Menu JTA Search

Behind the Headlines: Albright; Names of Grandparents ‘forever Seared into My Heart’

For U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, all doubt has disappeared.

Like the names of her grandparents who perished in the Holocaust, her Jewish roots are carved in stone.

And at least for the Czech Jews who accompanied her on her historic visit here this week, any doubts that she knew about her Jewish background prior to their revelations in the media earlier this year have been erased.

Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, said Albright’s emotion was genuine during their tour of the historic Jewish Quarter on Sunday night.

She seemed on the verge of tears many times as she toured the Old Jewish Cemetery and the adjacent Pinkas Synagogue — which has inscribed on its walls the names of more than 77,000 Czech and Slovak Holocaust victims, Kraus said in an interview.

It was among those thousands of victims that Albright found the names of her paternal grandparents, Olga and Arnost Korbel.

Her encounter with her Jewish past was first on the secretary’s agenda as she arrived in Prague as part of a tour devoted to NATO and its expansion to Eastern and Central Europe.

Kraus said that during Albright’s Jewish tour, which was closed to reporters, it was apparent that she had developed “very strong feelings about her Jewish roots” since learning about them earlier this year.

Standing in front of the 16th-century Jewish Town Hall at the end of her tour, Albright said that when she visited the synagogue last year with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, she didn’t look for the names of her grandparents or other family members.

“I did not know my own family story then,” she explained, her voice cracking.

“Tonight, I knew to look for those names. And their image will forever be seared into my heart.

“To the many values and many facets that make up who I am, I now add the knowledge that my grandparents and members of my family perished in the worst catastrophe in human history.

“So I leave here tonight with the certainty that this new part of my identity adds something stronger, sadder and richer to my life,” she said.

Leo Pavlat, the director of Prague’s Jewish Museum who also accompanied the secretary of state, said he understood Albright’s reaction.

“She is not here for the first time, but it is the first time she came with the aim to look at the names,” he said.

In addition to locating the names of her two paternal grandparents on the synagogue walls, Albright was also shown file cards describing their tragic fate: her grandfather died in Theresienstadt in 1942, her grandmother at Auschwitz in 1944.

Her maternal grandfather died before the war. The fate of her maternal grandmother is unknown.

What Kraus saw with Albright, he has seen before: “It is common for Jews from this part of the world to be ignorant of their Jewish roots. A substantial number of Czech Jews have only recently discovered their ancestry.”

Both during and after World War II, many European Jews shed their religion and their Jewish identity to break with their painful past and to ensure better lives for their children.

Albright was born here and fled twice as a child. Her father, a diplomat, took his family with him when he left Czechoslovakia in March 1939, days after Nazi forces occupied the country.

Albright said she reflected on her parents’ choices as she looked at her grandparents’ names on the synagogue wall.

“I felt not only grief for those members of my family that were inscribed there, but I also thought about my parents. I thought about the choice they made.”

“They clearly confronted the most excruciating decision a human being can face when they left members of their family behind even as they saved me from certain death.

“I will always love and honor my parents and will always respect their decision, for that most painful of choices gave me life a second time.”

The family returned, but left again after the Communists seized power in 1948 and settled in the United States.

Raised as a Roman Catholic — she is now an Episcopalian — Albright expressed surprise when it was revealed in a February story in The Washington Post that at least three of her grandparents were Jewish and that they, along with more than a dozen other relatives, died in the Holocaust.

“The only thing I have to go by is what my mother and father told me, how I was brought up,” she said at the time.

But the question of whether she had known about her past surfaced after reports suggesting that the mayor of the Czech town of Letohrad, where her paternal grandfather once lived, sent her a letter three years ago about her Jewish roots.

Albright’s tour of the Jewish Quarter came on the eve of her one-day state visit to Prague.

She met Monday with Czech Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec to discuss NATO’s recent invitation to the Czech Republic to join the alliance. She also had dinner with Czech President Vaclav Havel.

In a speech before throngs of cheering Czechs on Monday, she spoke of her ties to the Czech republic and her childhood in Prague, but she made no reference to her Jewish roots.

Kraus said he and Albright spoke in Czech, and that they did not have in-depth discussions about the restitution of property looted by the Nazis or any of the other issues facing the Czech Jewish community.

“It wasn’t a political visit,” he said. “It was personal.”

NEXT STORY