Did She Know?
Was Madeleine Albright really surprised about her Jewish roots?
The Korbels and Simova continued to correspond after the war, and Simova met Albright briefly in Prague just after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. For reasons unknown, Albright has rejected Simova's attempts to set up more meetings, though Simova is her only surviving Czech relative. Did Simova never mention that the family was Jewish, when living with the Korbels or during subsequent sporadic communications? Did Albright not wonder why this cousin was living with them in London, or what had happened to her parents?
Albright says her parents expressed vivid recollections of childhood Easter and Christmas celebrations. These recollections may well have been true. The elder Korbels came from a small town near the Czech/German border where Jews were almost entirely assimilated into secular life, hardly practicing, and lacking any communal institutions, including a synagogue.
A second reason some skeptics doubt that Albright could have been blindsided by her own life story is that since she has risen to prominence, the suggestion that she is Jewish has been raised repeatedly. Rumors of Albright's Jewish background have been circulated ever since she was appointed United Nations ambassador in 1993. A December 1996 article in al-Hayat, an Arab newspaper published in London, asserted that Albright, as a Jew, would be a dangerously pro-Israel secretary of state. But less tendentious media outlets have also reported on Albright's ethnic background. Multiple stories about it have appeared, for example, in major Czech newspapers.
The mayor of Letohrad, the town where Josef Korbel grew up, says he sent Albright three letters in recent years. The letters included recollections of her family and the clippings from Czech newspapers alleging her Jewish heritage. Albright says that she received several other similar letters as well. But she says they contained too many factual errors and inconsistencies for her to take them seriously.
Over the years, other people have come across the facts about Albright's background that she says she never knew. An Israeli official told the Post that Czech immigrants to Israel told the government in 1994 that Albright's parents had been Jewish. Western reporters in Belgrade say they have encountered people who recall reading press reports from the late '40s about Albright's family. Apparently, Josef Korbel was a minor celebrity during his stints there, and his conversion to Catholicism and his parents' deaths in the Holocaust were reported in the city's papers.
According to the New York Times, Albright told White House officials preparing for her confirmation hearings in December that she suspected her grandparents had been Jewish. That was a month before the Washington Post story ran.
Franklin Foer is editor at large of the New Republic. He is the author of How Soccer Explains the World.