The Körbels of Prague and the Demise of Jewish Identity

Prague Winter:  A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948, by Madeleine Albright. Harper. 480 pages. $29.99.

Most Jewish readers attracted to Madeleine Albright’s recent book are no doubt curious about the degree of Jewish identity that attached to the author upon her discovery, late in her life, that both of her parents came from Jewish families. Yes, the 64th U. S. Secretary of State (and the first woman to hold that position) was born a Jew, but she didn’t know it. Many of her relatives, including three of her grandparents, died in the Holocaust, but she didn’t know it. She has no meaningful Jewish identity, but that in itself hints at a story of Jewish families in Nazi-infected Europe that perhaps can never be told. 

The story Albright does tell has three dimensions: it’s a WWII narrative with a Central European focus; more precisely, it’s a Czech-eye view of WWII and its aftermath. More narrowly (and richly) yet, it’s a perspective that hinges on the part her father, Josef Körbel, played in the Czech foreign ministry as press attaché  and ambassador to Yugoslavia, as scribe and mouthpiece for the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile (in London) after his country fell to the Nazis, and as effective subordinate to the major Czech leaders, Edvard Beneš and Jan Masaryk, even through his country’s second fall, to the Soviet Union, after a very brief hope of renewed democratic independence.

Readers will be frustrated once they realize that Albright was barely a toddler when the historical timeline she fleshes out began. She is rarely writing from memory, as she was much too young to have experience-based insights on the events that she relates. In addition, Albright spent very few of her early years living in Prague, and more of them living in either Belgrade or London.

His own future insecure after the Soviet regime took hold, Josef Körbel was able to gain political asylum from the U. S., bringing his family here in 1948 and building a significant career as an international studies professor at the University of Denver. Albright’s positions in the U. S. government and her father’s place in Czechoslovakia’s government gave her access to materials that she fashioned industriously and intelligently. She explores, with clarity and dramatic pointing, the political twists and turns by which the democratic Czechoslovakia that came to life in the aftermath of WWI became a victim of Nazi aggression and then a pawn in the east-west game following Germany’s defeat. The Czechs had the bad luck to be liberated by the Soviets.

Madeleine Albright – official photo as Secretary of State

Madeleine Albright’s narrative of how a small European nation caught in the crossfire fared during the stormy years leading up to and following WWII is bolstered by an abundance of sources, an array of captivating photographs, a cast list of principal characters, a detailed time line, and a bountiful index. Fortunately, this apparatus does not interfere with accessibility. On many occasions, Albright’s personal (as distinguished from professional) voice adds charm and wit to the presentation of unfortunate occurrences.

The story of Madeleine Albright’s response to the discovery of her Jewish ancestry is a leitmotif running through the analysis of Czechoslovakia’s fate. Once their Jewish parentage became known, she and her younger siblings explored family papers, government records, and various archives to piece together a good bit of their parents’ Jewish past. There was no one from whom Albright could receive the answer to this question: What led her parents to convert to Roman Catholicism when Madeleine was still very young and never reveal the truth about their Jewish origins?

Knowing the character of her parents, the author surmises that their decision was meant to be protective. It’s not clear whether or not Josef’s assignment to work with the Czech government-in-exile was intended as an escape from his family’s likely discovery and probable extermination as a Jews. Albright suggests in various ways that the young Körbel couple had worn their Judaism lightly, making it relatively easy to leave it behind.  Prague Winter reveals no information about Albright’s grandparents having relationships with Czechoslovakia’s Jewish communities.

The questions that linger include these: (1) Did Josef Körbel attempt to get his parents and in-laws out of danger? (2) As the Nazis rose to power, how many other Jewish individuals or families disowned their Jewish selves to save (or try to save) their lives? (3) How many succeeded?

This review appears in the August 2012 editions of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and the Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

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