THIS IS A COLUMN I intended not to write, on a topic I intended not to explore. Better to leave this story alone, I thought. Better to let others, more dispassionate than I, deal with it.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
But by now, one too many persons has asked me, "Are you going to write about Madeleine Albright?" Each time I am asked, I think anew about her story. And the more I ponder it, the more my mind fills with questions and doubts.
It seemed, at first, a simple if poignant tale:
A little girl is saved from the Nazis when her parents flee occupied Czechoslovakia. Later she is saved from the Communists when her parents defect to the United States. The little girl grows up American; she is a great success. At age 59, she becomes the US secretary of state.
Suddenly it transpires that her family was Jewish, and that many of her relatives died in the Holocaust. "All this was a major surprise for me," she says. "I have always thought of myself as a Czechoslovak Catholic." She recalls her parents reminiscing about life in Czechoslovakia. "They talked about getting ready for various holidays, for Easter and Christmas." But it was all a fabrication – a fiction they invented so she wouldn't know the truth. The discovery jolts her. But she will not second-guess her parents' motives. "My parents," she says, "did wonderful things for us."
I have much esteem for Albright as a public official. She is assertive and principled, a welcome contrast to the timid Warren Christopher and the arrogant James Baker. A loathing of appeasement is her foreign policy rudder. "The mindset of most of my contemporaries is Vietnam," she has said. "My mindset is Munich." Those are the words of a potentially great secretary of state.
But something rings false in her reaction to the news that her family was Jewish. Was this really a bolt from the blue? Did she honestly have no inkling until this month that the Nazis murdered three of her grandparents, her aunt, her uncle, and her 11-year-old cousin Milena?
"A major surprise for me," says Albright. Yet for years, it turns out, people had been sending her letters with information about her family. Four times the mayor of her father's hometown in Bohemia had written to her, enclosing detailed material about her parents and grandparents. Albright never replied; her aides say she was too busy to see the letters. Perhaps she was.
Perhaps she was also too busy to correspond with her first cousin Dagmar Simova, who had lived with Albright and her family from 1939 to 1948. Simova still lives in Prague; it was she who in 1945 uncovered the horrible fate that had befallen their relatives. She often visits the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, where 77,297 Czech Holocaust victims are memorialized. "My children," she told The Washington Post, "know very well every detail." Perhaps Albright, though she didn't leave Prague until she was 11, never knew what her cousin had learned.
Perhaps, when the FBI investigated her background before she became ambassador to the United Nations, her family's tragic history went undetected. Perhaps it never occurred to this very bright daughter of well-connected parents to wonder why so many people thought her roots might be Jewish. Or how her grandparents had disappeared.
Perhaps. Anything is possible. But I cannot help thinking that most people in Albright's position would have moved heaven and earth to root out the truth about their past. It seems to me that if anyone would be ravenous for the details of her history, it would be a former child exile, a refugee from Nazism and Communism whose world was thrice upended before she was 12.
I only wonder. I don't accuse. The dislocations and contradictions may have been more than the young Madeleine Albright could bear. She was safe and Catholic; her relatives were Jewish – and dead. Maybe the mind of this little girl, bewildered and in pain, simply walled off the whole matter, obscuring everything in forgetfulness and apathy.
But what excuse did her parents have?
To escape the Nazis, they hid, they pulled strings, they bribed – and they passed themselves off as non-Jews. For doing what was necessary, no one can fault them. But having survived, having made their way to freedom, having been spared what 6 million Jews were not spared, why did they perpetuate the lie? Lucky Jews, to have slipped through Hitler's claws. And their response was to deny their Jewish birth? To cover up their origins? To pretend the Holocaust had nothing to do with them?
By what right did they cheat their daughter of her heritage? Hitler wiped out Jewish children with bullets and gas, and they wiped out their child's Jewishness with deception and fraud. Shame on them. Shame on their cowardice. Shame on their cynicism.
When Albright's father wrote a book that recounted his flight from the Nazis, it gave no hint of the family's Jewishness. When her mother wrote a family memoir in 1977, it, too, suppressed that information. These were Jews who had been privileged to live – and then went out of their way not to live as Jews.
"I think my father and mother were the bravest people alive," Albright says. "They dealt with the most difficult decision anyone could make."
No. They avoided the difficult decision. They ran from it. They rejected their Jewishness and betrayed their parents' memory. And then spent a lifetime deceiving their daughter.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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