LETOHRAD, Czech Republic (Feb. 11)
Until last week, Magdalena Navratilova spent her time organizing cultural events in this small Bohemian town where she works as an administrator.
But since the Washington Post reported earlier this month that U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had Jewish ancestors here, Navratilova has spent her days showing visiting journalists around the town and discussing its Jewish history.
She and other inhabitants of Letohrad have paid little attention in recent years to the history of the town’s small Jewish community. But all that changed after journalists started descending on the town, turning the lives of its residents upside down.
While reporters from around the world are stirred up about Albright’s connection to the town, its inhabitants are not.
Letohrad had 12 Jewish families before World War II. It has none today.
The Jews who once lived in this sleepy town, at the mouth of the Orlici river, were so assimilated they never built a Jewish cemetery or a synagogue.
Albright, who was raised a Roman Catholic and is now an Episcopalian, expressed surprise at the revelations about her Jewish past in the Washington Post story, which stated that at least three of Albright’s grandparents were Jewish and that they, along with more than a dozen other relatives, died during the Holocaust.
But the question of whether Albright previously knew about her past surfaced after the New York Times ran a follow-up story suggesting that the mayor of Letohrad had sent her a letter three years ago informing of her Jewish roots.
Indeed, according to people here, the town made three additional but also unsuccessful attempts to correspond with Albright by mail, as well as to contact her by phone.
The town’s mayor, Petr Silar, is unconcerned by the diplomat’s failure to respond.
“It’s not a problem for us,” he says with a shrug. “She has devoted her life to politics, and people in that field deal with major problems every day.
“They don’t have time to tend to personal matters. We’re pleased her roots are here, but there is no reason to make a big deal about it.”
Navratilova says the town had phoned Albright at the United Nations in March 1994, after sending the first of the letters.
“We left a message on her machine in English, and she still didn’t answer,” says Navratilova.
She adds that the parish priest, Pavel Ruml, who speaks English, made the call on the town’s behalf.
She said the town was “really excited” about making the call and hoped Albright would answer.
Ruml said he remembered calling, but did not remember if he had left a message because it was so long ago.
Josef Koloc, 86, was a childhood friend of Albright’s father, Josef Korbel, whose family had co-owned a factory that manufactured matches.
Koloc has fond memories of Korbel.
“We were about nine years old at the time,” Koloc remembers, his blue eyes twinkling. “We got on famously, and he treated me very well even though his family was rich and mine was poor.”
Albright’s family fled to the United States in 1948 after a Communist coup in Czechoslavakia.
In 1994, when Koloc discovered that the visiting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was Josef Korbel’s daughter, he prompted town officials to send her a letter asking her to visit Letohrad.
In the following months, he visited town hall every day, hoping to find a letter from her.
He has since given up hope, but is not bitter.
“She must determine how she feels about her past and decide how important it is to her. It’s her choice,” he says with a dismissive wave of his hand.
“I don’t know if she feels as connected to us as we do to her.”
Koloc has met so many journalists in recent days that he has started a collection of business cards from major publications.
Three years ago, Vera Ruprechtova sent a letter to Albright in which she discusses the factory their grandfathers once co-owned.
It is a topic she has discussed a lot in recent days, while entertaining visiting journalists and the town officials who escort them to the farmhouse Ruprechtova’s family has owned for more than a century.
She is friendly and enthusiastic, but grows tired of answering questions about Albright’s Jewish roots in Prague.
“They were Jews, but they were like everyone else. There was nothing exceptional about them.”