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By Leah Trabich, Cold Spring Harbor
High School, New York
Ever since the breaking news that Madeleine Albright's grandparents died in the Holocaust, there has been considerable debate over Albright's assertion that her Jewish roots are "a major surprise." Many people question how a bright, inquisitive foreign policy expert, seasoned in the history of Europe, could not have reasoned her lineage from what she knew. Others, however, agree that in such families as Albright's, the question of ancestry sometimes becomes a forbidden subject and the child learns not to ask about it.
Last February, the Washington Post reported that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had learned that she had Jewish roots and that many of her relatives, including her grandparents, died in the Holocaust. Albright was raised a Roman Catholic and is now an Episcopalian. "I never thought of myself as anything else," she said. Albright's mother and father never spoke to her or her two siblings about the relatives' end or their Jewish background. "The only thing I have to go by is what my mother and father told me, how I was brought up," Albright said. She said her parents told her that her relatives only died "during the course of the war." Only two years old, Madeleine Korbel Albright was taken by her parents out of Czechoslovakia in March, 1939. This was less than two weeks after the Nazi invasion. In an unfinished, unpublished eleven-page family narrative, Albright's mother made no allusion to relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. She tried to describe her husband's "turbulent" life. The memoir ends in 1945, just prior to the return of the Korbel family from London.
"With the help of some good friends, and lots of luck and a little bribery, we managed to get the necessary Gestapo permission to leave the country," wrote Mandula Korbel, Albright's mother. Following the war, the family returned to Prague and learned that Albright's three living grandparents had died. Had she and her parents remained in the country, their chances of survival would have been very slight, for Josef Korbel's file at the foreign ministry contains a birth certificate issued in March 1941, describing him as "Jewish."
The new information was exposed during research for an article for the Washington Post Magazine about Albright's family's experiences in Czechoslovakia. It was found that more than a dozen of her relatives, including two grandparents, her aunt and uncle, and a first cousin, died in the Nazi concentration camps. The data is based on documents in German, Czech, and, Jewish archives; Auschwitz transportation lists; and, interviews with friends and family members in Europe. The names of 77,000 Czech Jews who died in the Holocaust are inscribed on the wall of the Pinkas synagogue in Prague.
Some of Albright's relatives and friends in Czechoslovakia admitted that they had always known of her Jewish origins. Dagmar Simova, Albright's first cousin, has had only occasional contact with the American portion of the family. In the summer of 1945, when Simova learned that her parents and sister -- Albright's uncle, aunt, and cousin -- had died in the Holocaust, Albright was only eight and considered too young to be told.
It's not clear that Albright ever acquired justification as to why three of her grandparents and much of her family died during the war. Over the years, other people have come across the facts about Albright's roots that she claims she never knew. An Israeli official told The Post that Czech immigrants to Israel told the US government three years ago that Albright's parents had been of Jewish descent. In addition, western reporters in Belgrade say that they have met people who recall having read press reports about Albright's family from the late forties. Evidently, Josef Korbel's conversion to Catholicism and his parents' deaths were reported in the papers. Albright told officials at the White House, preparing for her confirmation hearings in December, according to The New York Times, that she suspected her grandparents had been Jewish. This was a month prior to the release of the Washington Post story.
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