On the first page of her new memoir, Madeleine Albright writes, I was fifty-nine when I began serving as U.S. secretary of state. I thought by then that I knew all there was to know about my past, who my people were, and the history of my native land. I was sure enough that I did not feel a need to ask questions. Others might be insecure about their identities; I was not and never had been. I knew. Only I didnt.
Albright (née Korbelová) was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1937 when the country had been independent for just 20 years. Her father, Josef Korbel, was a Czech diplomat and democrat who fled to Great Britain with his family in the wake of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938, and again in 1948, following a democratic election when the country was effectively gifted into the murderous hands of the local Communist party.
Korbel and his family were granted political asylum in the United States in 1949, and Albright became a U.S. citizen in 1957. Josef Korbel became dean of the University of Denvers school of international studies, where he taught another future secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.
Albright was raised as a Roman Catholic and converted to Episcopalianism at the time of her marriage in 1958. She tells us she did not learn until a month before she became the countrys first female secretary of state that my family heritage was Jewish or that more than twenty of my relatives had died in the Holocaust. I had been brought up to believe in a history of my Czechoslovak homeland that was less tangled and more straightforward than the reality. I had much still to learn about the complex moral choices that my parents and others in their generation had been called on to make.
Some of this episode is recounted in her previous book Madam Secretary (2003), a memoir of her time in office. In her latest book, Prague Winter, Albright says that around the time of her appointment, on Dec. 5, 1996, she received a letter from a woman who had been in business with my maternal grandparents, who had been victimized by anti-Jewish discrimination during the war. Following this, in January 1997 – around the time she took office – a hardworking Washington Post reporter, Michael Dobbs, uncovered news that stunned us all: according to his research, three of my grandparents and numerous other family members had died in the Holocaust.
All of which raises the question: When did Bill Clinton find out that Madeleine Albright is Jewish? After all, at a time when he was trying to play the honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians, how diplomatically helpful would it have been to be appointing a Jewish secretary of state?
I suspect the answer is, not helpful at all.
The revelation that she is Jewish is central, Albright writes, because it provided the impetus for this book, a compelling personal exploration of her familys Jewish roots as well as an excellent and very readable history of Czechoslovakia from 1937 to 1948.
As someone very familiar with the period and a little familiar with the place, I read the book avidly, enjoying it very much. I wish Id had this book with me when last I visited Prague in the winter of 2011. Much about that mysterious and very beautiful medieval city would have been a lot clearer to me.
Prague Winter is highly informative and insightful, and its clear that Albright, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University, has done her homework; the book brings vividly to life the many pivotal historical events in recent Czech history. Especially good are the descriptions of the German occupation, the assassination of the so-called protector of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich (on May 27 it will be 70 years since the hangman, as he was also known, was attacked by a British-trained team of Czech and Slovak soldiers), the murder of the heroic foreign affairs minister Jan Masaryk by Czech Stalinists, and the subjugation of the country by a Communist party that behaved no less brutally than the Nazis. Albrights father was a close friend of Masaryk and the then-President Benes, who previously had led the Czechoslovakian government from exile in London; and her father might easily have been thrown out of a window like Masaryk – what is it about the people of Prague and defenestration? – if he hadnt fled to England.
I cant recommend Prague Winter highly enough. But if I have a criticism of the book and by extension of Albright herself its this: Having read it very closely, I cant help feeling she doesnt like the English very much. She takes Britain to task for a number of failings, not least for not standing up to Hitler at Munich in 1938 (although it seems to me that since France, not Great Britain, was Czechoslovakias ally under the Little Entente treaty of 1924, France had the greater duty) as well for as the small-minded, comical way we English went about the defense of our country, not to mention our rather condescending behavior toward Czechs in exile. Just how condescending could we really have been, I wonder, when the king and queen took the trouble to invite Dr. and Mrs. Benes to lunch in the summer of 1940? Ive lived here for 56 years, and Ive never even been through the gates of Buckingham Palace; my own father was wearing clogs to school in Edinburgh while Albright was attending a private school in Walton-on-Thames and living in Kensington.
Few sentiments, says Albright, are expressed more often than gratitude, but in Prague Winter this gratitude doesnt run to the least amount of thanks to a country that came to her familys aid – twice. Without the sanctuary provided by Great Britain, Albright would almost certainly have died in Theresienstadt or Auschwitz like all the rest of her extended family.
A simple expression of gratitude would have been nice. But I looked for a kind word about my fellow countrymen and found none – no, not even about Churchill. I wouldnt mind so much if she didnt elsewhere single out postwar Germany for praise as a bulwark of democracy, a good neighbor, and a model in protecting human rights.
Well gee, Madeleine, thanks a lot.