The first time Madeleine K. Albright visited Prague’s Pinkas Synagogue and saw its walls inscribed with the names of nearly 80,000 Jewish victims of the Holocaust, she was a practicing Episcopalian who had converted from Catholicism.
By the time of her second visit, she was aware that she had been born Jewish, and she realized that the names of three of her grandparents as well as more than a dozen other relatives were somewhere on those walls.
What had been a deeply moving human emotion the first time had become a deeply personal experience the second.
Albright, 76, the United States’ first female secretary of state, told her story — both personal and public — in a wide-ranging 45-minute talk Oct. 26 at Congregation Torat El in Oakhurst. She then fielded questions submitted on cards for another 40 minutes.
Nearly 400 congregants and guests attended the event, which was followed by a reception reserved for a more limited number.
Albright, who served in the Clinton cabinet for eight years — the first four as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the remainder as secretary of state — spoke of serious issues past and present: Kosovo, Syria, Iranian nuclear ambitions, and the moral responsibilities of the United States in world affairs.
But she also covered less weighty matters — how she deflected sexist attitudes while in the cabinet, what she thought of Dennis Rodman’s recent “diplomatic” visit to North Korea, and how her young granddaughter, knowing that Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton had held the same office as her grandmother, thought that only “girls” were allowed to be secretary of state.
Albright also discussed the impact of learning at age 59 that her parents had been Jewish and converted to Catholicism when she was still too young to understand what that meant.
Asked how an earlier revelation of her background might have made a difference, she said, “It wouldn’t have changed the way I lived my life, but it would have helped me better understand my parents’ motives.”
Albright today heads up two consulting organizations in Washington and is the author of five books. The latest, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948, is her attempt not just to piece together her own past but to connect it to the history of Czechoslovakia and Europe during the Nazi era.
In the book, Albright stated, “I feel an obligation I can never repay to those who helped me learn more about my family and what they experienced.”
‘100 percent Jewish’
This included Michael Dobbs, a Washington Post staff writer who wrote a detailed account of her Jewish heritage on Feb. 4, 1997, shortly after her appointment as secretary of state.
Dobbs revealed that Albright’s family had owned a building materials business prior to the Nazi invasion and that her father “probably embraced Roman Catholicism around the time of the war.
“Like many other assimilated Czech Jews,” Dobbs continued, “Albright’s father, Josef Korbel, considered himself a Czechoslovak patriot first and rarely referred to his religious background. Under the racial laws introduced by the Nazis following the takeover of Czechoslovakia, however, a family like the Korbels would have been considered 100 percent Jewish.”
Albright told the Congregation Torat El gathering that subsequent examination confirmed Dobbs’s report. She confessed to being somewhat shaken, especially when she was accused of having withheld information at the Senate confirmation hearing.
“I had told the truth,” she said. “I had always thought of myself as a Czechoslovak Catholic.”
Ultimately, the furor subsided, and Albright served for four years, distinguishing herself particularly for her role in the NATO bombing campaign to end ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the promotion of peace in the Balkans, the reduction of nuclear dangers from Russia, and the expansion of U.S. relations with China.
Turning to more recent events, Albright used a phrase for which she has become famous, describing the United States as “the indispensable nation,” and urging that it take a more active role in Syria before that conflict spills over into Lebanon. But, she added, “There is nothing about the word ‘indispensable’ that says ‘alone.’”
At the same time, Albright said, the United States must be judicious about the conflicts it takes on and the goals it seeks to achieve. “You can’t impose democracy. That is an oxymoron,” she said.
With regard to Iran’s nuclear program, she said, “Do I trust Iran’s leadership? No.” She added, however, that “it would be a mistake not to pursue talks” with its new president, who appears to be a bit more moderate.
She acknowledged that ever since President Eisenhower spoke of “atoms for peace” in the 1950s, every nation has a right to develop a nuclear energy program. That goes for Iran, too, “if they allow for inspections, and that is a big ‘if,’” she said.