I didn’t know anything about my family’s Judaism. Memories of Madeleine Albright





Madeleine Albright (left) with her sister Katherine

It also largely contributed to the admission of post-communist countries into the North Atlantic Alliance.

Medeleine Albright has always adhered to her Czech roots, she was one of those who had already traveled behind the Iron Curtain in Soviet times. To Western politicians who had an understanding for Central and Eastern Europe.

The 20th century accounts are dedicated – or mostly – to his remarkable family history. It was only at a later age and at a time when she already held important positions that she learned of the Jewish origin and the fate of her ancestors.

We interviewed Madeleine Albright less than a year ago, at the time of the pandemic – an interview of about four hours was filmed on the Internet by Jitka Andrysová of the Memory of the Central Moravian Nation.

Prague, Belgrade, London…

She was born on May 15, 1937 in Prague as Marie Jana Körbelová, but lived in Belgrade for almost two years, where her father Josef Körbel (1909-1977) held the diplomatic post of press attaché.

His mother’s name was Anna (née Spieglová, 1910-1989). In 1939 he and Körbel returned to Bohemia, and in the same year fled Nazism to London (parents in relatively dramatic circumstances), where Joseph worked for the government in exile and BBC radio.




Madeleine Albright with her father Josef Korbel

“We lived in several places, possibly in a building in Notting Hill Gate. Now everyone thinks it’s very elegant, but it wasn’t so elegant during the war. There were other foreigners, we slept every night in the basement. And my father – I remember – said: ‘It’s weird. The gas is leaking in this cellar. “If all of a sudden a bomb falls, we are all dead,” recalls Madeleine Albright.

For security reasons, the family later moved to a small house in Walton-on-Thames, south-west London.

“In England, they invented such huge iron tables that you could have in the house, and they said that if a bomb fell on the house and you were under the table, nothing would happen. So we had such a table at home, we slept there and I played around this table.

Körbel’s grandparents and other relatives remained in Czechoslovakia, except for Josef’s brother, Jan, and Madeleine’s maternal cousin, Dagmar, who also traveled to London on their own. Madeleine Albright said she barely knew Czech and Moravian relatives, they were “faces in the photographs” to her.




Madeleine Albright during her studies

After the defeat of Nazism, the Körbels, soon renamed the Czech-sounding Korbel, returned to Bohemia. They lived on Hradčanské náměstí in Prague. Josef worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was a friend of Jan Masaryk, then became ambassador to Belgrade, where Madeleine spent the next two years. She was no longer alone, her sister was born in England, and her brother in Yugoslavia:

“My parents didn’t want me to go to school with the Communists, so I had a governess and studied at home. When we lived in Yugoslavia, I was the little girl who goes to the airport to give flowers to someone. I was wearing a Slovak costume and I also gave flowers to Tit…”

In 1947, Madeleine’s parents sent a ten-year-old child to a boarding school in Switzerland: “In May 1948, my parents came to tell me that we would not go back to Czechoslovakia, that my father had found a new job and was leaving for Italy. ‘India. .”

It was Czechoslovakia after the communist coup and Korbel was fleeing for the second time. In November 1948, Madeleine and her siblings left for the United States, and in 1949 Josef arrived. Eleven-year-old Madeleine – forced by circumstances – already spoke four languages, and the United States became her next home, this time permanent.

I knew nothing about the Holocaust

The Korbels settled in Colorado, in Josef Denver, father Josef worked as a professor at this university and his mother, Anna, worked as a school secretary.




Madeleine Albright at graduation

Madeleine Albright recalls: “I always wanted to be an ordinary American. But I had a mom who was a bit crazy. For example, she read from the hand of a gentleman who was sitting in a meeting with his wife .

And she looked at him and said, ‘You’ll have a lot of girlfriends!’ Or she looked at my palm and said, ‘You will have three sons.’ I have three daughters, so she couldn’t make a prediction… But everyone loved her very much. My dad wanted to live like a normal person again, and in Colorado that meant going fishing. So we went to the mountains every weekend, but my father always wore a tie and he looked like a diplomat. It was really crazy with those parents.”

Madeleine Albright loved her parents, her father was a major influence on her, and the history of Czechoslovakia influenced her later interests, studies, and political leanings. For example, she often mentioned that during her political career, the experience of the Vietnam War had a decisive influence on many American politicians, while the Munich crisis of 1938, when Western countries gave in the place of Adolf Hitler, was decisive for her and her family. .




Madeleine Albright with her daughters Alice and Anne

Now let’s make a cut. In 1997, Bill Clinton appointed Madeleine Albright as US Secretary of State, the first woman in US history. It was only then that she learned the facts about her family and her roots.

“I received a letter from Czechoslovakia, where it was actually correct to say that my mother lived in Kostelec nad Orlicí, my father was from Kyšperk (now Letohrad), when they were born, etc. And the letter said they were Jewish families.”

Details were added by a journalist who wrote a portrait of the new minister: “It’s one thing to know that a person is ‘Jewish’, but quite another to know how many people died in the concentration camp. We found out that about twenty-six people in my family died in the Holocaust.”

Madeleine Albright’s parents did not talk about the Holocaust and the Jewish past, they probably wanted to save their children from pain and they wanted to start a new life, less burdened by tragedy.

An article published in the Washington Post in 1997 shows that Madeleine Albright’s paternal grandfather was Arnošt Körbel, a Jewish merchant from Kyšperk. Grandmother Körbelová’s name was Olga. They had three children: Margaret – the mother of cousin Dasha already mentioned -, Jan and Josef. Arnošt and Olga Körbel were deported to Terezín in 1942, where Arnošt died. Olga was murdered in Auschwitz. Their daughter Margareta also died in Terezín, and Margaret’s husband and their younger daughter Milena were also murdered. Brothers John and Joseph survived in England.

Madeleine Albright’s mother is also from a Jewish family – her maternal grandfather’s name was Alfred Spiegl and he died before the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, her grandmother Anna Spiegl arrived in Terezín and been murdered.

If you are interested in the memories of Madeleine Albright and want to learn more about her life, play Stories from the 20th Century.




Madeleine Albright at her daughter's wedding

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