'As I Find out More, I'm Very Proud.' (Background of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright)(Interview)

By Weymouth, Lally | Newsweek, February 24, 1997 | Go to article overview

'As I Find out More, I'm Very Proud.' (Background of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright)(Interview)


Weymouth, Lally, Newsweek


An exclusive interview with Madeleine Albright

SECRETARY OF STATE MADELEINE Albright has long been known for her Czech ancestry. Recently, it's been disclosed that three of her grandparents were Jews killed by the Nazis. Raised as a Catholic, Albright says her parents never told her of her heritage. In an exclusive interview with NEWSWEEK's Lally Weymouth, Albright discussed the family secrets.

Weymouth: You said recently "Why should I apologize? I'm very proud of my heritage." Did you mean your Jewish heritage?

Albright: All my heritage. I have been very proud of who I am and the values that my parents taught me and as I now find out more about my heritage, obviously I'm very proud of it.

When did you learn about your Jewish heritage? Did something strike you that you thought was conclusive?

After I got my U.N. job I started getting lots of letters. Some letters were from people who would say, "I knew your family." Some were vague and didn't jibe at all. Very rarely did I get a letter where all the facts made sense. This fall when there was speculation about me becoming Secretary of State, I got more information that made me think that my family was of Jewish background. After I was nominated, the number of letters really increased. I got a letter that was more specific in terms of the dates, and things made sense.

It was a letter from whom?

I don't even know. In retrospect, I sure wish that I had done something about it then, but I was in the middle of working 20 hours a day, and secondly, I hope people will appreciate this, this news doesn't just affect me. I have three grown daughters who are married and two of them have children. I thought that the right way to do this would be to check it out and then have a family discussion.

You're an expert on central Europe, You're a historian. How could you not have known your grandparents were Jewish?

Here, again, hindsight clarifies everything. It's a little bit like seeing a lot of dots on a piece of paper and when you finally draw the lines you've got a picture. But if you're not looking for a picture, then you don't see it. I was very interested in my background, the role of my parents as participants in the Czech political story. The experience that I grew up with was communism and how much my father had done to combat it. My historical curiosity was primarily directed at that. There were no holes in my family's story. My parents talked a lot about how they met, about what life was like in the '20s and '30s in Prague, and about historical figures they knew. They talked about their experience in Yugoslavia before the war. There never was a lack of facts. There were never embarrassed silences or anything that would have given me a hint.

Did your parents explain to you what happened to your grandparents?

They didn't. I was 2 when I left Prague. I had apparently spent some time with my grandmother, but I do not remember her. I didn't know the concept of grandparents. I lived pretty much of an isolated life. We had spent time in London and then we went back to Prague for three or four months. Then we went to Belgrade, where I lived with my parents in the embassy. I didn't go to school. I had a governess. At some point I learned that my grandparents had died during the war. That seemed a perfectly logical answer. If you're 8 years old and you are told that your grandparents died and you thin of grandparents as being old people then you don't question it.

Some have questioned your story because of your interest in the area and because you've been pictured as a child of Munich. Didn't you go to Prague three times when you were U.N. ambassador?

I did and I spent time talking to people about the communist period. …

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