Former Secretary of State Albright recounts discovery of Jewish heritage during visit to San Rafael

Richard Halstead

The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif.

When Madeline Albright became the nation's first female secretary of state in 1996, she lacked some vital information about her heritage.

Albright, who as the United States' chief diplomat would later negotiate agreements with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, didn't know then that her family had Jewish roots; in fact, more than twenty of her relatives died in the Holocaust.

"At age 59 I thought I knew who I was; but it turned out I didn't," Albright told a sold-out audience Thursday night at Dominican University in San Rafael. About 850 people turned out to listen to Albright discuss her latest book, "Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948." The book provides a detailed account of how Albright learned of her Jewish heritage along with descriptions of pivotal events in Czech history before and after World War II.

Albright, who was interviewed by Elaine Petrocelli of Book Passage, explained that she left the country of her birth, Czechoslovakia, when she was 2, and didn't find out about her Jewish background until she was being vetted for the job of secretary of state in 1996.

It was then, Albright said, that she received a letter from someone who wrote, "My family knew your family and they were a fine Jewish family." Albright couldn't dismiss the writer as a crank because all of the supporting information contained in the letter -- "the names, dates and villages" -- were correct.

And a week later Albright received confirmation from Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs, who was doing a profile of her.

"He comes into my office," Albright said, "and all of a sudden he gives me these distressful documents, which are the cards -- the Nazis were very organized -- that had the names of various people in my family saying what date they had been shipped to concentration camps."

Albright said, "The only way I can describe how I felt is, it was as if I was the first woman ever asked to represent my country in a marathon and then as I was about to start I was given a heavy package and told to unwrap it as I ran."

Albright said one of the major themes of her new book is how difficult it is to make moral decisions. For example, she recounted how one of her young cousins died in a concentration camp because her parents chose not to send the girl to England. They thought life there would be too hard for her. Albright also provided a more global example, recounting how citizens in Czechoslovakia after World War II voted to put Communists in charge of the government.

"We all think that decisions are black and white. They're not," Albright said. "There are an awful lot of gray areas and tradeoffs that are made and this period 1937 to 1948 shows a lot of them."

Responding to questions submitted by the audience at the end of her talk, Albright discussed the current state of relations with North Korea. In 2000, Albright made an official state visit to North Korea and met Kim Jong-il, the communist leader of North Korea.

"Our intelligence said he was crazy and a pervert," Albright said. "I found out he wasn't crazy."

She also described a press conference she conducted with Kim Jong-il.

"It was like something out of the 1950s with these old cameras," she said. "We're standing there next to each other. We were about the same height. I knew that I had on high heels then I looked over at him and he had high heels. His hair was a lot poofier than mine."

All joking aside, however, Albright concluded on a sober note, "I think it is very, very serious. I think they do lie to us and bluff. We are trying to figure out what the right tools are to deal with them."

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©2013 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)

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