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Op-ed: Coming to Terms with Albright’s Past

February 11, 1997
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What did she know and when did she know it? These are the questions that keep tugging at me even as I sympathize with the inner turmoil Madeleine Albright must be experiencing.

When the revelations about the new secretary of state’s Jewish heritage began to surface, I, for one, was convinced — as she and her friends insisted – – that she had no prior knowledge until a few weeks ago, when a Washington Post reporter confronted her with the facts. Of course, it seemed a bit strange that she would have no idea that three of her grandparents were Jewish and that they and other family members had perished in the Holocaust.

But history shows that it was not unusual for people of her generation not to probe too deeply into the past. Even if she had questions, it seems apparent that her parents, anxious to look ahead and not back, had manufactured answers to quell any further curiosity.

For most of the world, it doesn’t really matter when or what she knew. The story is a curious one, but not particularly meaningful. In this day and age, few, aside from your typical anti-Semites and radical Arabs, would question whether a Jew, let alone a Episcopalian with Jewish roots, is qualified to be America’s top diplomat.

For Jews, however, it’s a different story, one that deeply touches two of the most painful chapters of our history: the Holocaust and assimilation.

The legacy of the Holocaust continues to haunt us in many ways. Restitution, compensation, newly uncovered documents about the Swiss and others’ role in the war — these are the final pages of a history in which six million Jews were annihilated in the gas chambers and slave labor camps of Europe.

Those lost Jews are the easy ones to remember.

Perhaps more difficult to understand — and mourn for — are the thousands of Jews, like Albright’s family, who converted to Christianity. Whether out of fear for their safety or a desire to assimilate in a Europe less than friendly to Jews, Albright’s parents were not alone in choosing to reject their Judaism.

We now know that Albright’s parents fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939 not out of some noble political principle, but because they probably would have perished along with the rest of their families had they stayed. They had a premonition then which history proved true: They could call themselves Catholic or whatever they liked, but in Hitler’s eyes, they were still Jews.

In England and later in America, however, they could shed that heritage, erase the past as easily as wiping a history lesson off the chalkboard — and start anew.

It seems incredibly sad that her parents not only rejected their Judaism, but fabricated stories about childhood celebrations of Christmas and Easter to deprive their own children knowledge of their real roots.

In an age when Jews in America worry about the future of Jewish survival not because of anti-Semitism, but because of assimilation, tales of such rejection ring especially cruel. The pessimists among us are fond of saying that assimilation and intermarriage will succeed where Hitler failed — in eliminating the Jewish people.

That is why everything changed with the latest revelations that Albright had an inkling about her Jewish roots several years before her appointment as secretary of state.

The mayor from her father’s hometown apparently sent several letters outlining her Jewish history. An aide says she may never have seen those letters. Even more compelling, however, is testimony from her first cousin, Dagmar Simova, who lived with Albright’s family in London. This cousin, whose sister and parents died at the hand of the Nazis, says she tried several times to reconnect with Albright, but never received any answer.

Most revealing, however, was Albright’s admission to President Clinton before her appointment that she might be of Jewish descent. Did she really think it would matter?

Was Madeleine Albright afraid to come to terms with her past because she thought it might hurt her future? It was when she was ambassador to the United Nations that the Czech mayor and her cousin apparently first tried to reach her. Maybe she was afraid that her stature would be diminished before her international colleagues if they knew of her Jewish roots. Maybe she felt her aspirations to become secretary of state would be jeopardized if her family history was confirmed.

Or maybe — and this would be easier to swallow — there was a deeper psychological component here. Maybe it wasn’t her Jewish past she was rejecting in choosing not to pursue and reveal it. Maybe it was the feeling that by embracing it, she would be rejecting her parents, whom she clearly loved and admired.

One cannot even begin to imagine what Albright must be feeling as this all begins to sink in. That she is having to deal with these very personal details in such a public way makes it all the more poignant.

Still, she owes it to herself and to others to come to terms with her family legacy. Will it change the way she conducts foreign diplomacy? Most likely not.

But as Jews, many of us will look at her differently from now on. Before any of the recent revelations, Jews by and large rejoiced at her appointment. Here was a woman whose world view meshed with our own. That high regard is unlikely to change.

Now, however, a touch of pride — deep down, she’s one of us — mixes with sadness, for she did not become who she is as one of us. And that is lost forever.

Lisa Hostein is the editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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