What does it feel like to be told your entire perception of your family and your childhood was wrong? Madeleine Albright, former U.S. secretary of state from 1997 to 2001 and the first woman to hold that position, knows first hand. Here, in an excerpt from her new book Prague Winter, Albright shares the family secret that shocked her when it was uncovered in her late 50s.
I was fifty-nine when I began serving as U.S. secretary of state. I thought by then that I knew all there was to know about my past, who "my people" were, and the history of my native land. I was sure enough that I did not see a need to ask questions. Others might be insecure about their identities; I was not and never had been. I knew.
Only I didn’t. I had no idea that my family heritage was Jewish or that more than twenty of my relatives had died in the Holocaust. I had been brought up to believe in a history of my Czechoslovak homeland that was less tangled and more straightforward than the reality. I had much still to learn about the complex moral choices that my parents and others in their generation had been called on to make -- choices that were still shaping my life and also that of the world.
I had been raised a Roman Catholic and upon marriage converted to the Episcopalian faith. I had -- I was sure -- a Slavic soul. My grandparents had died before I was old enough to remember their faces or call them by name. I had a cousin in Prague; we had recently been in touch and as children had been close, but I no longer knew her well; the Iron Curtain had kept us apart.
From my parents I had received a priceless inheritance: a set of deeply held convictions regarding liberty, individual rights, and the rule of law. I inherited, as well, a love for two countries. The United States had welcomed my family and enabled me to grow up in freedom; I was proud to call myself an American. The Czechoslovak Republic had been a beacon of humane government until snuffed out by Adolf Hitler and then -- after a brief period of postwar revival -- extinguished again by the disciples of Josef Stalin. In 1989, the Velvet Revolution, led by Václav Havel, my hero and later my cherished friend, engendered new hope. All my life I had believed in the virtues of democratic government, the need to stand up to evil, and the age-old motto of the Czech people: “Pravda vítezí,” or “Truth shall prevail.”
From 1993 until 1997, I had the honor of representing the United States as ambassador to the United Nations. Because I was in the news and because of Central Europe’s liberation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I began to receive mail about my family. Some of these letters had the facts wrong; others were barely legible; a few requested money; still others never reached me because staff members -- strangers to the language -- could not distinguish between correspondence on personal as opposed to public issues. By late in President Bill Clinton’s first term, I had seen several missives from people who had known my parents, who had the names and dates approximately right, and who indicated that my ancestors had been of Jewish origin. One letter, from a seventy-four-year-old woman, arrived in early December 1996; she wrote that her family had been in business with my maternal grandparents, who had been victimized by anti-Jewish discrimination during the war. I compared memories with my sister, Kathy, and brother, John, and also shared the information with my daughters, Anne, Alice and Katie. Since I was in the process of being vetted for secretary of state, I told President Clinton and his senior staff. In January 1997, before we had time to explore further, a hardworking Washington Post reporter, Michael Dobbs, uncovered news that stunned us all: according to his research, three of my grandparents and numerous other family members had died in the Holocaust.
In February 1997, Kathy, John, and John’s wife, Pamela, visited the Czech Republic; they confirmed much of what had been in the Post story and identified a few errors. That summer, I was able to make two similar though briefer trips. For me, the moment of highest emotion came inside Prague’s Pinkas Synagogue, where the names of our family members were among the eighty thousand inscribed on the walls as a memoriam. I had been to the synagogue before but -- having no cause -- had never thought to search for their names.
That episode is recounted in my memoir Madam Secretary and will not be elaborated on here. The core revelation, however, is central because it provided the impetus for this book. I was shocked and, to be honest, embarrassed to discover that I had not known my family history better; my sister and brother shared this emotion. Nor was I entirely reassured by the many people who spoke or wrote to me of having had comparable experiences concerning secrets kept by their own parents. I could accept without being satisfied that there was nothing inexplicable or unique about the gap that existed in my knowledge; still, I regretted not having asked the right questions. I also felt driven to learn more about the grandparents whom I had been too young to know -- especially since by then I had become a grandparent myself.
Having decided to delve more deeply into my family’s history, I soon realized that I could not do so without placing my parents within the context of the times in which they had lived and especially 1937-1948, the era encompassing World War II -- and also the first dozen years of my life....I feel an obligation I can never repay to those who helped me learn more about my family and what they experienced. The members of my family who were murdered by gun, gas, or disease left behind but a limited quantity of letters. Part of my goal in writing this book has been to learn more. Remembrance is the least we owe.