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Madeleine Albright on her Jewish roots, NATO Summit and her life in Chicago
WASHINGTON — When former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright learned her Czech parents were Jewish — at the age of 59 — she started a journey that led to her discovering 25 relatives — including three grandparents — died in the Nazi Holocaust.
I talked with Albright on Tuesday about the Chicago NATO Summit — she is a co-chair of the Chicago NATO Host Committee — her exploration of her Jewish heritage, recounted in her new book, Prague Winter, A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 and the years she lived in Chicago — when her then husband was a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Albright visits Chicago today, to discuss her latest memoir at the Union League Club and for a Chicago Council on Global Affairs address on “What Prague’s Past Means for NATO’s Future.”
After President Bill Clinton nominated Albright in 1996 to lead the State Department — the first woman — the initial hint of her Jewish roots came at the end of that year in a letter from a friend of her maternal grandparents. Before she had a chance to look into it, Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs broke the news that her parents were Jewish and family members died in the Holocaust.
Raised a Catholic — becoming an Episcopalian when she married — I asked her how she decided what was the right thing to do when she learned about her parents’ secret.
Albright’s father, Josef Korbel, was a Czech diplomat who fled first the Nazis and then the Communists before being granted political asylum in the U.S. in 1949.
“I’m not quite sure I ever quite figured out the right thing to do because the whole thing was such a massive surprise,” Albright said.
It was one thing to find out she had a Jewish background. “The more complicated and very sad part was learning about how many of my relatives had died during the Holocaust.
“And having that happen just as I became secretary of state, clearly made things even more complex,” she said.
Through the years, Albright, her sister and brother traveled to Europe to put together the family history — visiting Terezin, the camp to which Nazis deported Czech Jews, including Albright relatives — before killing them. I asked Albright — 75 on May 15 — if she now has a different sense of identity.
“Fuller,” she replied. “…And a continued level of, I can’t describe the right word, irritation at myself in not asking questions at the right time,” when her parents were alive.
President Barack Obama on Tuesday made a surprise visit to Afghanistan to sign, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a broad strategic agreement to bring troops home by 2014. The drawdown of the NATO-led force in Afghanistan is a major item on the agenda of the May 20-21 Chicago NATO summit.
In Chicago, Albright said the summit will be an opportunity to “work on how Afghans begin to take the lead for security and how to strengthen the NATO-Afghanistan strategic partnership that will go on beyond 2014.”
Another issue on the table in Chicago is ensuring NATO partners pay their share of the budget “to make sure that this is truly a partnership and that others come forward and pay for what they have committed to. That is going to be a subject of discussion.”
Chicago was Albright’s home between portions of 1960 and 1962. She lived at 2735 N. Pine Grove with her then husband, Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, a member of the storied newspaper clan and a Sun-Times reporter. The young couple visited in-laws at their homes on Lake Shore Drive and Division and in Libertyville.
Albright had been a reporter at a Missouri newspaper and over dinner with a then Sun-Times editor, he asked her “what are you going to do, honey?”
“I said I was going to get a job on a newspaper,” only to be told none of the Chicago papers would hire the spouse of a Sun-Times reporter.
Albright said she voted for the first time in Chicago — for John Kennedy in 1960 and was at the massive torchlight parade the late Mayor Richard J. Daley organized for Kennedy.
Remembered Albright, “It was really one of the most wonderful political experiences, and it happened in Chicago.”