Did She Know?

A cheat sheet for the news.
Feb. 16 1997 3:30 AM

Did She Know?

Was Madeleine Albright really surprised about her Jewish roots?

By Franklin Foer

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The Washington Post reported Feb. 4 that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's parents were Jewish converts to Catholicism and that her grandparents died in the Holocaust. Albright declared, "This was obviously a major surprise to me. I have never been told this." Many people find that hard to believe. No one criticizes Albright and her parents, refugees twice-over (first from Nazism, then from Communism), for how they chose to put their lives back together. But there is lively debate over Albright's insistence that her Jewish roots are "a major surprise."

Doubters point, first, to circumstantial evidence. How could someone as intelligent and well-versed in European history as Albright (her Ph.D. work focused on contemporary Central European politics) not have deduced her family's ancestry from what we know she knew?

Albright's father, Josef Korbel, was a foreign-service officer in the liberal interwar Czechoslovakian government. Just after she was born in 1937, he was posted to the Czech embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. But he was recalled two years later, when the Munich Pact essentially made Czechoslovakia a German province. Instead of going home, Korbel moved his family to London to join the Czech government-in-exile.

After the war, the family returned to Prague and learned, Albright says, that her three living grandparents had died. Korbel was briefly the postwar government's ambassador to Yugoslavia, but when Communists ousted the government in 1948, the family fled to the United States.

Albright knew all this. What she did not know until 1997, she says, is that her parents grew up Jewish and converted to Catholicism only sometime around the outbreak of the war. And her grandparents, along with almost all her other relatives, died in German death camps.

Should Albright have intuited these omissions? The skeptics say her parents' story begs obvious questions:

Why did a midlevel Czech diplomat harbor enough fear of Nazi persecution to uproot his family to England? Korbel was a liberal, but not necessarily prominent or active enough to worry--for that reason alone--about getting singled out.

Why did three of Albright's grandparents and most of her family die during the war? It's not clear Albright ever received an explanation. The Korbel family's casualties were especially incongruous because gentiles generally suffered less during Nazi occupation in Czechoslovakia than in other Central and Eastern European countries.

There's also Albright's relationship with her Jewish first cousin, who still lives in Prague. The cousin, Dagmar Simova, has been the media's main source of information about Albright's wartime experience. A teen-ager during the war, Simova survived in London, living with the Korbels. Simova doesn't strongly identify as a Jew, but has never been under any misapprehension about her ethnic identity. Also, Simova discovered the truth about the wartime atrocities almost immediately afterward, including her own parents' deaths in Auschwitz.

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.

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