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.
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: