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Albright Talks About Moral Decisions, Memories Surrounding World War II

Madeleine Albright

"It’s one thing to find out you're Jewish, it’s another to find out that more than two dozen of your relatives were killed in concentration camps," said Madeleine Albright about finding out for the first time that more than two dozen of her relatives had died in Nazi concentration camps.

February 26, 2013 Madeleine Albright related personal and historical lessons she learned while writing her book, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948, at an event yesterday at Georgetown.

Born in Prague, the School of Foreign Service professor explained that she was 59 and just beginning service as the first woman Secretary of State in 1996 when she learned she was of Jewish heritage.

After she became ambassador to the United Nations in 1993, she said she started getting letters after from people in the Czech Republic claiming to be relatives.

A Fine Jewish Family

“People would say I’m your relative and send money or I need a visa …but the facts were never quite right,” said the Mortara Distinguished Professor of Diplomacy. “They didn’t have the dates in it or the villages were wrong.”

“But in Nov. of 1996 just as I was being vetted for Secretary of State I got a letter from somebody who had all the names right and the dates right and the villages right and said, ‘My family knew your family to be a fine Jewish family.’ ”

This was a shock to Albright, who was brought up Catholic and knew nothing about her Jewish heritage.

First Week in Office

A Washington Post reporter researching her background brought her Nazi documents with her family’s name on them during her first week in office.

“That is how I found out,” she said. “It’s one thing to find out you're Jewish, it’s another to find out that more than two dozen of your relatives were killed in concentration camps.”

Charles King, professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown, served as moderator for the event, during which Albright talked about how she narrowly escaped the Nazis because of decisions made by her parents, Josef and Mandula Korbel.

Albright’s father, a press-attaché at the Czechoslovak Embassy in Belgrade, left with his family to be with the government in exile in London after the Nazis invaded his country.

Much later he became dean of the school of international studies (now named in his honor) at the University of Denver, where one of his favorite students was Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state in the second Bush administration.

Fortunate Accident

“That was an accident,” Albright said of her father’s decision to move, “because the rest of the family stayed behind. And I think this was partially because people had no way of imagining how awful it was going to be because it was beyond human imagination.”

Three of her grandparents and 22 other relatives died in the Holocaust.

She also noted that her cousin’s younger sister was left behind because she was thought to be too young to join a transport out of Nazi-controlled Czechoslovakia. The little girl later died in Auschwitz.

Family, War, Moral Decisions

“There are three layers to this book,” Albright explained. “The first is my family's story... the second layer is the war itself and what went on during World War II and the third layer is the difficulty of making moral decisions."

The former secretary of state also talked about the lessons learned during World War II and how they apply to today’s foreign policy, including how the United States determines which group in a country represents the country.

Eventually the British recognized the exiled government in London, which included Czechoslovakia President Edvard Beneš and Albright’s father, but before that, resistance fighters in Czechoslovakia and an exile group in Moscow also claimed to represent the country.

Lessons for Today

“The hard part is deciding who is a legitimate opposition group,” Albright said. “We see that today, we see it with the Syrians, and you can see it to a certain extent with the Tunisians and Libyans in trying to establish they are legitimate.”

Most countries recognize the government in power, she said, but the United States uses recognition as a tool.

“We don’t automatically recognize a country,” she added. “But I think it’s very hard and there are competitions and you don’t know quite who has the legitimate right to be represented.”

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