Albright's patrimony and ours Holocaust secret: Few people really know who their ancestors were.

February 09, 1997

SECRETARY OF STATE Madeleine K. Albright is who she has been becoming since birth, the product of her upbringing, education and experience. If she has just learned that her ancestry is not what she had previously thought, that is a private matter changing nothing for the American citizenry, yet revealing painfully much about the human condition in the 20th century.

Josef Korbel, a rising young Czechoslovak diplomat, brought his family to England before Nazi occupation in 1939, went back to serve his country in 1945, and brought them to the United States in 1948 as refugees from communism. Converting to Catholicism from secularism, Josef and Mandula Korbel raised Madeleine as a Czechoslovak-American Catholic. Upon marriage, she converted to the Protestant Episcopal church, where she remains.

As she became prominent and the Iron Curtain disappeared, Ms. Albright began receiving letters from strangers suggesting a genealogy new to her. Upon her present appointment, which carries with its eminence the loss of privacy, a Washington Post reporter delved in European records and interviewed kin. He produced evidence she finds "compelling" that Ms. Albright's paternal grandparents and maternal grandmother were Jews murdered in the Holocaust along with other relatives. Had her parents remained, the baby Madeleine would probably have perished in the ovens.

While some people who may have never risked persecution may question why parents would shield a child from knowledge of heritage, it is brutally clear to Holocaust survivors that Eastern Europe is full of such hidden pasts. Survivors reaching these shores may not have trusted their new country to be forever immune to the horrors they escaped.

So the story reveals nothing we needed to know about Madeleine Albright, who already has enough on her plate. But it illuminates the enduring Holocaust. And it undermines the fashion for politics of group identity, which counts on a knowledge of personal genealogy that virtually no one can have.

Ms. Albright would not be the first Jewish secretary of state. That, presumably, was Henry Kissinger (not counting the Confederacy's Judah Benjamin). It does not affect U.S. policy in the Middle East. It does not alter her personal faith and identity except as she may privately decide. That such people as her parents made the choices they did in the times they lived is a part of world history for everyone.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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