A brilliant author

by | Sep 14, 2012 | Book Reviews

Prague Winter (A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937–1948)
by Madeleine Albright
HarperCollins 2012
467pages, $29.99

Madeleine Albright, who distinguished herself with service to our nation including as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (1993- 1997) and the first woman Secretary of State (1997- 2001) under President Bill Clinton, makes history come alive concerning 1937–1948, the first 12 years of her eventful life. She skillfully interweaves the personal with the public and political in a revealing and riveting tome with the potential to become a classic.

It was the painful discovery of how little she knew of her family’s past that prompted Albright to further look for it while exploring the larger framework of those times that so profoundly impacted humanity. Though rumors about her Jewish roots surfaced earlier, it was not until Michael Dobbs reported in January 1997 in The Washington Post of her Holocaust connection and the losses of three grandparents and more than 20 relatives, that she was “stunned,” “shocked,” and “embarrassed,” of her glaring ignorance of such basic and important information. Her chapter on Terezin, the “model” camp to which many of her close family were taken, is deeply moving.

Albright was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1937 to secular Jewish parents, Dr. Joseph Mandula Korbel, who converted to the Roman Catholic faith in 1941 while in England following their escape from their native land with the Nazi takeover. Uncertain about the motivation behind her parents’ conversion, she surmises that they came under the influence of close Czech friends, wanting to affirm their national Czech identity and perhaps also sought to protect their progeny at a time when being Jewish was risky. In light of the ensuing Holocaust and its moral lessons, Albright senses that her shaken parents were reluctant to discuss their conversion and family history with her and her younger siblings, Kathy and John.

Albright earned a doctorate at Columbia University and taught at Georgetown University, following in the footsteps of her father in both kinds of pursuits. Korbel, a Czech Foreign Ministry official, joined in London the Czech Government in exile and the BBC program to counteract Nazi propaganda. At the war’s end, he was appointed Czech Ambassador to Yugoslavia and later represented his country as chairman of the U.N. Kashmere commission. Threatened by his Communist government, the Korbels were granted political asylum in the United States in 1949. Korbel, who died in 1977, taught at the University of Denver and its School of International Affairs is named after him.

Always offering a lucid analysis of all options, the brilliant author does not mince words in criticizing the capitulation and loss of nerve of both West and East to Hitler’s bullying, beginning with his 1935 military build-up, the 1936 reentry into the Rhineland and 1938 annexation of Austria, dooming Czechoslovakia in the shameful Munich Conference, as well as most of Europe, making possible the unfathomable Holocaust. She rightly bemoans the dilemma of small nations, such as Czechoslovakia, that are eyed by larger powers for their own self-interest.

Albright’s family’s high drama along with vignettes of note, render the historical events in a humane light, realizing that plain human beings ultimately pay the price in pain for their leaders’ decisions, whether democratic or totalitarian. She disagrees with Tolstoy’s grand theory charging Providence in determining history’s course. Rather affirming leaders’ role and responsibility for better or worse, in shaping outcome of consequence.

The year of Albright’s birth, 1937, also marked the death of legendary Thomas Masaryk, the founding president of the democratic Czech republic in 1918. Masaryk’s son, John Masaryk, the beloved foreign minister, was murdered by Stalin’s agents in 1948 as Czechoslovakia and the rest of Eastern Europe sank deeper into the Soviet clutches. Nonetheless, this remarkable soul-searching author chooses to conclude on a reassuring message of hope, “in the world where I choose to live, even the coldest winter must yield to agents of Spring and the darkest view of human nature must eventually find room for shafts of light.”

—Rabbi Israel Zoberman, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Chaverim, is the son of Polish Holocaust survivors. He spent his early childhood in the Displaced Persons Camp of Wetzlar, Germany.