David Albala (born David Kovu; 1 September 1886 – 4 April 1942) was a Serbian military officer, physician, diplomat, and Jewish community leader. Under his influence, Serbia became the first country in the world to openly endorse the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which called for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. A lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Serbian Army, he was one of his country's representatives at the Versailles peace negotiations, president of the Jewish Community of Belgrade, vice-president of the Council of Jewish Communities of Yugoslavia, and president of Yugoslavia's Jewish National Fund. He was sent to the United States on a Serbian Royal Mission from 1917 to 1919. Between 1939 and 1942, he was a special delegate to the Yugoslav legation in Washington D.C., where he died.
Early years and Vienna
Albala was born David Kovu in Belgrade in 1886. He was one of seven children. After the death of his parents, the children were adopted and received new surnames. Albala's father was a merchant. In high school, Albala, an observant Sephardi Jew, served as president of the local student Zionist society.
In 1905, Albala left to study medicine at the University of Vienna. There, he also learned English and German, and continued his participation in Zionist activities. During a summer vacation from his studies, Albala returned to his hometown and founded a Jewish student association called Gideon, something tried previously by David Alcalay, a lawyer, army officer, and chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia. Albala also became president of the Balkan Jewish Zionist organization, Bar-Giora, associating with Croatian Zionist leader Aleksandar Licht and others.
Physician and military officer
After becoming a doctor in 1910, he returned to Serbia, visiting the synagogue less often. Asked by his father about this change, Albala asserted, "But I am a devoted Zionist." The father's reply, "Ah, my son, one must be a Jew as well as a Zionist," influenced Albala's behavior thereafter. He became president of the Executive Board of the Jewish Religious Communities. Albala fought in the First Balkan War, Second Balkan War, and World War I, rising to the rank of Captain in the Serbian Royal Army as a ship's doctor. Recovering from exhaustion on the island of Corfu, he discussed with Nikola Pašić his idea to acquaint the US with the needs of Serbia.
Serbian Royal Mission to the United States
Albala was subsequently sent by his government on a Serbian Royal Mission to the United States, arriving in New York City on September 26, 1917; he established support with Jewish communities and met with Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Louis Brandeis, who became his most influential friend. Through this relationship, he associated with Chaim Weizmann, Stephen Samuel Wise, Cyrus Adler and others.
The Balfour Declaration was issued on November 2, 1917. Using his close relations with Serbian leadership, it was at Albala's suggestion that the Serbian government endorsed the Declaration on December 27th, the first country to do so. The Serbian statement, written as a letter by Milenko Radomar Vesnić to Albala, was "the first time any government had referred to the yet-to-be-created Jewish state as 'Israel'". [a] In the 1919 publication by the Zionist Organization of America, The American War Congress and Zionism: Statements by Members of the American War Congress on the Jewish National Movement, more than 100 US senators and congressmen gave statements, as did various international governments; Vesnić's letter to Albala is the third statement in the publication.
Return to Serbia
After a year and a half, Albala returned to Serbia. In 1919, he was sent to the Paris Peace Conference as an aide and counselor to the Serbian delegation. With Weizmann and Menachem Ussishkin, Albala discussed the creation of Palestine. Returning to Belgrade, he did not return full-time to the medical profession, but did have a medical practice in Vrnjci in the summertime. What he did do was spend the next 20 years as a community leader of Jews in Yugoslavia. He founded several Yugoslav Jewish organizations such as "Karmel" for young women, the Jewish National Society, and Keren Kayemet (also served as president). He was co-founder of Keren Hayesod. The history of the Library of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Serbia traces back to an initiative of Albala's when he was President of the Sephardic Jewish Community. He organized The Association of Jugoslav Jews in the United States. Albala founded three journals: The Jewish Newsletter (1920-1922, editor-in-chief), The Review of the Union of Jewish Religious communities (1932, editor-in-chief), and The Newsletter of the Jewish Sephardic Religious Community (1938-1941). He wrote a few theatrical pieces, including "Erev Jom Kipu", which was performed several times, printed in "Benevolence" (Sarajevo, 1924). A great number of his articles about Jewish problems appeared in newspapers such as Židov (Zagreb), Jewish Voice (Sarajevo), and Politika (Belgrade). He was also a fundraiser for various Jewish causes, making speeches which would include memorized sections in Hebrew. In the spring of 1935, he was invited to Palestine to dedicate the planting of King Alexander's Forest in El Hartije, near Haifa; he was one of five honorees of the occasion, the others being, Dr. Marko Bauer, Dr. A. Licht, Falio Koenig, and Mrs. Koenig. In the Autumn 1938, he was invited to London for a Round Table conference of the world's Jewry; the conference convened in February 1939.
Return to the United States
In 1939, Albala became the third president of the Jewish Community of Belgrade. In December 1939, he 'disappeared'. Because of his close ties with the royal family, Albala was secretly sent back to the United States by regent Paul, who sent him to the United States to acquire funding for arms with which to repel the Germans. Albala was not successful because Serbia owed the United States a large sum which had not been repaid. When his wife, Professor Paulina Lebl-Albala and daughter, Jelena, joined him in Washington D.C., the matter became known. Albala died unexpectedly in Washington, D.C. in 1942. For his efforts many trees were planted in his name in Palestine.
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