Prague Win­ter: A Per­son­al Sto­ry of Remem­brance and War,1937 – 1948

Madeleine Albright

  • Review
By – September 13, 2012

The six­ty-fourth U.S. Sec­re­tary of State was born a Jew, but she didn’t know it. Three of her grand­par­ents and oth­er rel­a­tives died in the Holo­caust, but she didn’t know it. That Albright has no mean­ing­ful Jew­ish iden­ti­ty hints at a sto­ry of Jew­ish fam­i­lies in Nazi-infect­ed Europe that per­haps will nev­er be ful­ly told.

The fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry Albright relates has three dimen­sions: it’s a World War II nar­ra­tive with a Cen­tral Euro­pean focus; a Czech-eye view of World War II and its after­math; and a deeply mov­ing per­spec­tive on the part her father, Josef Kör­bel, played in the Czech for­eign min­istry as press attaché and ambas­sador to Yugoslavia, as scribe and mouth­piece for the Czecho­slo­va­kian gov­ern­ment-in-exile (in Lon­don) after his coun­try fell to the Nazis, and as effec­tive sub­or­di­nate to the major Czech lead­ers Edvard Beneš and Jan Masaryk, even through his country’s sec­ond fall, to the Sovi­et Union.

Madeleine Albright’s response to the dis­cov­ery of her Jew­ish ances­try is a leit­mo­tif run­ning through the his­tor­i­cal analy­sis. Once their Jew­ish parent­age became known, she and her younger sib­lings explored fam­i­ly papers and var­i­ous archives to piece togeth­er details of their Jew­ish past. There was no one left to ask this ques­tion: What led her par­ents to con­vert to Roman Catholi­cism when Madeleine was very young and nev­er reveal the truth about their Jew­ish origins?

Oth­er ques­tions: (1) Did Josef Kör­bel attempt to get his par­ents and in-laws out of dan­ger? (2) As the Nazis rose to pow­er, how many oth­er Jew­ish indi­vid­u­als or fam­i­lies dis­owned their Jew­ish selves to try to save their lives? (3) How many succeeded? 

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

Discussion Questions