Albright calls Jewish ancestry a surprise Secretary of state says she knew nothing until last week

February 05, 1997|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, daughter of Czech refugees, only recently learned that more than a dozen members of her family may have been Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust, her spokesman said yesterday.

"She didn't know anything about this until this information was presented to her last week, and therefore she's going to look into it," said the State Department spokesman, Nicholas Burns.

Much of the new information was unearthed by the Washington Post. Citing documents in Czech and German archives, plus interviews with friends and relatives of Albright, the Post reported yesterday that at least a dozen of Albright's relatives who remained in Czechoslovakia during the war had died in the Holocaust.

Those killed included her father's parents, Arnost and Olga Korbel, and her maternal grandmother, Anna Spieglova, as well as an aunt, an uncle and a cousin, the Post reported.

Albright's father, Josef Korbel, a diplomat, took his family to London after the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia in March 1939, six months before the start of World War II, when she was a toddler.

They returned to their native country briefly after the war, but fled to the United States in 1948 when Czechoslovakia became part of the Soviet bloc. Albright spent the rest of her childhood in the Denver area.

At some point Albright's parents embraced Roman Catholicism, but it is unclear when. Raised a Catholic, she became an Episcopalian at the time of her 1959 marriage to Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, heir to a newspaper fortune. They were divorced in 1982. They have three grown daughters.

In an interview with the Associated Press on Monday, Albright, 59, said that in addition to the information shown to her last week by the Post, she had received material on her family background by mail since her nomination to be secretary of state.

"This was obviously a major surprise to me," she said. "I had never been told this."

Spokesman Burns said her parents, now dead, had said only that her grandparents died during the war, but never discussed the circumstances with her or her brother and sister.

A top Albright aide, speaking on conditions of anonymity, said Albright grew up believing that her father's reason for fleeing Czechoslovakia in 1939 was political, since his political party opposed the Nazis.

"There was a whole truth," said the aide. "There was another whole truth that wasn't spoken."

Wendy Sherman, a friend and former assistant secretary of state, said that since even family writings from the period didn't mention the family's persecution by the Nazis or Jewish heritage, Albright's lack of questions was understandable.

But the discovery, Sherman said, serves to reinforce the philosophy imparted to Albright by her parents.

"Her parents stood against persecution, against genocide and for democracy. Now she knows that the roots of these values go even deeper," said Sherman.

"She has talked a lot about her entwinement with the evils of the 20th century. This is bringing one of the events closer than she ever knew," said Emily MacFarquhar, a friend and classmate of Albright's at Wellesley College.

MacFarquhar, who is Jewish, theorized that Albright's father might have withheld the information from his children to protect them, "enabling them to live normal lives after a very abnormal period."

At the same time, she said it would be logical for Albright to have wanted to know how her grandparents had died.

It was not uncommon for Holocaust survivors to withhold such information from family members, according to another Wellesley classmate, Jane Satlow Gerber, a professor of Jewish studies at the City University of New York who has taught courses on the Holocaust.

While some families of Holocaust survivors feel an obligation to instruct their children about that period, others try to shield them from the information, she said.

As a historian, Gerber said, she would like to know how Albright's father responded during family discussions of World War II.

At college, Gerber recalled, "We were all interested and verbal about ethnicity and ethnic backgrounds." To her, Albright "was a Catholic from Europe. There wasn't a question of hiding or obscuring one's past on a conscious level."

Her newly discovered family history aside, Albright's views of the world have been deeply influenced by the history of World War II and the postwar incorporation of Eastern Europe into the Warsaw Pact.

Inside the Clinton administration, she was among the strongest advocates of the use of force against the Bosnian Serbs, accused of Europe's worst atrocities since World War II, and played an active role in creation of the War Crimes Tribunal to try the perpetrators of ethnic mass killing in Bosnia and Rwanda.

Burns was uncertain yesterday on how Albright planned to try to verify the new information. "I believe that this process is a family decision for her and her family members to undertake together."

Pub Date: 2/05/97

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