Publication Date

December 11, 2020

Perspectives Section

Member Spotlight, Perspectives Daily


  • Europe
  • United States

Emil Kerenji is an applied research scholar at Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He lives in Washington, DC, and has been a member since 2006.

Emil Kerenji

Twitter: @EmilKerenji

Alma maters: BA (history and political science), American University in Bulgaria, 1997; MA (history), Central European University, 1998; PhD (history), University of Michigan, 2008

Fields of Interest: Holocaust, genocide, nationalism, Balkans, Jewish

Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?

My decision to become an academic historian arose from my work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Belgrade in the late 1990s. As someone who interviewed refugees and wrote up their life stories, I started thinking about the power of writing to transform various sequences of life events into particular historical narratives that fit (or not) bureaucratic categories and policies. I subsequently enrolled in a PhD program in history at the University of Michigan. After briefly teaching at the University of South Carolina, I decided that a tenure-track job is not for me, and was lucky to join the Mandel Center at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, where I am pursuing my long-term interests in various aspects of Holocaust history.

What do you like the most about where you live and work?

Working in a museum allows for conversations and experiences with audiences and communities beyond the traditional academic environment, and that has been refreshing and inspiring. I have also learned to collaborate with colleagues of diverse training, skills, and experiences. Furthermore, I am grateful to be able to rely on the vast holdings of the Holocaust Museum’s archive on a daily basis for my work. Other resources in the DC area include the Library of Congress and the National Archives, so living here is a blessing for anyone working on the Holocaust, World War II, or related topics. Finally, living in a city makes me happy, and has given me strength, even in a time of pandemic.

What projects are you currently working on?

The team I have been working with has just finished redesigning, the museum’s primary-source teaching tool aimed at college-level instruction in North America. I am also engaged in working with a team of scholars formulating a long-term research agenda for the Mandel Center. Finally, I am working on my own research project on “ethnic cleansing” in Yugoslavia in the first half of the 20th century.

Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how?

Since my graduate training, I have become more interested in collaborative work and digital history in particular. I am also interested in exploring ways that academics can reach people outside of the circles of the well-established academic media. So I would say that my interests have followed the questions of how we “do” history, rather than expanding temporally or geographically.

What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?

It is difficult to cite just one. I think reading dozens of unpublished Jewish Holocaust diaries from different contexts and in different languages (as well as the published ones in translation) has allowed me to truly grasp the horrifyingly mundane aspects of the Nazi genocide.

Is there an article, book, movie, blog, etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?

I would recommend a recent series of articles under the title “Yugosplaining the World,” published on the blog The Disorder of Things. It’s a great example of how academics forge their specific expertise and personal experiences into writing that asks historically informed questions about our common present.

What do you value most about the history discipline?

I think of history as an ongoing project, an edifice unfinished and constantly being rebuilt. It allows us to ask questions about the present, and understand individual and political choices in a complex historical perspective. Difficult histories, such as Holocaust history, for example, or histories of slavery, colonialism, etc., have a potential to inform our present not only in the facile sense of “learning the lessons of history,” but also in terms of imagining a range of individual and group choices based on solidarity and inclusion.

Why is membership in the AHA important to you?

I value greatly the AHA’s excellent work on different fronts, from educating the public about the importance of history to addressing academia’s structural problems. I find the organization’s series of advocacy briefs, to give just one example, timely and exemplary, addressing issues of professional and general concern. From advocating for relief for higher education in the era of COVID-19 to educating the public about the history of racist violence in the United States, the AHA has always made me proud as a member. Finally, as a historian with a nontraditional professional trajectory, I appreciate the AHA’s pioneering efforts in the area of career diversity. For all these reasons, I find it important to pay my membership dues and support the organization.

Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?

Again, difficult to think of just one. The convention is a great way of reconnecting with friends and getting an overview of the latest trends in academic and nonacademic history.

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.

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Matthew Keough
Matthew Keough

American Historical Association