The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Related Items
  • Profile of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright

  • Guide to the Administration
  •   Out Of The Past

    By Michael Dobbs
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, February 9, 1997; Page W08

    A short, plump woman with closely cropped black hair and pale blue eyes sat in the front row of a press conference in the American library in Prague, staring intently at Madeleine Albright. It was 1994. The woman clutched a letter in her hand. She showed little interest in the weighty foreign policy issues being addressed by the visiting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Her mind was occupied by the sorts of fleeting observations about health and appearance and the effects of time upon a face that relatives have about one another. "What fashionable black stockings Madlenka is wearing today," the woman thought, as discussion of the Czech Republic's transition from communist dictatorship to free-market democracy whirled about her. "They go well with her high heels."

    Dagmar Simova searched Albright's face for a sign of recognition. Any sign of recognition. They were first cousins. They had lived in the same household decades ago, as children in exile from a world at war. As adults they had lost touch, divided by the Iron Curtain, although they had met up once briefly in Prague, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even after that reunion, however, a distance persisted in their relationship. When Simova had heard that Albright would be in Prague again, she had decided to seek her out in person. Occasionally during the press conference, the ambassador would glance in her direction and smile. But then again, she seemed to be smiling at everybody in the room.

    The setting – lectern, microphones, television arc lights, questions and answers being batted back and forth – made Simova feel out of place. The journalists in the room knew Albright as an articulate spokeswoman for the world's sole remaining superpower. Her official biography was a classic emigre story: Czech native flees communist dictatorship and enjoys success in the United States as a foreign policy adviser and diplomat. In contrast, Simova knew Albright as a figure in a far more intimate and tragic family history.

    As the press conference ended, the ambassador made a hurried exit, and Simova chased after her, attempting to get close enough to hand over the letter she had brought, which contained family news and details of her new address and telephone number in Prague.

    A bodyguard blocked her path. She shoved her letter into his hands, along with a plea to hand it over to Albright.

    Three years later, Simova still does not know whether the letter ever reached her cousin. In a way that is not surprising. As seen through Simova's eyes, their entire relationship has been a series of wrenching partings and broken connections.

    The story of Dagmar Simova and Madeleine Korbel Albright is a haunting reflection of some of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century. It is one strand of a larger, multi-generational story of a Catholic-Jewish family decimated by Nazism and torn asunder by communism, the twin totalitarian nightmares of the age. The two women owe their lives to the prescience of their parents, who succeeded in spiriting them out of Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II. They spent the war years together in Britain, with Dagmar serving as a kind of surrogate older sister and babysitter to Madeleine – when they returned to Prague together in 1945, Madeleine was 8 years old, Dagmar 17. After the war, Dagmar discovered she was an orphan and that much of the extended family had died in Nazi camps. She says she then became the official ward of Albright's father. But Dagmar and Madeleine were separated in 1948 as a result of a communist coup d'etat in Prague. And while they and other relatives have had fragmentary contact since then, they have gone very separate ways, propelled by twists of history, of choice, of chance.

    What is most remarkable about this story is how the two cousins became aware of the tragedy that had befallen their close relatives, and how they have reacted to it. For Simova, memories of the Holocaust have formed a central part of her life. She spent years trying to find out exactly what happened to her sister, parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, all of whom had perished in the camps, according to the records of Holocaust researchers and information provided to Simova by camp survivors. She gave agonizing thought to how she would share her knowledge with her own children. She has paid many visits to the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, where the names of 77,297 Czech Holocaust victims are inscribed on the walls.

    For Albright, by contrast, the Holocaust has until now been a largely peripheral event at a personal level, although it has influenced her thinking about European history and U.S. foreign policy. She says she was raised as a Roman Catholic and was never told by her parents or anyone else that family members had perished in the Holocaust. She says she has no independent knowledge of the evidence about her family's connection with that tragedy – the records showing the family's Jewish origins; the memories of family friends that Albright's parents converted to Catholicism around the time of World War II; records and other information indicating that Albright's relatives were exterminated at Auschwitz and other Nazi camps. Presented with research undertaken for this article about her family history, she says she finds the new information "compelling," but adds, "I have to look into this myself . . . It's a very personal matter."

    Albright says that her now-deceased parents did not discuss with her how her grandparents died. She never questioned or explored the matter, in part because she had never known her grandparents beyond the age of 2. "I can't tell you at any given moment that they said, `Our parents are dead,' " she recalls of the way her parents handled the subject. "I didn't know about the concept of the fact that they had parents. I mean, there were no grandparents when I was a little girl." Later, as Albright grew up, "we didn't discuss it . . . My parents simply said they [the grandparents] had died `in the course of the war.' "

    Like many other first-generation Americans, Albright's parents apparently turned the page on the pre-America chapter of their lives when they set foot in the United States. Albright does not question their choices. "My parents were fabulous people who did everything they could for their children and brought us to this amazing country and were protective, overly so in terms of worrying about us and all kinds of things. I can't question their motivation. I can't. I don't know how else to put it."

    Albright has talked at length in public about America's generosity in granting her fiercely anti-communist father political asylum. She has presented her family's journey from strife-torn Europe to a freedom-loving America as a kind of political morality tale. "Because of my parents' love of democracy, we came to America after being driven twice from our home in Czechoslovakia, first by Hitler and then by Stalin," she told President Clinton in an Oval Office ceremony in December, when she was nominated as secretary of state. She makes clear that her background as a refugee has played a crucial role in the evolution of her foreign policy thinking. "The mind-set of most of my contemporaries is Vietnam. My mind-set is Munich," she likes to say, referring to the dismemberment of the first Czechoslovak republic.

    At the heart of the story linking Albright and Simova are two separate crossroads, the first in the late 1930s, on the eve of World War II, and the second in 1948, after the Soviet-sponsored communist coup.

    By escaping from Czechoslovakia only days after the German army marched into Prague in March 1939, Albright's parents were fortunate enough to live through the war. But all three of her surviving grandparents died in the concentration camps, according to Nazi records preserved by the Prague Jewish Community, as well as other research conducted by Simova, and the accounts of several family friends. Besides Albright's grandparents, Simova's mother and father (Albright's aunt and uncle), Simova's sister, and various granduncles and grandaunts all died in the Holocaust, according to these sources. Their ashes are scattered in places like Auschwitz, Treblinka, Terezin.

    When the family returned to Prague from London after World War II and searched for the relatives they left behind, "it was one shock after another," recalls Simova. Madeleine, then only 8, wasn't told at the time, Simova says.

    When Albright's family fled Prague for the second and final time in 1948, Simova was the only surviving close relative to remain behind in Czechoslovakia. The reasons she was left behind the Iron Curtain are not fully clear, and her memories of that episode are not altogether happy. Simova says she is by no means jealous about the life she did not have in America; the one she lived in Prague, while difficult, was not without its joys, she says. But Simova certainly reflects from time to time on how fate shaped Albright's life and her own.

    To understand Madeleine Albright's family origins, the place to begin is with her paternal grandfather, Arnost Korbel. He is still remembered in the little Moravian town of Kysperk (now Letohrad) as a progressive and charismatic businessman who took care of his workmen. A great salesman, Korbel "had a talent for getting on with other people," says Vera Ruprehctova, granddaughter of his business partner, Jan Reinelt. "He was a humanitarian."

    The Korbels were one of a dozen or so Jewish families in Kysperk, a town of 3,000 people close to what was then the German border, according to two friends of the family who still live in the town. There was no synagogue, and the Korbels, like many Czech Jews, were well assimilated into Catholic-dominated Czech society. Korbel owned a two-story row house opposite the Kysperk railway station. Together with Reinelt, Korbel helped set up the local match factory, the main industry in Kysperk.

    Arnost and Olga Korbel had three children. The oldest, a daughter named Margareta (Simova's mother), married a local doctor. A son named Jan followed Arnost into the building materials business. The youngest was Josef, Madeleine Albright's father. Born in 1909, shortly after the Korbels moved to Kysperk, he went on to become a prominent diplomat and professor of international relations.

    Josef Korbel's birth certificate, issued by his local Jewish registrar and held today in a foreign ministry file preserved by the Institute for Contemporary History in Prague, identifies Korbel's ancestors, including his parents Arnost and Olga. It describes Josef as "Jewish and legitimate." The certificate is dated March 1941, a time when Czechoslovakia's Nazi occupiers required Jewish authorities to provide records of all past Jewish births.

    The most momentous event of Josef Korbel's childhood was the end of World War I and the collapse of the Hapsburg empire. After three centuries of Austrian rule, the Czechs and Slovaks were finally free to set up their own state. News of the end of the war arrived by telegraph at the railway station shortly after midnight on October 28, 1918, touching off wild celebrations. "Municipal employees went around with accordions, waking everybody up, telling them, `Don't sleep. We have won our freedom, come celebrate,' " recalls Jan Koloc, who used to play marbles and hide-and-seek with Josef Korbel. By morning, all the Austrian eagles had been replaced by the double-tailed lion, symbol of the ancient Czech lands.

    The Korbel family moved to Prague in 1928, when Arnost became the director of a large building materials company that owned several quarries. Josef studied law, completing his doctorate in 1933. He joined the Czechoslovak foreign service in November 1934. The following year, he married his high school sweetheart, Mandula Spieglova, who was also an assimilated Jew, according to Josef Marek, who came from the same town as Spieglova and who later worked closely with Josef Korbel.

    By the time Madeleine Albright was born on May 15, 1937, Josef Korbel had received his first foreign assignment, as press attache in the Czechoslovak Embassy to Yugoslavia. By all accounts, he was a great success. Energetic and gregarious, Korbel immediately became a valued member of Belgrade's intellectual and cultural aristocracy. In some ways, despite the political turmoil of the interwar period, this was the city's golden age.

    Yugoslavia was a much more rural, backward country than Czechoslovakia, with a very high level of illiteracy, but it boasted a small upper-class elite that felt at home in the great capitals of Europe. "Belgrade was like a village in those days. Everybody knew everybody else. The Korbels' house was always open," says Jara Ribnikar, the Czech-born wife of the owner of Politika, Serbia's leading newspaper. "Korbel had a way of encouraging talented people."

    As she talks about Albright's father, Ribnikar closes her eyes for a moment. "Most diplomats you forget as soon as they leave," says the grande dame of what is left of Belgrade society. "It's impossible to see their faces anymore. But Korbel, I have thought about many times. I can see him exactly now: how he used to come to me, how he sat down, how he talked. For me, he was a very interesting personality."

    "I loved him very much. My husband, I think, was a little jealous. When we met at parties, Korbel and I would always dance a slow waltz . . . My husband would say, `You don't dance with me, but with Korbel you dance very well.' "

    While the Korbels were in Belgrade, war clouds were gathering over Europe, and particularly over their native Czechoslovakia. Established in 1918 under a philosopher president, Tomas Masaryk, the country had become the most liberal and prosperous state in central Europe. By 1938, it was the focal point for the war of nerves between Nazi Germany and the Western democracies led by Britain and France.

    With an unenviable geographic position on Germany's southern border and a 3-million-strong German minority living in the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia was an obvious target for Hitler. The Nazi dictator first swallowed up Austria in March 1938. The Fuehrer declared contemptuously that democratic Czechoslovakia was "a small, second-rate country" that had no right to stand in the way of "the mighty, thousand-year-old German Reich."

    The six-month trial of strength over Czechoslovakia culminated at the Munich conference of September 29-30, when the Western powers accepted Hitler's demands. The Sudetenland was transferred to Germany. As part of the settlement, Czechoslovakia was forced to give up one of the most elaborate systems of military defenses in Europe, a system specifically designed to deter a German invasion. Munich represented a bloodless victory for Hitler and a moral defeat for the West. The image of the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, returning home to London brandishing a piece of paper and boasting that he had achieved "peace in our time" has since become the ultimate symbol of diplomatic appeasement.

    The Munich sellout meant the end of Czechoslovakia as a viable country. It also had menacing implications for the Korbel family. The government in Prague came under strong German pressure to purge itself of Jews and "Democrats." Korbel was subject to suspicion on both counts, his foreign ministry file shows.

    Foreign ministry records show that Korbel was recalled from Belgrade on December, 28, 1938, three months after Munich. He was given a token post at the ministry's headquarters. The German armies marched into Prague at 6 a.m., on March 15, 1939, to complete the job of carving up Czechoslovakia.

    "A full blizzard was blowing, and the snow was staying on the streets," recalled George F. Kennan, who was then a member of the U.S. legation in Prague, in his memoir From Prague After Munich. "For the rest of the day, the motorized units pounded and roared over the cobblestone streets: hundreds and hundreds of vehicles plastered with snow, the faces of their occupants red with what some thought was shame but I fear was in most cases merely the cold. By evening, the occupation was complete."

    That night, Hitler made a triumphant entrance into Prague, sleeping in Hradcany Castle, the ancient seat of the Bohemian kings. Before leaving Berlin, he described the invasion as "the greatest day of my life." "Czechoslovakia has ceased to exist," he exulted.

    Kennan describes the panic that seized the Czech Jewish community on the day of the invasion. Many of his Jewish friends sought refuge at the legation, while others showed up at his apartment. Overnight, formerly confident men turned into "hunted animals."

    The Korbel family was now in mortal danger. "My first thought for safety went to Yugoslavia," Josef Korbel recalled in his book Tito's Communism, which does not make any mention of the family's Jewish ancestry but emphasizes Korbel's vulnerability to the Nazis on political grounds, as a known and active democrat.

    The Korbels managed to flee before the Germans were able to completely seal the border. Many years later, Albright's mother, Mandula, wrote an account of their experiences for family members – an account which also makes no mention of the family's religious background. She described a Prague in fear and chaos as the Germans took control. "Banks were closed. Friends were arrested . . . Josef's name was also on some list of people who should be arrested." They parked 2-year-old Madeleine with family members and slept each night at a different friend's house, spending their days in Prague's streets and restaurants. "It was mostly in the night that the Gestapo arrested people," she wrote. "We managed to get the necessary Gestapo permission to leave the country. This happened about 5 o'clock in the evening and by 11 o'clock the same night, we all three were in a train to Belgrade with two small suitcases that we were able to pack in a hurry. That was the last time we saw our parents alive."

    In Belgrade, the Korbels looked up their old friends, the Ribnikars. Even in Yugoslavia, they were not safe: The government was pro-German. Jara Ribnikar says that her publisher husband Vlado helped the Korbels get to Greece. "It was dangerous. There was a feeling that all diplomats were spies. But Vlado knew everybody in town and had friends in the government. He was able to help them get out."

    From Greece, they traveled on to Britain. Josef Korbel's older brother, Jan, was already there, having left Czechoslovakia a few months earlier with his family.

    Dagmar Simova, then 11, arrived in July 1939. Her parents had somehow wangled a place for her on one of the last trains out of Prague. The train trip itself was an extraordinary episode. With Hitler clamping down on the borders and preparing for a war that he would launch in just a few months, a determined Englishman named Nicholas Winton had organized a last exit from Czechoslovakia for hundreds of Czech and Jewish children. The Nazi authorities had allowed the train to go. At the other end of Europe, across the English Channel, the fortunate Dagmar joined her cousin Madeleine and the other exiled Korbels. Her sister, parents and grandparents remained behind in Czechoslovakia.

    By September, Europe was at war.

    London was a gathering place for Czechs who had fled their homeland in the wake of the German invasion. Tomas Masaryk's successor, Eduard Benes, set up a government-in-exile that became the focal point of Czech resistance to the Nazis. Josef Korbel joined the Benes government as the head of its information department.

    Korbel helped organize radio broadcasts via the British Broadcasting Corp. to occupied Czechoslovakia. The Czech language news service was located in Bush House, a few blocks from Trafalgar Square, and Korbel would appear there each morning. There were four broadcasts a day, including a half-hour news program at 6:30 every evening that was widely listened to in Czechoslovakia.

    "He supervised every broadcast, evaluated it, told us what was good and what was bad," says Ota Ornest, one of the editors on the Czech language service and now a well-known theater director in Prague. "He had good journalistic instincts, even though he was not a journalist by profession. He knew everybody that was worth knowing."

    The Korbel family moved around London during the war. After German bombing raids began, in the fall of 1940, Josef and Jan rented a house together outside the city. Josef later moved with his family to the London suburb of Walton-on-Thames. A second daughter, Katherine, was born in October 1942.

    Financially, the Korbels were better off than many exiles, according to Simova, due to the proceeds from the sale of Arnost Korbel's building material business in Prague – a well-timed deal made a few months before the disastrous Munich conference. The brothers used this money to send Simova to a boarding school for girls. She came to them for holidays, looking after her younger cousins.

    "Madeleine was a very bright child, very bossy," Dagmar Simova recalls. "There were nine years' difference between us, so I didn't mind it when she bossed me around. It was fun. She is a born leader, you know."

    The Korbels' generally happy family life in London was disturbed by dark news from home. From late 1941 onward, there were reports of Jews being rounded up and sent to ghettos and concentration camps. No one knew precisely what was going on, and people hesitated to believe stories of mass executions that were making the rounds of the exile communities. As time went on, the reports of atrocities became increasingly detailed.

    As head of the Czechoslovak government's information service, Josef Korbel would have helped publicize one atrocity story, which was dismissed as exaggerated at the time but later turned out to be tragically understated.

    In June 1944, two Slovak Jews escaped from Auschwitz. According to their information, 4,000 Czech Jews already had been gassed, and another 3,000 were awaiting a similar fate. The Jews had been transported to Auschwitz from a camp called Terezin, in northern Bohemia.

    On June 19, 1944, the BBC's Czech service broadcast a denunciation of the reported mass execution. "This new crime of the Nazis is incredible in its inhumane horror," declared an official statement of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile. "Those who took part in carrying out such bestialities will not escape justice."

    There is no evidence that Korbel had any specific news about his family back in Czechoslovakia. In her notes to her family, Mandula Korbel later wrote, "These were years of hope, and mainly, we were young, and the horrible news about suffering of so many people in Czechoslovakia reached us much, much later."

    For a time in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, everything was more or less calm. New laws were passed, obliging the 90,000 Czech Jews to register property, restricting their freedom of movement and forcing them to wear a gold star on their clothes. The terror began in the fall of 1941, when the German authorities declared that Jews would be required to live in the garrison town of Terezin, some 50 miles north of Prague. From then on, the entire Jewish community lived in fear of the transports.

    Built by the Austrian Emperor Joseph II in 1780, Terezin was more a fortress than a town. It was surrounded by impregnable walls, in the shape of a huge star. Its prisons had been used to house the most dangerous criminals of the Austro-Hungarian empire, including the Bosnian Serbs who murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. The Germans emptied the town of its regular inhabitants and turned it into a holding camp for people bound for Auschwitz. Between 30,000 and 60,000 Jews were crammed into military barracks designed to hold no more than 5,000 soldiers. Average living space was two square yards per person.

    Arnost and Olga Korbel arrived in Terezin on July 30, 1942, on a freight train from Prague along with 936 other Jews, according to Nazi records maintained and published by a Holocaust research center supported by the Prague Jewish Community. The records identify the Korbels as Jews. The dates of death in the records correspond to those of Albright's grandparents, as corroborated by Czech courts in inheritance proceedings, Simova says.

    Dagmar Simova's parents arrived at Terezin four months later, along with their other daughter, Milena, according to the records. Albright's maternal grandmother, Anna Spieglova, was also brought to Terezin, along with other relatives, according to Josef Marek and Simova. The Nazi records relevant to Albright's maternal grandmother are more difficult to evaluate than those pertaining to Arnost and Olga because they show that several different Anna Spieglovas died in the camps.

    "The first impression was awful," wrote Ela Fischerova, who arrived in Terezin a few days after Arnost and Olga Korbel. "A hundred and even more people were dying every day. They couldn't keep up with carting them away. There was a terrible stench from every house, from its overcrowded rooms. All of Terezin stank in the awful heat with the smell of rotting bodies."

    The inhabitants of Terezin would spend hours every day standing in line for scraps of food. Thousands died of malnutrition and gastroenteritis. Their corpses were burned in furnaces.

    Arnost Korbel died less than two months after his arrival in Terezin, in September 1942, according to the records. His daughter Margareta – Madeleine's aunt and Dagmar Simova's mother – died the following February, one of many victims of a typhoid epidemic that swept the newly created ghetto.

    Terezin was the scene of one of the more grotesque propaganda spectacles of World War II. In the summer of 1944, the Germans decided to invite a delegation from the International Red Cross to Terezin to dispel rumors that the Jews were being mistreated. In order to reduce the overcrowding, half the population of the fortress was shipped off to Auschwitz prior to the arrival of the delegation. The survivors were ordered to engage in uplifting cultural activities for the benefit of the visitors. A documentary film was made about the "model" Jewish community. When the visitors left, conditions deteriorated sharply.

    The internal administration of the ghetto was the responsibility of "Jewish elders." They were also required to select groups of 1,000 people at a time for transportation to Auschwitz. An air of menace hung over these transports. Most people refused to believe the rumors about gas chambers, but all the same they seemed to sense that death was near. In the words of a 14-year-old Terezin resident and Holocaust victim, Eva Pickova:

    My heart still beats inside my breast

    While friends depart for other worlds.

    Perhaps it's better – who can say?

    Than watching this, to die today?

    Olga Korbel was on the third-to-last transport from Terezin to Auschwitz, on October 23, 1944, along with 1,714 other Jews. Olga Korbel's granddaughter and Simova's younger sister, Milena Deimlova, then 11, was on the same train, the records show. Most of those aboard were mothers or grandmothers with young children, according to the memoirs of a survivor on that train, Helga Pollakova. She recalled that the prisoners were herded into small freight cars like cattle, 50 at a time. The train left at 5 a.m. and took nearly two days to reach its destination. When it arrived at Auschwitz in the middle of the night, it was greeted by a terrible barking of dogs and screaming of orders. The doors were thrown open, and powerful searchlights shone in their faces.

    "Get out, leave everything behind," yelled the guards.

    The "selection" took place right there, in the goods yard. A total of 200 women and 51 men, who seemed reasonably fit, were loaded onto lorries and driven to the labor camp. Everybody else was taken directly to the gas chambers.

    "A siren went off," recalls Pollakova. "There was a terrible smell."

    She saw a pile of crutches, one of the vast piles of clothing and other objects abandoned by victims prior to entering the gas chambers. "My first thought was that there were people who needed those crutches."

    Then she understood.

    After the war, the Korbels returned from Britain to a devastated country. The beautiful but melancholy city of Prague had been spared heavy bombardment. But the paving stones had all been ripped up to build barricades. There was practically no public transport. People's energies were consumed by a daily battle to find enough food or by searches for survivors from the camps.

    "For six years, I had assumed that I would be going back to my family," says Simova, who flew back to Prague in the bomb bay of a transport plane in July 1945, together with her cousins, Madeleine and Katherine – a flight Albright also remembers vividly. "But it turned out that there was no family to go back to."

    From Red Cross lists, Simova found out that her mother had died at Terezin. For a long time, she hoped that her father might still be alive. One day, however, she received a letter from an Auschwitz survivor, Jiri Barbier, who told her that her father had been taken to the gas chambers. "They were taken to Auschwitz together," Simova says. "They agreed with each other that, if one of them were killed, the other would pass on the news to the missing relatives."

    Now an orphan, the 17-year-old Simova went to stay with Mandula and Josef Korbel, who she says was appointed her official guardian. (Albright says she was never aware of this.) The government had given the Korbels an apartment at Hradcany Square, just around the corner from the foreign ministry, high above the Vltava River with a magnificent view over the rooftops of Prague. The Korbel family occupied the second floor, living above a popular restaurant known as At the Swan, which many years later was used as a set for the film "Amadeus."

    Prague, together with most of Czechoslovakia, had been liberated from the Nazis from the east, by the Red Army. The U.S. Army, under Gen. George Patton, had gotten no farther than Pilzen, 50 miles to the west. This geopolitical fact gave the Communist Party a large, but not yet dominant, voice in the new Czech government. In relatively free elections, in May 1946, the communists received 38 percent of the vote, more than any other political party. The communist leader, Klement Gottwald, became prime minister. Eduard Benes, who had headed the democratic government-in-exile in London, resumed his prewar post of president. As a trusted associate of Benes, Josef Korbel was in line for a key post in the new administration.

    Around this time, Korbel decided to make his name sound more Czech. Originally, his surname had been spelled with an umlaut on the first syllable. Pronounced KUR-bel, it had a distinctly German sound. He changed it to Korbel, without the umlaut and with the accent on the second syllable, which is the Czech word for a wooden "pitcher" used for drinking beer.

    At some point either during or shortly before the war, like many Czech Jews, the Korbels apparently embraced Roman Catholicism. Albright says she was raised as a Catholic from earliest memory. According to one of Josef Korbel's oldest friends, Josef Marek, the conversion probably took place while the Korbels were in London, although he is not certain about the exact timing. Marek, now 89, does firmly recall that Albright's mother, Mandula Korbel, told him after the war: "To be a Jew is to be constantly threatened by some kind of danger. That is our history."

    A document in the foreign ministry file records Korbel as declaring that he was "without religious confession," meaning he did not actively practice any faith. Czech archivists say the document indicates that Korbel made this declaration when he joined the foreign service in 1934, but add that it is also conceivable that it dates from immediately after World War II.

    In September 1945, Korbel was appointed ambassador to Yugoslavia. It was an important assignment for the 36-year-old diplomat. The Yugoslav communists, led by Marshal Tito, regarded themselves as second only in stature to the Soviet communists, led by Josef Stalin. Benes wanted someone he could trust in the post. "Keep your eyes open," he told Korbel before his departure, as Korbel wrote in Tito's Communism. "I am greatly interested in Yugoslavia; she will again play an important role in European politics." Aware that the Czechoslovak foreign ministry was subject to Soviet penetration, Benes instructed Korbel to report to him orally.

    Josef Korbel arranged for his niece, Dagmar, to stay with a relative, and set off for Belgrade with his wife and two young daughters. Madeleine was then 8 years old.

    Returning to Belgrade after six years' absence proved quite a shock. Over 10 percent of Yugoslavia's prewar population of 16 million had been wiped out by three wars rolled into one: a war of liberation against the Nazis; a civil war among ethnic and ideological factions; and a communist revolution. Thousands of towns and villages had been destroyed. Marshal Tito's victorious communist partisans were busy imposing Soviet-style discipline on the war-shattered country, ruthlessly eliminating any opposition to their rule.

    As the Czechoslovak ambassador, Korbel was in a curious position. The Yugoslav communists did not know quite how to deal with Czechoslovakia, which had one foot in the Soviet camp and the other in the West. The new ambassador was half friend, half enemy. He enjoyed an enviable degree of access to Tito and other senior Yugoslav officials. But his democratic, pro-Western sympathies and long London exile made him automatically suspect.

    When Korbel tried to look up old friends, whom he had known as press attache prior to the war, he found that many now shunned him. In the new Yugoslavia, keeping the company of a foreign diplomat could be dangerous.

    Among other people, he tried to contact his old friend, Jara Ribnikar. But the former Belgrade society queen had spent much of the last two years trudging through the Bosnian mountains with Tito's partisans, pursued by the Germans. When they finally met again, as she tells the story, she was dressed in a partisan uniform, with a pistol stuffed into her belt. She looked at her former compatriot haughtily.

    "Don't count me anymore among the Czechs. I am a Yugoslav partisan." She never saw Korbel again.

    The Korbels had an apartment in the Czechoslovak Embassy, a huge, luxuriously appointed palace opposite the central post office, complete with chandeliered ballroom. Since they did not want Madeleine to be exposed to communist propaganda, they hired a governess. Later, they sent her off to a boarding school in Switzerland. During vacations, she would return home to Belgrade, and was trotted out to greet visiting dignitaries. "You know the little girl in the national costume who gives flowers at the airport?" she likes to recount. "I used to do that for a living."

    Belgrade proved an excellent place for Korbel to see how a communist party consolidates its power. During the immediate postwar years, before the break with Stalin in 1948, the Yugoslav communists followed the Soviet model slavishly. Factories were nationalized. The press was subject to strict communist control. Large farms were confiscated. Opposition politicians were thrown into jail. Wages and prices were established by government decree. Uncooperative priests were silenced. The secret police enjoyed virtually unbridled authority.

    As he shuttled back and forth between Belgrade and Prague, it seemed to Korbel that the same process might be repeating itself in Czechoslovakia. On one of these trips, he expressed his fears to President Benes, who brushed them aside. In a 1959 book, The Communist Subversion of Czechoslovakia, Korbel quoted Benes as telling him: "I shall defend our democracy till the last breath. They [the communists] know it, and therefore there will not be a putsch . . . The army is fully behind me."

    Events in Prague came to a head in February 1948, shortly after this conversation. Sensing that they might be on the verge of losing power in an election, the communists staged a preemptive coup. Already in control of the police force, they armed a 15,000-strong workers' militia and summoned hundreds of thousands of supporters to a huge rally in Prague's Old Town Square. By now, virtually all the levers of power were in the hands of the communists. Weak and sick, Benes finally agreed to Gottwald's demands for the creation of a new, communist-dominated government.

    Korbel began making plans to flee the country. According to his friend, Josef Marek, then serving as Korbel's press attache, Korbel had an agreement with the British ambassador to Belgrade to seek refuge with his family in Britain.

    Korbel told Marek that if he was ordered back to Prague by his government, "I will not stay in Czechoslovakia."

    The death knell for Czechoslovak democracy came on March 10 when the country's foreign minister, Jan Masaryk, was found dead in the courtyard beneath his office. The son and spiritual heir of Tomas Masaryk, the founder of Czechoslovakia, Masaryk was the last hope of the democrats. It was unclear whether he had thrown himself out of the 200-foot-high window or had been pushed.

    Korbel, who idolized Jan Masaryk and kept a portrait of him in his study, was crushed. He and his wife flew home for the funeral.

    For the second time in his life, Korbel was in serious danger. Fortunately for him and his family, an exit presented itself. The Communist deputy foreign minister, Vladimir Clementis, offered him the post of Czechoslovakia's representative on a United Nations demarcation commission for the disputed Indian territory of Kashmir. He accepted, knowing the appointment was a ticket to freedom.

    One problem, however, remained: What to do with Dagmar Simova. By this time, Simova was 20, still Josef Korbel's ward, but increasingly independent. There had been an unpleasant argument the previous summer, when she visited the Korbels in Belgrade. She says she had wanted to invite her Czech boyfriend, Vladislav Sima, to stay at the embassy. The ambassador made it clear that he did not want Vladislav in his house, according to Simova and Marek. (Dagmar later married the boyfriend, taking the name Simova.)

    "Uncle Josef was very patriotic, very ambitious, and very intelligent. But he did not really seem to know how to handle someone like me" recalls Simova. "He already had three children, so an extra teenager must have been quite a burden."

    Simova says she met her uncle and aunt at the Alcron Hotel in Prague after Masaryk's funeral. (Madeleine was at school in Switzerland.) As she recalls the conversation, the Korbels talked vaguely about a "new appointment" and there was no discussion about whether she should join them abroad.

    Albright says her parents told her explicitly that they had invited Simova to go with them to America but that she declined. "I was told by my parents . . . that she had not wanted to come with us to the United States because she had already been displaced a number of times in her life and she was about to go to the university," she says. "I'd be very surprised – very, very surprised – if my parents had not offered to bring her," since they did bring a maid from Belgrade with them.

    In any event, the Korbels left. It would be two decades before Simova would see them again.

    As she looks back on this incident, Simova expresses mixed feelings. "I don't regret anything. I have had a good life, a good marriage, a good family. My children are happy. At the same time, in hindsight, I think he [Josef] did me wrong. He should not have left me here. If he had suggested that I go with them, I would have gone. He should have been aware of the dangers of staying here."

    Some six months later, after the borders were effectively sealed, Simova says she received a letter from Madeleine's mother suggesting that she go to stay with family in London. "I think it was for the sake of her conscience," says Simova. "She told me to go to London but did not explain how I was meant to get there."

    The Korbel family arrived in America at the end of 1948. In his application for political asylum, Josef Korbel wrote, "I cannot, of course, return to the communist Czechoslovakia as I would be arrested for my faithful adherence to the ideals of democracy."

    According to Czechoslovak foreign ministry records, Korbel was formally dismissed by the country's new communist government on December 6, 1948, "because he resigned while he was abroad." Four months later, a court formally confiscated all of his property. There is no evidence that Korbel was put on trial in absentia, as has sometimes been reported in stories about Madeleine Albright's family background.

    Back home, the political situation went from bad to worse. A wave of persecutions began against anybody deemed to have associated with "enemies of the revolution." Many of Korbel's old foreign ministry colleagues were arrested and put on trial and some were hanged. "If he had not left, the same thing would certainly have happened to Korbel," says Antonin Sum, Masaryk's private secretary.

    Simova, who was studying English and French at a Prague university, was summoned before an investigation commission. "There were two questions," she recalls. "Why did you not go to the meeting in the Old Town Square [convened by Gottwald in February 1948]? And where is your guardian?"

    In January 1949, she was thrown out of the university. For the next 12 months, she was turned down for one job after another, in apparent retaliation for her association with Korbel. "I think she probably had a pretty bad time of it because of my father," Albright agrees.

    Madeleine Albright was 11 when she came to America. The family language was Czech. Having been to school in Britain during the war, her English was very good, but her accent was English rather than American. She also spoke French, which she had picked up in Switzerland.

    Josef Korbel continued to work on the Kashmir problem for the United Nations. From November 1948 until the end of the school year, Madeleine was enrolled in the sixth grade at a Great Neck (N.Y.) public school. "By the time she left Great Neck, she had a good taste of American life," recalls a classmate, Winifred Freund. "She consciously tried to become an American and to talk like an American."

    In 1949, Josef Korbel was offered a position teaching international relations at the University of Denver. The family bought a green Ford and set off for their new life in the American West. Her parents enrolled Madeleine in Denver's most exclusive private high school. That led eventually to a scholarship to Wellesley College and a vacation job at the Denver Post, where she met her future husband, Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, scion of a prominent American publishing family. Her friends called her "Maddy."

    "By then, she was thoroughly American," says Freund, who also studied at Wellesley. "She was a typical '50s college student in Bermuda shorts, Shetland sweater and camel-hair coat."

    Albright differed from most of her college friends in being a Democrat rather than a Republican. "The Eisenhower era was a very conservative time," says her friend Emily McFarquhar, now an Asia expert at Harvard. "We were among the very few Democrats at Wellesley who campaigned for Adlai Stevenson in 1956."

    As she came of age, Albright consciously modeled herself after her father. She was a loyal daughter who practically never rebeled against his wishes. His interests were also hers. She wrote high school papers about India and Eastern Europe. Years later, when she pursued her doctoral thesis, she chose to explore the role of the press in the 1968 Czechoslovak reformist movement known as the "Prague Spring."

    "They are very similar in many ways," says her daughter Anne. "My mother, like my grandfather, is very intellectual, very rational. She got her sense of integrity from him."

    The steady rise of the adult and very American Madeleine Albright through academia, into the Democratic Party's intellectual support circles and finally to the Clinton administration is by now a familiar story.

    There seems an obvious parallel between the parties that Josef Korbel is remembered for in the Belgrade of the 1930s and the Georgetown foreign policy salon organized by his daughter in Washington in the 1980s. After her 1982 divorce from Joseph Albright, she became part of a Washington-based circle of foreign policy luminaries. She was renowned in Washington for her energetic, assiduous cultivation of important Democrats. Her networking paid off in 1984, when she served as a foreign policy coordinator for Walter Mondale, the Democratic candidate for president. Four years later she served as senior foreign policy adviser to Michael Dukakis.

    In her foreign policy outlook, Albright always stood to the hawkish side of the Democratic Party. Next to her father, one her main intellectual influences was Zbigniew Brzezinski, with whom she shared an East European background and a deep suspicion of the Soviet Union. Brzezinski supervised her doctoral thesis and brought her onto the staff of the National Security Council.

    After becoming Clinton's ambassador to the United Nations, Albright emerged as a leading hawk during the administration's hand-wringing first-term debates over the war in former Yugoslavia. She saw clear parallels between the Czechoslovak crisis of 1938 and the West's inability to prevent Yugoslavia's chaotic descent into war. The scale of the two events was very different, of course. But in 1991, as in 1938, there seemed to be a clear aggressor. The drive by Serb nationalists to create a Greater Serbia resembled Hitler's insistence on gathering all Germans into a single state. In 1991, as in 1938, America stood on the sidelines, unwilling to be dragged into what appeared to be a purely European conflict. In both cases, America was eventually forced to abandon its passive position and intervene decisively.

    At least once during these sensitive administration debates, voices from her family's past called out for her attention. As press attache in Belgrade during the 1930s, Josef Korbel had been particularly close to Pavle Jankovic, a Serb working for a French news agency, whose wife happened to be Czech. The Jankovic and Korbel children played together, before and after the war.

    In 1994, a few months before his death, Pavle Jankovic wrote a letter to Albright. After filling her in on family news, he criticized her for her enthusiastic support of United Nations sanctions against the Serb-led Yugoslavia in retaliation for Belgrade's assistance to the Bosnian Serbs. "Dear Madlenka," he wrote, according to a draft of the letter in his family papers. "The conditions of our life are difficult. Civil war rages, there are large number of refugees on all sides. The sanctions that have been imposed on us by the great powers, headed by America, only hurt the small people who often have nothing to eat. You are the subject of harsh criticism."

    At Christmas the following year, following the Dayton peace accords and the lifting of sanctions, Albright replied. "Dear Pavle," she wrote in French, "I embrace you with affection. I hope that everything is going better now."

    While Albright was turning herself into a model American, her cousin Dagmar Simova was turning down invitations to become a Communist Party member. Like millions of other ordinary Czechs, she survived the years of Stalinist repression by withdrawing into herself and her family, and having as little contact as possible with the communist regime.

    "My conscience came first," she recalls in conversation in her modest two-room apartment in central Prague. "I regret it now. All my life, I worked under idiots who earned twice as much as I did, because they were members of the party. After the `Velvet Revolution' [of November 1989], these people all became leading businessmen. The people who were honest and good and never joined the party found it difficult to find a job."

    In Czechoslovakia, as in many communist countries, there was a double system of values. At school, Simova's two children learned all about Marx and Lenin and the idyllic life led by workers in the Soviet Union. They were required to become members of the communist youth organization, the Pioneers, and wear red scarves around their necks. At home, Simova described what life was like in Britain and how the citizens of western democracies were able to vote for their leaders. Then she would worry that her children might be indiscreet.

    "That's our little secret," she would tell her children. "It's between you and me."

    Life began to improve in 1967, when the communist regime gradually relaxed its guard. Early the next year, the liberal Alexander Dubcek took over from the hard-line Antonin Novotny as Communist Party chief. Someone suggested that Simova get a job as a translator for the Czechoslovak news agency that would enable her to use her English. For the first time, it became possible to acquire foreign books and travel outside the country.

    In June 1968, Simova was able to travel to Vienna, where she met for the first time in two decades with her uncle, Josef Korbel. Two months later, the Soviet army invaded Czechoslovakia, putting an end to Dubcek's experiment in "communism with a human face."

    Travel became easier again in the late 1980s, after Simova retired from the news agency. In 1988, she traveled to London at the invitation of her English cousins. Josef had died the previous year, in Denver, but an old and frail Aunt Mandula brought her up to date with the family news. (She died in 1989.) It was presidential election season in the United States, and Mandula insisted that everyone watch the televised debate between Michael Dukakis and George Bush.

    "She told me that Madeleine was on the Dukakis team," Simova recalls.

    It was her first inkling of her cousin's political ambitions.

    In his celebrated novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the Czech writer Milan Kundera described Czechoslovakia's resistance to Communist Party rule as a struggle of "memory over forgetting." In a totally different political context, it is a phrase that could be applied in some ways to the story of Madeleine Albright and Dagmar Simova.

    Kundera was referring to the efforts of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia to rewrite history and suppress politically inconvenient memories. For the communists, history was subordinate to ideology. Anything that did not fit into the Marxist-Leninist theory of an inexorable march toward a communist utopia was simply eliminated from the history books.

    It took a revolution to bring the nations of the communist world face-to-face with their own history, and to exorcise the ghosts of the past. In the privacy of their own homes, however, Czechs and other East Europeans forgot a great deal less than their rulers would have liked. Indeed, as soon as they were given a chance to express themselves in public, it turned out that their memories were astonishingly fresh and detailed. Dagmar Simova is just one example. She says she waited until her children were 10 or 11 years old and then made sure they knew the whole story.

    The historical amnesia that afflicts some first-generation Americans is an entirely different kind of forgetfulness. It is a personal choice, a kind of survival instinct, not something that has been imposed from outside, by the state. The very act of emigrating to America can be, in many cases, a conscious decision to escape the past and start a new life. As a result, there are millions of Americans who know very little about what happened to their families prior to arriving in America. For many years, Madeleine Albright was among them.

    As she looks back on it today, Albright expresses no regrets about her parents' choices or her own. "I am very proud of my family, my parents, of what I believe in, what I have gotten – the honor of everything that has happened to me in the United States," she says. In the months ahead, the new information about her family history "has to be dealt with as a personal matter."

    Asked if the new evidence about her family and the Holocaust might change the way she looks at the world, she says passionately, "All you have to do is read my speeches or talk to my friends or assess anything about my public life to know that I have always believed the Holocaust to be one of the great horrors of history. And actually I have to say that I'm very proud of the way I lived my life . . . I think if you look at my works, that I have comported myself in a way that is very much in line with somebody who has known repression and what it's like to be a victim of totalitarianism."

    Michael Dobbs covers the State Department for The Post.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

    Back to the top

    Navigation Bar
    Navigation Bar