Madeleine Albright’s Journey to her Jewish Past

July 1, 2012 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson.

In January 1997, Madeleine Korbel Albright made history by becoming the first female Secretary of State. Almost immediately, a startling Washington Post story shattered Secretary Albright’s lifelong belief in her Catholic Czechoslovak heritage. The Post reported that Albright’s parents were Jewish and that three of her grandparents, as well as many other relatives, perished in concentration camps. In her engrossing memoir, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 (2012), Albright confronts these revelations and explores World War II history.

The Infamous Munich Agreement

The early years of Albright’s life in Czechoslovakia were pivotal ones in the history of World War II.  In 1938, the year after Albright was born, Nazi Germany demanded the right to annex part of Czechoslovakia – the Sudetenland – on the pretext of liberating the ethnic Germans who lived there.

Still haunted by the horrors of World War I, Britain and France were reluctant to wage war over Czechoslovakia. The Western powers, Albright writes, discounted Czechoslovakia as “a faraway place that few people in such capitals as London and Washington had visited or even knew how to spell.” She continues, “Czechoslovakia was not thought to be worth fighting for, so it was sacrificed in the quest for peace.”

The sacrifice failed to appease Hitler. Less than six months after the Munich Agreement, in which Britain, France, and Italy (Czechoslovakia was not represented) agreed to cede the Sudetenland to Germany, Hitler seized the rest of Czechoslovakia and embarked on his conquest of Europe.

A Family in Exile

After the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia, Albright’s family escaped to London. There, Albright’s diplomat father, Josef Korbel, served the Czechoslovak government-in-exile. He directed wartime radio programs that were broadcast to partisans in Czechoslovakia, who risked the death penalty for tuning in to a foreign radio station.

After the war, the Korbels returned to Czechoslovakia. Then, the Communist takeover in 1948 forced the family to flee once more. Granted political asylum by the United States, Josef Korbel became a distinguished professor of international relations at the University of Denver.

While still in England, the Korbels and four-year-old Madeleine converted to Catholicism, although Albright does not remember the baptism ceremony. Her parents never mentioned their Jewish heritage to Albright and her younger siblings. Albright grew up a believing Catholic, but became Episcopalian when she married to please her husband’s family.

Trying to fathom her parents’ religious conversion from the distance of more than half a century, Albright speculates that her parents primarily identified as patriotic Czechoslovak democrats; she believes they felt no religious connection to Judaism. Indeed, the Korbels’ 1935 marriage certificate identifies them as bez vyznání (without religious confession). She suspects that the Korbels decided that their children would live easier lives as Christians.  Says Albright, “The reasons for such a conclusion, in the Europe of 1941, need little explanation.”

Albright grew up without extended family but never imagined that her family tree had been “stripped bare” by the Holocaust. After the Washington Post revelations, Albright paid an emotional visit to Prague’s Pinkas synagogue, where she found the names of her grandparents and many other relatives among the 80,000 names of Holocaust murder victims inscribed on memorial walls.