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Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reflects on her family history and lessons for today’s world.

Madeleine Albright

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recalls the first time she had an inkling of her Jewish heritage, around the same time she was being vetted for the office she would hold from 1997-2001.

Since she became a public figure in 1993 as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Albright, a native of Prague, Czechoslovakia, began to receive letters from Czechs claiming to know her family, but none of the names, towns or years matched up — not until 1996, when she received a letter from a person who had known her family and remembered them as one of the “finest Jewish families in Prague.”

She was stunned.

“As I was being vetted, I was asked if there was anything else I wanted to disclose, and I said ‘I don’t know for sure, but I may have Jewish heritage,’” Albright recalled. “Of course, they told me that didn’t matter.”

Around the same time, in 1997, Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs published a profile of Albright that revealed more than a dozen of her relatives, including her three grandparents, were killed as Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Albright had been only 2 years old when her parents escaped to London from Czechoslovakia in March 1939, less than two weeks after the Nazi occupation. The family returned to Czechoslovakia in 1945, after its liberation from the Germans. Her parents were granted political asylum in the United States in 1948, after a communist coup in Czechoslovakia.

Albright, who was raised as a Roman Catholic, said her parents told her only that her relatives died “during the course of the war.”

According to the Post profile, historical records 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 a holding camp at Terezin, where Czech Jews were kept before being sent to Auschwitz. Better known by the German name Theresienstadt, it was a ghetto where tens of thousands of Jews from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Denmark died.

“It was tragic to find out how many relatives had died,” Albright said. “I was struck with feelings of great sadness, curiosity, fascination and pride. My feeling was I needed to learn more.”

Her brother and sister went to the Czech Republic, including Terezin and Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, where the names of more than 77,000 Czech Jews who died in the Holocaust, including Albright’s grandparents, are inscribed.

Albright then set out on a multi-year tracing of her
family’s roots. She began the process with her memoir Madam Secretary (2003).  Three other books followed. “But still I had a longing to dig deeper,” Albright said.

She traveled to the Czech Republic and found her grandparents’ names on the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue. The more she learned and absorbed, “the more jumble of emotions I felt,”  she said, including “great tragedy and incredible sadness for those who suffered as well as great admiration for and inspiration from those who survived.”

Prague Winter, A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 (Harper, 2012) is the culmination of Albright’s years of research. The personal memoir has many layers, including a historical look at the years 1937-1948 and the value of alliances, and the morality of decision-making and what happens when leaders are involved in wishful thinking.

She cites an infamous quote from British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who, to appease Hitler, did nothing to prevent the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia:

“How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gasmasks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.”

“We can’t have that kind of thinking ever again,” she said.

Lessons From History
In Prague Winter, Albright writes, “lessons from World War II have been learned at best imperfectly.”

“It’s essential to get the facts,” she said. “International policy has to be fact-based, and the long-term consequences of decisions need to be understood, especially by those who make them from a distance.”

She takes an example from history — the infamous Terezin ghetto, that, according to Nazi propaganda, was a “spa town” where German Jews could “retire” in safety.

“Terezin was a peculiar place, not known as a death camp,” Albright said. “Jews were lured there. Some went voluntarily, others were forced — but no one imagined the horrors.”

In 1944, the Red Cross sent inspection teams to Terezin. The Germans intensified deportations from the ghetto shortly before the visit to make it appear less crowded, and “beautified” the ghetto, planting gardens and painting houses. The Nazis staged social and cultural events for the visiting dignitaries.

“The visit persuaded the West that there were no horrors,” Albright said. Once the visit was over, the Germans resumed the deportations to Auschwitz, which did not end until October 1944.

“There’s a lesson there for today,” Albright said. “Although no two situations are alike, as international monitors go into Syria and Iran, they should not give credence to just what they see. They must dig deeper.”

Albright said she agrees with the international community’s attempts to isolate Syria’s Bashar Al Assad but is disappointed with the stance taken by Russia and China, which still back his regime.

As for Iran, she says she agrees with President Obama that it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear bomb, and hopes for a peaceful solution that includes valid international inspections of all of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

When asked about the state of the Middle East today, Albright said that during her time as secretary of state, she knew then that it could not remain a static region.

“I firmly believe that people are ready for democracy, no matter where they are,” she said. “We are all the same. People want to make decisions about their lives and that escalates into wanting a say in their government.

“We knew as people became more educated and the middle class grew, that something was bound to happen. But no one could have predicted how or the role that social media would play.”

Albright added, “Like many Americans, I’m concerned for Israel’s security” and said she believes that Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have clarified the depth and strength of the two countries’ relationship.

“I believe what needs to happen is we must figure out how to move into legitimate talks about a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians,” she said, “and I remain convinced of America’s unwavering, unassailable commitment to the Jewish state, especially when we reflect on the reason for Israel’s existence in the first place.”

By Jackie Headapohl/Managing Editor

Memoir On a World Stage:Albright’s Prague Winter

Imagine the discovery in the sixth decade of your life that your parents were Jewish, that more than 20 of your relatives died in the Holocaust, that the trajectory of your life story, indeed your very survival, was the result of your parents’ complex moral choices.

In the hands of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a family history takes on the spectrum of world history as events unfold in her memoir,  Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948.

Drawing on her earliest memories, letters and written reflections from her parents, and brilliant research, she takes readers from the Czechoslovakia of her childhood — “a land of magic, marionettes, Franz Kafka and Good King Wenceslas”— through the tumultuous years of Nazi occupation, the rise of fascism and the onset of the Cold War.

Through Albright’s lens, we follow an intensely personal, yet global story. We see intimate portraits of the war years in London where her parents escaped after the Nazi invasion in 1939; we follow refugees to the ghetto of Terezin where her grandparents perished. Albright also sheds light on the story of millions of ordinary European citizens, driven from their homes and forced by their decisions, large and small, into new roles as leaders, freedom fighters, victims, killers.

Albright asks, “What separates us from the world we have and the kind of ethical universe [we like to envision]? What prompts one person to act boldly in a moment of crisis and a second to seek shelter in the crowd? Why do some people become stronger in the face of adversity, while others quickly lose heart? What separates the bully from the protector? Is it education, spiritual belief, our parents, our friends, the circumstances of our birth, traumatic events, or more likely some combination that spells the difference?”

Reprinted from MyJewishDetroit, working to build a stronger, healthier, greater Detroit. Follow the stories on Twitter @myJDetroit.

Federation Presents Albright
Join Federation’s Women’s Department for a conversation with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, May 6, at Congregation Adat Shalom in Farmington Hills. Her book, Prague Winter, will be available for purchase and signing. Open to individual donors of $18 or more to Federation’s 2012 Annual Campaign. Visit jewishdetroit.org or contact Marianne Bloomberg, bloomberg@jfmd.org or (248) 642-4611 for details.

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