Jonathan Brent, Ph.D., the Executive Director and CEO of The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, underlined in an exclusive interview with Tirana Times that the story of the first U.S. Ambassador to Albania, Herman Bernstein, told by the Albanian diplomat and scholar, Mr. Mal Berisha, at YIVO Institute in 2014 represented a wonderful opportunity for YIVO to demonstrate the depth and the purpose of its archives and why these old documents can inspire people around the world today.
“It was a signal event and I wish we could have another like before too long,” Brent said about the first lecture on Albanian-Jewish Relations, held in this Institute by the Albanian diplomat of career.
The 68-year old American academic, author, and publisher said that his feeling is that not enough of Albanian-Jewish history is known to the general public and that soon another event is held to go deeper on that issue. He said that since in the early years of communism, he was impressed by the humanness, speech and behavior of the Albanians.
What comes to your mind when you hear the word “Albania”?
Many years ago, my first associations with the word “Albania” would have been with the regime of Enver Hoxha and the ultra-Stalinist state over which he presided, but as my interests in Eastern Europe and Russia developed, and because of my position in the 1990s as Editorial Director of Yale University Press, I got to host a group of publishing colleagues from newly established, post-communist Albania. I did not discover strident and ideologically driven individuals. Rather, I was impressed with their knowledge of the world, their commitment to scholarship, and most of all the humanness of their bearing, speech, and behavior. The three editors with whom I met possessed a mildness of manner and speech that struck me as very special and I wanted, through them, to learn more about Albanian history and culture. Yet it took my coming to YIVO to learn more about the deep humanity of Albanian society and its extraordinary history during the Holocaust. My feeling is that not enough of this history is known to the general public.
What is the place Albania holds at YIVO Institute? Do you think Albania could be a model for other countries to follow?
Through the extensive archive of Herman Bernstein, which is part of YIVO’s core collection, Albania has very special place at YIVO. It represents a rare confluence of American, East European and Balkan Jewish history. Bernstein was born in Lithuania but grew up in the United State of America; then, as a diplomat, he was posted to Albania where his work on behalf of the Jewish people and the American government flourished. The story that Ambassador Mal Berisha has told of Bernstein’s activity is truly inspiring and should be a model for humanity worldwide. It is a story to encourage all people of goodwill in dark times.
December 14, 2014. His Excellency, Ambassador of Albania in the UK, Mal Berisha held a lecture at YIVO Institute on Albanian-Jewish Relations while he keeps promoting this topic in different events. What do you remember from that evening? In your view, how did this event contribute to the world enlightening about Albania’s key role in the Holocaust times?
I was delighted to introduce Ambassador Berisha at this lecture. I remember his affability, his knowledge, his desire to demonstrate the inherent humanity of Albanian society and the Albanian people; but most of all I remember that the story he told was virtually unknown to almost everyone in the audience. The evening represented a wonderful opportunity for YIVO to demonstrate the depth and the purpose of its archives and why these old documents can inspire people around the world today. It was a signal event and I wish we could have another like before too long.
How do you see the role of Jewish communities in US or different parts of the world?
This is a difficult question because the Jews of the Diaspora are inherently bound up in the political and social life of the nations to which they belong; whereas, the Jews of Israel are bound up in the immediate problems facing Israel today. Furthermore, there is no ONE Jewish community. There are many: The German, the Sephardic, the Ashkenazi, the Italian, etc. and within these communities there are the religious, the ultra-religious, the secular, and the indifferent. There are many reasons to acknowledge the bonds that tie Jewish communities together—bonds of memory, religion, history, language—but there are many other reasons to see Jews as individuals who are not necessarily bearing the values or attitudes of larger communities. My grandfather, every Pesach, would say a prayer: “I pray that God grant me a beautiful soul.” I can think of nothing better to aspire to.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the U.S.-Israel relationship and strategic partnership?
I think that the U.S. can and should continue to play a stabilizing and moderating role in Israeli foreign policy and domestic life. It is a vital strategic partnership for world peace, but it is also essential for the continuity of the Jewish people. But what does continuity mean? Too often we think solely in terms of physical security and not enough about the moral and spiritual life of the people.
What is the next exciting project of YIVO? Something on Albania?
I wish I could say that YIVO’s next exciting project involves Albania and the Balkans; however, we are now concentrating our efforts to preserve, conserve and digitize all of YIVO’s pre-War collections that were miraculously saved from destruction in World War II by the Nazis. Among these materials there may well be some documents pertaining to life in Albania. After this, we hope to launch a new project to build an YIVO Online Museum. In this Online Museum there will be a special gallery for Albania.