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Madeleine Albright’s War Years

In a new memoir, Prague Winter, the former secretary of State explores her family’s World War II history and discovers the fate of those left behind

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Madeleine Albright, flanked by grandmothers Růžena Spieglová (left) and Olga Körbelová. (Courtesy Madeleine Albright and Harper Collins)

In 1996, just as the Honorable Madeleine Korbelova Albright was confirmed as secretary of State—the country’s first woman to hold that post—revelations came to light that her Czech parents, neither of whom were living by then, had been born Jews.

Josef and Anna (née Spieglová) Korbel converted to Catholicism in 1941, when Josef was working for the exiled Czech government in London. The information, which Albright learned of just a few months before it was made public, raised many questions: Why had her parents converted, and why had they never told her? Why had she never figured it out? And what happened to the relatives who remained in Czechoslovakia during World War II and after? It was only when her term as secretary of State ended that Albright was able to pursue answers to these questions in earnest. In her new book, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, she chronicles her search and the answers she found. She joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to talk about what it was like to learn of her family background at age 59, and about what she’s done with this knowledge in the intervening years. Albright also talks about why Hillary Clinton has a harder job than she did. [Running time: 16:09.] 


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paul delano says:

I find it as hard to believe today as I did in 1996 that she was unaware of her Jewish ancestry.

    rocky2345 says:

     I am not at all surprised that she was unaware of her Jewish ancestry. Her father appeared to have been an ambitious, assimilated young Jew who was trying to keep his family one step ahead of the Nazis. Once her parents converted, they would have seen no reason to re-awaken the family’s tragic past. In post war Europe, it was not unusual for some Jewish survivors to abandon their Jewish roots and to live as Catholics. Some baby boys born to Jewish parents in postwar Europe were not circumcised. Since the fall of communism, more Eastern Europeans are finding out they had Jewish grandparents or that one of their parents was Jewish.

    Do you remember the controversy that was raised about John Kerry ‘s Jewish roots in 2003? Read about John Kerry’s personal life and background here:

    molarman says:

    Especially with that face staring her back form the mirror she looked into every day.

Ed Kendrick says:

The lesson of using genocide as a political tool was not lost on Madeline Albright.

    yevka says:

     Thanks for adding that link. I remember her interview on 60 Minutes on this serious issue. The world will not judge us well for what we did after we won the Gulf War.

    dezionizer says:

    Ed, she seemed to be awfully smug in justifying the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Semitic Iraqi children in the 1st Gulf War.  She’s a strange little Harpie.  Peter

41953 says:

Is this the same Madeleine Albright who said that the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children due to US sanctions was worth it?

Nanush says:

 I noticed that Albright repeatedly said that her grandparents “died in concentration camps”. They just somehow ceased to live. She did not say that they were murdered. She did not say that her grandmother was gassed in Auschwitz.
Is this being a diplomat? Being a dispassionate historian? Or does this reflect a deeper emotional conflict? Embarrassment about expressing personal emotions in a public/professional format?

JamesPhiladelphia says:

Is this the same secretary of state that used to cook vegetarian lunch for Yasser Arafat?

Eden19567 says:

M. Albright should be ashamed of her parents’ behavior.

    rocky2345 says:

     Did you live through the war in Europe? If not, you are not in a position to judge her parents.

      Eden19567 says:

      No, but my father was a Jewish Holocaust survivor, and he was a proud Jew.

I’m not sure what sense the  comments  posted so far  are relative to and in respect to the life of  one remarkable lady.(I remember my own experience in Prague in October 1966)

    rocky2345 says:

     The book is about Madeline’s childhood not her years as Secretary of State.

emunadate says:

Wow, she lost 3 grandparents in the holocaust. It is hard to believe she didn’t know she was Jewish. Elie Weisel reflects on the holocaust…

    jonathansg says:

    Several years before 1996, the Anti-Defamation League attempted to alert Madeline Albright that she had Jewish cousins alive in Czechoslovakia and other evidence that she might have Jewish roots.  While those attempts were rebuffed, perhaps because she feared ulterior motives, she had been alerted to evidence about her Jewish roots before 1996 and maybe earlier if those cousins had reached out to her directly. 

I’ve met and worked with a number of individuals who discovered a Jewish heritage late in life.  Whatever one thinks of the former secretary of state, this interview is a window into a particular kind of Holocaust survivor experience.  Their parents were trying to protect vulnerable children  from trauma; the fact that it ultimately just put off one trauma for another, later one does not diminish the fact that they lost many relationships that most of us take for granted:  grandparents, cousins, and an entire context for their lives.  

The photo accompanying the article struck me as apt:  the tiny, vulnerable child pictured in between two women whose faces are lost to her and to history.

Flo_J says:

No one can judge her or her parents!  “Al tadin et chavercha ad shetagia lim’komo.”  Even if you are a survivor, or the child of one, no one’s life story is the same.
I am happy to hear that her daughter is raising her children as Jews — as they are!
Albright is not the only one is this oh-so-difficult situation.  There are many more like her in Poland, including some priests in the Catholic Church. 
A “tinok shenishba” is how the Talmud describes one in such a situation — a child who was captured and raised as a non-Jew. 
What does G-d want of people in these circumstances?  Maybe just to state for the public record, “I am of Jewish extraction.” 

ProfJMRood says:

When will Jewish followers of Yeshua be accepted fully by the Jewish community, and Israel?  With the Haskalah, Jewish identity was no longer tied to the coercive power of the rabbis, but Israeli law has reinstated it.  With the new government in Israel, will religious freedom, including the right to change religious affiliation, be recognized, as it is in the US, or is Jewish identity in Israel always to be established by legal fiat?


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Madeleine Albright’s War Years

In a new memoir, Prague Winter, the former secretary of State explores her family’s World War II history and discovers the fate of those left behind

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