As tributes pour in for the late Madeleine Albright, America’s secretary of state during the Clinton administration, it is fascinating to reconstruct the identity shake-up this forceful, self-assured woman underwent at the age of 60 when she first found out—or first publicly admitted—that she was Jewish.
Rumors had long circulated about her Jewish lineage which Albright always denied. Even after being confronted with the truth, that she was the daughter of a Czech Jewish diplomat who had converted to Catholicism in the 1940s, it wasn’t until she was 75, she admitted in an interview, that she had “the time and the courage to explore her Jewish roots.”
That journey into her past would have awakened the ghosts of the Holocaust and her family’s searing personal tragedy, in which more than two dozen relatives, including three grandparents, were killed by the Nazis. Perhaps even more troubling for the ambitious Albright, admitting membership in a minority ethnic group, especially the Jewish faith, might have interfered with her career.
Born in 1937 and 11 years old when she arrived with her parents in America, Albright said she was raised as a Roman Catholic and claimed to have had no inkling about her true origins until shortly before she was appointed secretary of state—the first woman in American history to hold this post.
At that point, two weeks before she was sworn in, she was confronted by evidence of her family’s Jewish origins that was “too compelling” to deny, a New York Times report said.
That evidence was made public in 1997 by Washington Post journalist Michael Dobbs writing a feature story about the newly appointed secretary of state’s childhood in Czechoslovakia, the country of her birth.
Archival records made available to the Post by the Holocaust Research Center in Prague, as well as interviews with elderly family friends and relatives in Czechoslovakia, established without a doubt that Albright’s paternal grandparents, Arnost and Olga Korbel were Czech Jews who died at Auschwitz.
Her maternal grandmother, Anna Speiglovna, was also killed by the Nazis. In all, about 26 of Albright’s Jewish relatives were murdered in Nazi death camps, according to records copied from Czech and Jewish Archives.
The records, which were based on transportation lists captured from the Nazis at the end of World War II, show that some of Albright’s relatives were killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Others died of typhoid and malnutrition at Theresienstadt, where Czech Jews were interned before being shipped to Auschwitz.
“It’s one thing to find out you’re Jewish… but another to find out that relatives had died in concentration camps. That was a stunning shock,” she told an interviewer at the time.
Obscure as the Ash Heaps Over Auschwitz
Albright said that her parents never talked to her about her relatives’ fate or their Jewish background, only that they had died “in the course of the war.”
Asked whether she had been curious about her grandparents, she said, “I had no actual knowledge of them. When people are not a visible part of your life, you don’t ask about them.”
Her statements implied that her grandparents and other relatives were not only “not a visible part” of her life, but occupied no place at all in the family annals. Albright’s parents, Joseph and Mandula Korbel, had apparently severed themselves not only from their Jewish origins but from emotional ties to their own parents and family members.
These victims of Hitler were not spoken of, remembered or memorialized by their Korbel descendants in any way, as if they had never existed.
In an 11-page partial family history written by Albright’s mother in America 30 years after the war, Mandula Korbel describes her flight from Czechoslovakia with husband Josef and two-year old Madeleine, 10 days after the Nazi invasion.
“Banks were closed… friends were being arrested …Joseph’s name was also on a list of people being hunted by the Gestapo.” They placed 2-year-old Madeleine with family members and slept each night at a different friend’s house, spending their days in Prague’s streets and restaurants. “It was mostly in the night that the Gestapo arrested people,” she wrote.
“We managed to get the necessary Gestapo permission to leave the country,” the memoir continued. “This happened about 5 o’clock in the evening and by 11 o’clock the same night, we all three were in a train to Belgrade with two small suitcases that we were able to pack in a hurry.”
The Korbels managed to escape Czechoslovakia before the Germans were able to completely seal the border. “That was the last time we saw our parents alive,” Albright’s mother writes of her hasty goodbye to family and relatives. This is the memoir’s only reference to relatives who died in the Holocaust. Nowhere in the manuscript is there mention of the family’s Jewish identity or the fact of their having died as victims of the Nazis, the Post article notes.
That last encounter between the Korbels and their parents was thus more final than death itself. The couple’s subsequent decision to convert to Christianity, denying their Jewish ancestry and keeping their children in the dark about it, denied their martyred parents any form of continuity.
That distortion of the truth continued even after the family reached safety. It consigned the memory of the victims to oblivion, obscure as the ash heaps scattered over Auschwitz, Majdanek and Theresienstadt.
Asked if she thought her parents had made the right choice in creating a fictitious past and identity for their children, Albright said “I am incredibly grateful to them. I can’t question their motivation.”
“She Never Replied to My Letters”
Madeleine Albright’s claim that she never suspected her Jewish ancestry appears doubtful when viewed in the context of a series of letters written to Albright between 1994 and 1996 by then Mayor Peter Silar of Letohgrad, a small town in Czechoslovakia.
As reported on in the Washington Post, one of the letters included clippings of an article that had just been published in the local paper that described how records of Albright’s father had been found in the “birth register of the Jewish community,” and how her paternal grandparents died in the gas chambers.
The letter offered extensive details of Albright’s family as related by residents of the town who remembered Albright’s father and grandfather “with love and respect.”
The letter also included information about Madeleine Albright’s first cousin Dagmar Simova, who had lived with Albright’s family in England decades earlier when the Korbels had fled to London before the Nazi occupation.
The last three letters from Mayor Silar, sent through the American Embassy of Prague and the Czech Foreign Ministry, all reiterated an official invitation to Albright to come to Letohgrad on her next visit to Czechoslovakia.
“She never responded to my letters,” Mayor Silar told the Washington Post.
Torn Asunder by Nazism and Communism
In many ways, the saga of these two cousins and the broken trajectory of their relationship is a haunting reflection of how Jewish families were torn asunder by Nazism and Communism.
Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland and his later invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 had forced the Czech prime minister and key government figures to flee to London. After a period in hiding, Josef Korbel, targeted for execution by the Nazis for his liberal politics and allegiance to the Czech government, made it to safety in Britain with his family, where he went to work for the Czech government-in-exile. Cousin Dagmar, nine years older than Madeleine, soon joined them.
In 1941, Josef and Mandula converted from Judaism to Christianity, according to Albright’s 2003 memoir, Madam Secretary. “They had their children baptized and to preserve their assumed identities, fabricated a family history of Christian memories,” the New York Times reported. The Korbels spent the war years, from 1939-1945, in relative comfort and safety.
When they returned to Prague together after the war, Madeleine was 8, Dagmar 17. But while Madeleine survived the war with her immediate family intact, Dagmar returned to her hometown to discover she was an orphan; her parents and sister and much of her extended family had been murdered by the Nazis.
Of the 80,000 Czech Jews who were rounded up and sent to Theresienstadt in 1941 and 1942, only about ten per cent survived. Most of the survivors were young people taken for slave labor at Auschwitz. The vast majority of those killed were gassed immediately upon arrival at the death camp.
For a while Dagmar held on to the fragile hope that her father had survived, but upon being told by eyewitnesses of his death in Auschwitz, she went to live once more with the Korbels. The family had relocated to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where Josef Korbel held the post of Czech ambassador and housed his family in elegant style.
Dagmar and Madeleine were separated in 1948 as a result of the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia. The Korbels fled the country, having been granted political asylum in the United States. For reasons not clear, Dagmar, an orphan with no family in Czechoslovakia, was left behind.
According to the Washington Post article, Albright says her parents told her explicitly that they had invited Dagmar to go with them to America but that she declined. Dagmar remembers it very differently. “I don’t regret anything,” she told the Post. “I have had a good life, a good marriage, a good family. My children are happy. At the same time, in hindsight, I think he [Uncle Josef] did me wrong. He should not have left me here. If he had suggested that I go with them, I would have gone. He should have been aware of the dangers of staying here.”
“I was told by my parents, that [Dagmar] preferred not to come with us to the United States because she had already been displaced a number of times in her life and she was about to go to the university,” was Albright’s version of how Dagmar came to stay in Prague. “I’d be surprised – very, very surprised – if my parents had not offered to bring her,” since they did bring a maid with them.
In any event, the Korbels left for the United States, while Dagmar stayed behind. Some six months later, after the borders were effectively sealed, Dagmar said she received a letter from Madeleine’s mother suggesting that she go to stay with family in London. “I think it was for the sake of her conscience,” said Dagmar. “She told me to go to London but did not explain how I was meant to get there.”
It would be decades before Dagmar and Madeleine would meet up again. Separated by the Iron Curtain which made communications to and from the free world fraught with risk, the cousins lost touch.
Forty years pass. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Dagmar Simova and Madeleine Albright met briefly in Prague after this historic event. It was a strained encounter, Dagmar recalled. The contrast between their lives at that point could not have been more stark.
Albright, married into a wealthy family and a widely respected diplomat, then held the post of America’s ambassador to the United Nations. She was living the American dream at its best.
Dagmar Simova, having weathered years of Communist repression and economic privation, had recently retired from her job at a radio station. She had fallen on hard times in the years following the Korbels’ emigration to the United States, was thrown out of the university she was attending, barred from completing a degree, and then repeatedly rejected for one job after another.
This harassment was in apparent retaliation, she guessed, for her family association with Korbel who was persona non grata under the Communist regime. “I think she probably had a pretty bad time of it because of my father,” Albright agreed, according to the Post report.
The cousins were a study in extremes in other ways. Although living as an assimilated Jew, Dagmar revered the memories of her relatives who had perished in the camps and had spent years tracing the fates of her sister, parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts. She spoke of them often, enshrining their images in the minds of her children.
The effort to re-establish connections with Madeleine, a once cherished first cousin, seemed to come from her hunger for roots and for anchoring her family’s history and their collective memories.
Madeleine, by contrast, had emerged from the war unscathed. It had only touched her in a peripheral way. After reaching the United States in 1948, the family closed the book on their earlier lives, determined to become model Americans. Like many immigrants, they turned their backs on a heritage they feared might limit their opportunities, abandoning a legacy they no longer valued and were even ashamed of.
In her periodic visits to Prague, Dagmar confided to the Post, Albright made no effort to contact her. Dagmar described her own attempt to get together with her renowned cousin in 1994 during one of those diplomatic visits.
According to her account, hearing that Albright would be in Prague again, Dagmar, now 72, had decided to seek her out in person. She made her way to the front row of a press conference in the American library in Prague, staring intently at Madeleine, hoping for a sign of recognition. In her hand, she clutched a letter containing family news and her new address and phone number in Prague.
The press conference ended on an abrupt note and Albright made a hurried exit. Dagmar rushed after her, attempting to get close enough to hand over the letter. Blocked by a bodyguard, she dropped her letter into his hands with a plea to hand it over to Albright.
Days passed, then weeks and months. The letter brought no response. The rebuff was stinging.
“I was once a loved older cousin, looked up to as older cousins tend to be,” said Dagmar in the Post interview. “But obviously she does not want a relationship with me, now. Yes, it hurt. But I got over it. I have other relatives and many friends.”
Madeleine Albright’s apparent reluctance to associate with Dagmar and others from her earlier life suggests she made a conscious choice to follow in her parents’ footsteps, distancing herself from associations with her past, especially Jewish ones.
“She consciously modeled herself after her father,” her daughter Anne noted, according to the Post article. “They are very similar in many ways. My mother, like my grandfather, is very intellectual, very rational. She got her sense of integrity from him.”
Ironically, the comment about “integrity” came after the revelations of Albright’s Jewish lineage, so carefully concealed by her parents and by Albright herself for most of her life, as she perpetuated the myth of her non-Jewish origins.
How Could She Not Have Known?
Rumors of Albright’s Jewish background had circulated ever since she was appointed United Nations ambassador in 1993. A December 1996 article in al-Hayat, an Arab newspaper published in London, asserted that Albright, as a Jew, would be a dangerously pro-Israel secretary of state.
Multiple stories about her Jewish lineage had also appeared in major Czech newspapers. An Israeli official told the Post that Czech immigrants to Israel told the government in 1994 that Albright’s parents had been Jewish.
In addition, Western reporters in Belgrade are reported to have said they encountered people who recall reading press reports from the late 1940s about Albright’s family. “Apparently, Josef Korbel was a minor celebrity during a stint as ambassador there, and his conversion to Catholicism was reported in the city’s papers,” the Washington Post said.
When Albright finally disclosed to State Department officials her “suspicions” of her Jewish origins, only days before being sworn in as secretary of state, she feared it might cost her job. “I thought… I’m going to be fired because they’re going to think that I lied. And I had not lied,” she said in 2012, according to the Post article.
Questioned subsequently about reports of her Jewishness, State Department officials repeated Albright’s story, that she had been raised a Roman Catholic and had converted to the Episcopalian faith following her 1959 marriage to Joseph Albright, scion of a wealthy newspaper family. The marriage ended in the 1980s.
Many people find the story of Albright’s late awakening to her Jewish roots difficult to believe.
After the war, the Korbel family returned to Prague only to learn, Albright says, that her three grandparents had died. She was eight years old at the time. She maintained she knew nothing about how her grandparents and two dozen of her relatives had been killed in Nazi death camps until 1997, fifty years later. What did she think happened to all these people?
How could someone as intelligent and well-versed in European history as the adult Madeleine Albright not have intuited her family’s ancestry?
Even more troubling, she had a Jewish cousin with whom she lived during and after the war years, who identified as a Jew. Is it possible cousin Dagmar never mentioned the subject of their common Jewish identity in any of her interactions with Madeleine?
Dagmar discovered the truth about Nazi wartime atrocities almost immediately after the war upon returning to Prague with the Korbels. She learned about her parents’ deaths in Auschwitz, and the deaths of Madeleine’s and her own grandparents in German camps. Is it conceivable this subject never came up between them?
Chance For Redemption
In a talk with HuffPost, Albright disclosed it was only at the age of 75 that she had the “time and courage” to explore her past. She was by then largely out of the limelight, penning her memoirs and basking in decades of achievement and a world renowned career.
In her 2012 memoir, Prague Winter, Albright wrote about the war memoir her parents left behind, and how she visited her childhood neighborhoods in the Czech Republic, and retraced some of the steps her family took in the peril-fraught days of World War II. She then gingerly broached her connection to Judaism, writing that “my youngest grandson is just studying for his bar mitzvah…”
She did not mention the hope that such a grandson might be the redemption for her lifetime of estrangement from her Jewish roots. Or that her grandson might one day say Kaddish for his martyred ancestors, and perhaps for his grandmother, Madeleine Albright.