It’s hard to believe that Madeleine Albright, who fled Prague with her parents in 1939 and lost three grandparents in the Holocaust, never had any idea her family was Jewish.
“Stunned is not even a word,” said the former secretary of state to the Clinton administration. In the process of being vetted for office in 1997, the pieces started to come together.
“At some point,” she told herself, “I have to get back and put the story together.”
That story — part love poem to her native Czechoslovakia, part play by play of the war, part family history — is finally told in “Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937–1948” (Harper Perennial). Albright will be in Seattle on February 23 to speak about the book at Town Hall. JTNews had the honor of speaking with her by phone before the visit.
Albright is aware of the skepticism around her ignorance of her family’s history.
“I feel, in retrospect, stupid,” she said. But, “if you have no reason to ask questions, you don’t ask questions…I had a complete story of my life, I thought.”
“Prague Winter” is Albright’s in-depth study of her family’s history, which, she explains in the introduction to the book, was impossible to write without “placing my parents within the context of the times in which they lived,” particularly 1937–1948 Europe. The result of extensive research, including sorting through her father’s writings, speeches, and recordings stored in boxes in the garage, “Prague Winter” expresses in palpable detail the national pride and pain shared by Czechoslovaks as Hitler began grabbing chunks of the continent, closing in on their homeland.
The history, while laden with names, dates, places, details, is riveting. “Prague Winter” is an important read, especially for anyone who still fails to grasp how World War II could have possibly unfolded and led to such unthinkable cruelty.
“The notion that the summit of the human race was represented by the homely Austrian and his pear-shaped colleagues was laughable — and people did laugh,” Albright writes at the top of chapter 6. Yet reading “Prague Winter” is like watching a slow-moving car you know is going to crash. You can’t help but hope the other drivers will stop him. To this end, Albright has more than a few choice words about the British.
“The thing that I try to explain to myself: Why didn’t the British and French do something earlier?” she pondered. The only thing she can come up with is, “They were exhausted from World War I. They couldn’t make themselves believe that Hitler was the monster he was…. My sense is, from readings that I did, the people that stayed behind couldn’t begin to imagine the monstrosity that was going to happen to them.”
Albright’s maternal grandmother boarded a train to Terezín and was never seen or accounted for again, and her paternal grandparents calmly packed, cleaned, and sent their dog to the pound once they were summoned to Terezín.
“They were telling Jews that this was a pretty nice place,” said Albright. “Why not go to this place in the country? It was sold to them that way. That’s the only thing I can imagine.”
Given the fear of the future under Hitler’s reign, the Jews, Albright presumes, thought it might be the safer option.
“There weren’t people to come back to tell them what was going on,” she continued. “It’s a little town. They had enough people to have a symphony orchestra. It was hypocrisy at its highest.”
“Prague Winter” has three levels, Albright explained: The personal story, the war account, and the lessons for humanity. She hopes readers will walk away less judgmental. “I kept trying to put myself in someone else’s shoes [writing the book]” she said. “I didn’t go through the horrors that some of my relatives did. I think we all need a little bit of humility.”
Rather than succumb to the darkness of winter, Albright stressed her intent to continue finding the shafts of light.
“The main lesson is about the resilience of the human spirit,” she said. “The necessity to stand up to evil. Trying to analyze what could happen. The unintended consequences. I hope people get that out of it. There are definitely lessons.”