour Declaration is appropriately commemorated in Israel and elsewhere, and that he receives his due in history books and textbooks. For example, the letter addressed to grandfather and signed by the Serbian representative in Washington, Milenko Vesnic, would be a good starting point for discussions.

On your quest to explore the family history in Serbia, could you describe what you have found and seen in the Jewish historical Museum in Belgrade related to your grandfather?

I was so impressed viewing his photo and the information about him adjacent to it on a display wall at the Jewish Historical Museum in Belgrade. It was so nicely done. Most of my time, however, was spent carefully reviewing grandfather’s diaries, which are part of the museum’s archives. I touched the books he wrote in, read his words, looked over the newspaper articles he had cut out and pasted into his dairies. When I return to Belgrade, I will spend more time studying these diaries as they fascinated me.

You received a prize in December 2017 in Belgrade- what kind?

On the occasion of 25 years of renewed diplomatic relationships between Serbia and Israel, and the marking of 100 years since Serbia’s endorsement of the Balfour Declaration, H.E. Ambassador Alone Fisher-Kamm presented me with an authenticated copy of the letter written by Mr. Vesnic to grandfather. The original is held by National Library of Israel and was delivered there by my grandfather in the years between the two great wars.

The letter addressed to David Albala and signed by the Serbian representative in Washington, Milenko Vesnic– confirming Serbia’s support to the Balfour Declaration – The National Library of Israel, Archives Department, V603

You visited the home country of your grandfather in 2017. What was your first impression of Serbia/Belgrade? People? Compare it to USA.

My first impression of Belgrade occurred on the plane as I was flying into the airport. We broke through the clouds and below me I could see Belgrade all in white, with show everywhere! I said to myself: “This is why they call it white city (Beograd). It felt as if nature played a hand in the “opening act”, wanting to assure that I had an excellent experience, beginning with the snow. Secondary impressions included that the city was much more prosperous than I had imagined and that the farmland I saw in Serbia while driving to Sarajevo reminded me of the California central valley. I have traveled to almost 30 foreign countries and I find that people are friendly everywhere; no exception to that in Serbia. But what struck me was the way people looked. Let me explain. On my first evening, December 4th, I attended the 12 year anniversary of Serbian Wikipedia at the University of Belgrade Library. I was asked to make a small speech and when I stood up at the front of the hall, and looked at the audience, for a moment I couldn’t speak. I was staring at all these people and for the first time in my life, EVERYONE LOOKED LIKE ME! I’m an American, and in my country, almost everyone is from some other country. But looking at this audience, I saw my reflection… people whose eyes are shaped as mine and so forth. The other thing I want to say about the people is that everyone in Serbia made me feel like “this is your home”.

This was not the first time you visited Serbia. You have seen it during the “dark” nineties -yes? Can you describe that visit and compare it with the recent one.

In 1995, my husband, Mark Stephenson (we are now divorced) and I wanted to vacation in Europe, including a few days in Serbia. Before we left the United States, we tried to get visas for ourselves and sons to visit Yugoslavia, but were unsuccessful. We were told that if we went to Turkey, and tried again, we might get them; and this worked out for us. We boarded a train in Istanbul, travelled through Bulgaria, and upon reaching the Serbian border in the middle of the night, the train stopped. Eventually we heard gunshots, and then the train proceeded across the border. After it stopped again, two young men came into our compartment, dressed in military uniforms, carrying guns. They spoke in Serbian, and said, “Oh, this is just a family traveling together. We don’t need to search their luggage.” Then they took Mark off the train, carrying our four passports. If you remember, in 1995, the American-Serbian relationship was “difficult”. I looked out the window and all I could see is was the light from our cabin reflected on the night time snow. I thought about the Agatha Christie novel, “Murder on the Orient Express”. After more than an hour, Mark returned and the train moved on. After arriving at the Belgrade train station in the morning, we were greeted by men with machine guns protecting the train station. Mark took two photos of me standing underneath the train station sign, one side of it containing the word “Beograd” and the other, “Belgrade”. For posterity, I could say, “I was here!”. But we decided that because we had our children with us, 1995 was not a good time to be American tourists in this city, and so we continued on the train till we reached Vienna. It was a very disappointing experience.

The trip in December 2017 was the exact opposite. I was invited to come to Serbia! I didn’t need a Visa. Upon arrival at the airport, my son and a family friend met me and we went out for coffee and cake. Every day in Serbia during my December 217 trip felt like a “cake day”… like eating really good cake!

You came to visit Belgrade and to see the family house of Dr David Albala at the age of 64? Why so late? How did it feel?

In the 1980s, my mom hired a Jewish lawyer in Belgrade to try and regain the title for her father’s home, but the lawyer was unsuccessful. So that was always in my memory… that restitution was somewhere between difficult and impossible. I retired from my job in healthcare administration in 2016 and having time on my hands, it was a great opportunity to go back to Belgrade in 2017. I knew the address of my grandfather’s home, but I didn’t know if it was still standing, if it was a vacant lot, or if I’d find a grocery store in its place. The moment I learned it was still there, and then actually got to see it, I felt overwhelmed. For the first time in my life, I could look down the street and see the view of the sky that my mom and grandparents shared. I could touch a physical building, look up its chimney tops, look into windows and see a chandelier. Everything felt normal, like this is where I belong.

What were your son’s impressions of Belgrade? Can he “connect” to Serbia? If yes – in what way?

Like me, my son had a deeply moving experience in Belgrade. He feels at home amongst its passionate people, vibrant culture, complex history, evolving politics, religious mix, sophisticated restaurants, welcoming ambiance, and vibrant nightlife. He sees opportunities everywhere. Even the intemperate December weather suits his moods. He connects to Serbia deeply, and feels like the prodigal son coming “home” after a long absence. This is both beautiful and unusual for him. He is an attorney who frequently travels the world, having visited over 40 countries and lived on three continents. As to his connections, he has good friends that live in Belgrade, and is currently working on his Serbian language skills, which he reports to me as fun and slow going.

What is the perception of the home county of your grandfather in California? Do people know where Serbia is? What do they know?

It is impossible to speak authoritatively regarding what people in California or any of the 50 US states think as my country is large and diverse. As a generalization, and I stress this is a generalization, American people do not know much about Serbia and do not have a strong opinion, one way or the other, about the country. When speaking about Serbia, it is often easier to refer to the former Yugoslavia… Serbia vs. Siberia… Balkans vs. Baltic countries… some people don’t know the differences. People have heard of the conflict with Kosovo, but don’t understand why Kosovo is as important to Serbia as the Alamo is to Texas. For those people familiar with Serbia (and I would include Bosnia and Croatia), the extent of their knowledge is usually limited to details about wars, and perhaps, some knowledge about religious or ethnic groupings. When I told my friends I was going to the the Balkans, they jokingly said, “Don’t shoot any Archdukes!”.

Could you tell the readers little bit more about yourself? You are born in the States but you feel Serbian; you wanted to be an anthropologist but you instead completed a Master of Business Administration degree – Why? You are known on Wikipedia as Rosiestep, the American Wikipedia editor who is noted for her attempts to address gender disparity in the encyclopedia by running a project to increase the quantity and quality of women’s biographies. You contributed thousands of new articles and you were named co-Wikipedian of the Year in 2016.

I was born in Gary, Indiana, as were my two brothers. We grew up in Los Angeles, California. I have remarried and live near San Francisco, California. For more about me, I invite you and the readers of this publication to read my forthcoming book, co-authored by my son and me, regarding our recent trip to the Balkans.

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