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Madeleine Albright on discovering in her 50s that her family was Jewish

by Brad A. Greenberg

May 1, 2012 | 9:57 pm

Madeleine Korbel Albright. Photo by Wikipedia/U.S. Department of State

In her new book, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright shares what it was like to discover in her late 50s that her family was Jewish. A portion is excerpted at the Huffington Post:

I had no idea that my family heritage was Jewish or that more than twenty of my relatives had died in the Holocaust. I had been brought up to believe in a history of my Czechoslovak homeland that was less tangled and more straightforward than the reality. I had much still to learn about the complex moral choices that my parents and others in their generation had been called on to make—choices that were still shaping my life and also that of the world.

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By late in President Bill Clinton’s first term, I had seen several missives from people who had known my parents, who had the names and dates approximately right, and who indicated that my ancestors had been of Jewish origin. One letter, from a seventy-four-year-old woman, arrived in early December 1996; she wrote that her family had been in business with my maternal grandparents, who had been victimized by anti-Jewish discrimination during the war. I compared memories with my sister, Kathy, and brother, John, and also shared the information with my daughters, Anne, Alice and Katie. Since I was in the process of being vetted for secretary of state, I told President Clinton and his senior staff. In January 1997, before we had time to explore further, a hardworking Washington Post reporter, Michael Dobbs, uncovered news that stunned us all: according to his research, three of my grandparents and numerous other family members had died in the Holocaust.

In February 1997, Kathy, John, and John’s wife, Pamela, visited the Czech Republic; they confirmed much of what had been in the Post story and identified a few errors. That summer, I was able to make two similar though briefer trips. For me, the moment of highest emotion came inside Prague’s Pinkas Synagogue, where the names of our family members were among the eighty thousand inscribed on the walls as a memoriam. I had been to the synagogue before but—having no cause—had never thought to search for their names.

Albright’s story reminds me of my own mothers—except she lost no family (that we know of) in the Holocaust—or of Christopher Hitchens’. Not because the key details line up clearly, but for the general late discovery of a family secret of Jewishness. It reinforces for how little we often know about where we come from.

As I’ve written before, a desire to better understand where I came from led me on my Jew-ish journey:

When, in 2007, I joined The Journal — which I am leaving now to enter law school at UCLA — the impetus was as personal as it was professional. Sure, I saw an opportunity to advance my career — and having received some top honors from the Los Angeles Press Club during my time here, including best blog and journalist of the year, I’d say the Prophets couldn’t have promised anything more. But, maybe more importantly, I thought the move would help me sort out my complicated Judeo-Christian identity.

I typically observe Passover in a church, and growing up in a San Diego suburb, the extent of my Jewish upbringing was being the target of money jokes. Despite having three Jewish grandparents, including both grandmothers, and facial hair that draws comparisons to Matisyahu, I was, at best, Jew-ish.

But at The Jewish Journal I began working on my Yiddish tongue; I went to Yom Kippur services for the first time. I traveled to Israel and even got hassled by El Al security screeners; I observed Shabbat in Sderot and experienced the terror of hearing a red alert and having only a few seconds to run for a bomb shelter; I haggled at a market (OK, I was already pretty good at that); and I learned that I had an incredible amount more in common with the Jews I was sojourning among than the gentiles I grew up with.

The outcome of that journey, as I’m sure the Madam Secretary also discovered, was well worth the trip.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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