In new book, Madeleine Albright describes Holocaust’s great cost to her family

Madeleine Albright lives in one of those stately Georgetown residences, all brick outside and globally gathered tchotchkes inside. The home sits on one of those streets where the neighbors long ago got over the novelty of having a celebrity next door because, after all, so many celebrities occupy those blocks anyway, celebrities of the Washington sort, the kind whose stock is measured in discreetly mannered protectors wearing sunglasses and earpieces.

The agents who hovered around Albright — Madam Secretary, if you please, or “Madam Cojones,” as the Latinos called her after she chewed out the Cubans for the Brothers to the Rescue shoot down — are gone. But in her day, when she was the world’s most important globe-trotting diplomat, they took up residence in her garage. They watched over a historic figure, the country’s first female secretary of state.

She accepted the nomination in 1997, around the same time that Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs discovered that she had Jewish roots and that three of her grandparents died in concentration camps. Albright, who was raised Catholic and later converted to Episcopalianism, has always maintained that her family’s Jewish heritage was never revealed to her by her parents. She’s aware that some will never believe that she didn’t know, and 11 / 2  decades hence, she’s still making her case.

“They’re wrong, and I’m right,” she says of her doubters in an interview before this week’s release of her latest book, “Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948.” The book contains her largest accounting of relatives who died in the Holocaust: 25.

Albright, who will turn 75 in less than a month, converted the agents’ old quarters in her garage into a storage room after leaving office in 2001. Cobwebs spread from the corners, and floor-to-ceiling shelves sag beneath the weight of boxes with handwritten labels. “Sentimental,” one reads. Another says, “hoods from honorary degrees.” That one is stuffed.

Rummaging in the room not that long ago, Albright came upon a manila folder. Inside were 123 pages, neatly typed. The paper clip holding them together had rusted over, but the words on the pages survived, interrupted only by a few stray editing marks in pencil.

It dawned on her: This was the novel her father, who died in 1977, had once told her he was writing.

At the time, she hadn’t thought much of Josef Korbel’s comment. He was a historian, a man of checked and double-checked facts, not an inventor of imagined narratives. But there it was in her hands.

The unpublished work tells the story of a Czech diplomat returning to his country after years in London directing World War II-era radio broadcasts. (Hmm . . . sounds familiar. Albright’s father was — you guessed it — a Czech diplomat who worked in radio in London as part of the Czech government-in-exile during World War II.)

The fictional diplomat searches desperately for his family. He learns that his mother, his aunt and his uncle are no more, taken away by the Nazis. But he keeps looking. Finally he makes his way to his boyhood home. A man answers the door, and the diplomat once again seeks answers.

But he soon realizes that the man is deaf and cannot speak. It must have been a sign, the diplomat thought.

“I am grateful,” the diplomat reasons. “The past was to be deaf and dumb. . . . It was neither to be heard, nor spoken.”

Collection of treasures

The chairs around the dining room table in Albright’s home are empty on this day, but on other occasions world figures have settled into them. Yasser Arafat has come by, Albright confides. So has Ehud Barak.

“Not at the same time,” she adds.

“By the way,” Albright throws out a few moments later, “Ehud Barak was great. He fixes clocks.”

Once, she says, she hosted the Israeli leader at her country place in Virginia. He noticed that a clock on her barn wasn’t working. Ever since, he seldom fails to ask whether it has been repaired. She always tells him, “I’m waiting for you.”

The downstairs public area of Albright’s house is conspicuously void of the Washington brag wall. There isn’t a single photo of Albright with any of those bold-letter names. Instead, there is an array of wooden figures, silver bowls, delicate fans, clay horses — a trove of this and that picked up during the continual wanderings of a woman who has not only visited something like 130 countries, but also practices a concentrated form of what her friend Wendy Sherman — the third-ranking official at the State Department — calls “retail therapy.” And when you’re Madeleine Albright, retail therapy happens in places such as the Turkish souk, where she and Sherman dashed off to buy rugs for the Istanbul office of Albright’s global consulting business.

Seeking an easier life

Once, at Camp David, President Bill Clinton asked everyone in the room to tell him something he didn’t know about them. When he got to Albright, she recalls, she declared: “My name is not Madeleine Albright. My name is Marie Jana Korbelova.” Marie gave way to a family nickname, Madlenka, and eventually to Madeleine.

She was born in 1937, and her family fled Czechoslovakia for England two years later, shortly after the Nazi invasion. Albright says she doesn’t remember her grandparents and can only speculate why they didn’t leave, too. “I don’t think they thought things would be that bad,” she says in the interview.

In exile, Albright writes, her father harbored a grudge about previous appeasement of Adolf Hitler under British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. After tripping over an Englishman’s foot, her father refused to apologize. “I am not sorry,” he told the man. “That is for Munich,” he said, in reference to the agreement signed by Chamberlain that turned over the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s Germany. Albright also remembers — a bit, shall we say, undiplomatically? — a biting prayer of the time: “Please, O God, give the British all the strength they will need to withstand the beating they deserve.” After becoming secretary of state, Albright says, she gained access to German secret police records that described her father as the “Jew Korbel,” and she was unnerved to discover that the police knew their address in England.

In England, though, the family joined the Catholic Church. They celebrated Christmas. “I expect that my parents thought life would be easier for us if we were raised as Christians instead of Jews,” Albright writes. “The reasons for such a conclusion, in the Europe of 1941, need little explanation.”

Between 1942 and 1944, at least 25 members of Albright’s family were herded into a ghetto called Terezin, she writes. None survived. In the course of doing her research, the former secretary of state focused as never before on the timeline: Her paternal grandmother, Olga Korbel, and a cousin, Milena Deimlova, were forced aboard one of the final trains to leave the Terezin concentration camp bound for the extermination camp at Auschwitz. Another week, she says in an interview, and they might have lived. “Like that of so many others,” Albright writes, “our family tree had been stripped bare.”

‘Extremely painful’

After the war, Albright says, she returned to Czechoslovakia aboard a Royal Air Force bomber. She was 8 years old. Her grandparents were gone, but her parents “simply said my grandparents died because they were old,” Albright says.

The family would live for a time as Czech diplomats in Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia but would then go into exile for a second time, this time fleeing communism rather than fascism. Albright arrived in New York with her mother, Mandula Korbel, and her siblings on a ship that passed by the Statue of Liberty on Armistice Day 1948. Her father, who had accepted a post representing the communist Czech government on a U.N. commission because it would allow him to leave the country, followed shortly thereafter on the Queen Mary. The family was granted political asylum the next year.

A quarter-century would pass before Albright would assume the role of diplomatic representative to the United Nations, presenting her credentials as U.S. ambassador to the world body in 1993. As her public profile grew at the United Nations, she began receiving more letters suggesting that her family might be Jewish. But she says she didn’t follow up because many seemed to lack credibility and because of her hectic schedule. She was forced to look more deeply into the claims because Dobbs — the Post reporter — was unearthing irrefutable evidence.

“It was extremely painful and stressful for her,” said Wini Freund, a dear friend and Wellesley College classmate. Freund, who is Jewish, says she is certain that Albright wasn’t aware of her family’s past and drew a comparison to a similar discovery by Kati Marton, a journalist and widow of the late U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke. Albright describes the stress of learning about her family’s heritage while also ascending to the secretary of state’s office as similar to “being asked to represent the country in a marathon, then being handed a heavy package and then being asked to unwrap it while you run.”

But, she says, she “could never be angry” at her parents. “They gave me life twice.”

Yet, she is still getting to know them. The storage room is still full of boxes. And some of them remain unexamined.

More from The Washington Post:

- Biography reveals Marco Rubio’s softer line on immigration

- 12 things you didn’t know about Jackie Kennedy Onassis

- Book reviews from The Post

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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