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.