Madeleine Albright Learns to 'Know Thyself' Did the Secretary of State Discover Her Jewish Heritage in the Pages Of

By Walker, Ruth | The Christian Science Monitor, April 29, 1999 | Go to article overview

Madeleine Albright Learns to 'Know Thyself' Did the Secretary of State Discover Her Jewish Heritage in the Pages Of


Walker, Ruth, The Christian Science Monitor


MADELINE ALBRIGHT: A TWENTIETH-CENTURY ODYSSEY By Michael Dobbs Henry Holt 466 pp., $27.50

The life story of Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as United States secretary of state, "can be read as a personalized version of the story of the twentieth century," writes Washington Post correspondent Michael Dobbs in this new biography.

"Her family was formed and buffeted by the great events of the century: the industrial revolution, the collapse of the Austro- Hungarian empire, the rise and fall of Nazism and communism, the Holocaust, World War II, America's ascent to superpower status." Ms. Albright is also a stand-in for Everywoman in America, too. "In her progress from Georgetown housewife to secretary of state, Madeleine would become a symbol of the women's movement in America and the struggle for full equality with men," Dobbs continues. Albright's story is also one of self-discovery - or rather of being discovered. Like a classical hero who discovers his true identity only after reaching the pinnacle of achievement, she came to the public acknowledgment of her Jewish origins only after she was named secretary of state. The revelation was dramatic enough in itself, but it was complicated by evidence of her apparent reluctance to confront her own past. Dobbs was the man who forced her to do so. Albright, born in Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II, and twice a refugee from her native land - fleeing first Nazism and later communism - has famously said that her mindset is Munich, not Vietnam. Working on an in-depth story on Albright that would consider her personal history in order to understand this worldview, Dobbs ran across Dasha Sima. She was Albright's cousin in Prague, whom the future secretary had seemed uncurious about getting in touch with, even once the Iron Curtain had lifted - despite their having spent much of their childhoods together. "Dasha was eager to tell me her story - partly, I suspected, because I was the first person to really want to hear it," Dobbs writes. Shortly, he had documentary evidence of her family's Jewish background and the loss of her relatives in the Holocaust. When the story came out, a great outcry ensued, including from Jewish groups outraged that she would apparently seek to hide her background. The questions quickly became, What did she know and when did she know it? Dobbs now concludes, "By Madeleine's own account,... she knew by 1994 at the very latest that she was related to a man who had lost his entire family in the concentration camps." It was all so ironic: If Albright's story, her "myth" in the Joseph Campbell/Bill Moyers sense, is about a World War II refugee making good in America, "the indispensable nation," then her story only becomes truer if she is Jewish.

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