Secretary of State Madeleine Albright moved quickly to address the revelation this week that she has spent her whole life as a Christian without knowing her parents were born Jewish.
"She made the decision to put it out in her own way and not let it come out in questions" posed by reporters, State Department officials said yesterday.
Department officials revealed yesterday that while she was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Mrs. Albright did receive a number of letters from Europe that discussed her Jewish heritage. But because the letters contained so much misinformation, said spokesman Nicholas Burns, Mrs. Albright paid them little attention.
The letters "became a flood" after she was confirmed as secretary of state, said one official. So when a Washington Post reporter told Mrs. Albright last week his research had proved that her grandparents had died in the Holocaust - and that her Czech parents had converted to Catholicism during the war - she was ready to accept it.
She first talked about the reports in a "60 Minutes" interview with correspondent Ed Bradley last week. And on Monday she called in Barry Schweid of the Associated Press, the senior State Department correspondent, and discussed the subject further.
She "calmly" laid out her discovery, Mr. Schweid said, of a fact long suspected by many in the American Jewish community.
But despite Mrs. Albright's adroit handling of the revelation, the issue raised troubling questions among some American Jews and others.
Some asked how the highly educated and widely traveled 59-year-old could not have known that her ancestors were Jews, or that several of them had died in the Holocaust.
"It is very questionable that she never knew she was Jewish," said Yehuda Nir, a Cornell University psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who was raised as a Catholic in order to escape the Nazis.
"It's almost impossible" she did not learn about it earlier, said Dr. Nir. "Especially someone as interested in history. She must have known everything about the history of World War II."
But others noted it was not that unusual for survivors of the Holocaust - in which 6 million Jews were torn from the most remote villages of Europe and sent to gas chambers for extermination - to change their religion and identity to conceal their roots.
Mr. Burns said yesterday that Mrs. Albright once visited with a cousin in Prague old enough to have remembered her father, Josef Korbel, before the war, when he was still Jewish. But that cousin did not tell Mrs. Albright about her father's past, or the fate of her grandparents.
Mr. Burns insisted yesterday that the issue would have no effect on Mrs. Albright's ability to serve as the Cabinet's top foreign-policy official.
"This is a personal issue for she and her family," Mr. Burns told reporters yesterday. "It's not a political issue. It is not a foreign-policy issue, and it's not going to have an impact on the way she does her job. …