Like most self-respecting booknerds, when the weather gets warm, I reach for the beach reads–a carryover from the time I had to read Crime and Punishment over summer break. (I’m convinced my friends were all reading Judy Blume’s Forever while I fought the urge to kill Raskolnikov.) But in my later life, I’ve picked up another reading ritual. Come this time of year, I like to dive into the life of a famous–or infamous–woman.
This spring the woman’s Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state. (Definitely famous, not infamous.) Her new memoir, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948, is part self-exploration, part history lesson and a none too subtle reminder that the greatest mysteries of our lives may be right under our noses. I love that this is how she describes the events that prompted her to write the book: “Here at age 59, I thought I knew everything about myself. But I obviously hadn’t.”
In 1996, when Albright was being vetted for her position in the Clinton Administration, she and her siblings discovered not only that many of their ancestors were of Jewish origin, but that their parents had converted to Catholicism and had Madeleine baptized when she was a child–and died without breathing a word about it to any of their children.
So in a very real way Prague Winter reads like a mystery novel. Albright did know quite a lot about her parents’ lives already. Her father had worked with the Czechoslavakian government in exile during World War II, then worked as a history professor in the US; but when she discovered how much her parents hadn’t told her, she set out to reconstruct their lives from what little they had left behind.
Albright’s love of history and firsthand knowledge of how international diplomacy does (and does not) work make the chapters that detail the rise of the Third Reich feel like a college seminar taught by a master professor. (Which makes sense, since she was one.) The material can get dense. But whenever I found myself wondering “Why is she telling us this?” I bumped up against a fact I never knew–and saw how it might have affected Albright’s parents’ behavior at the time.
I also gained an admiration for the people whose heritage I share. Probably because history is written by the victors, I had no idea that there was a Czechoslavakian Resistance movement during the Nazi occupation, let alone one that was arguably more effective than its more famous sister movement in France. From London, the Czech government in exile orchestrated the only successful assassination of a Nazi official during the war. The repercussions were severe–but the success bolstered the Allies’ morale at a time it was sorely needed.
However, the heart of the memoir is Albright’s personal story. She asks the questions many of us might ask if we found ourselves in the same situation. “Why did my parents make this choice? Certainly, they had not been attempting to deceive their friends and acquaintances to whom their Jewish ancestry was no secret. Surprised, and with no parents to ask, I could only speculate from the distance of more than half a century.”
Albright imagines their decisions with sensitivity, well aware that the rise of fascism forced people into making choices most of us in peacetime are thankfully never confronted with. At the time Albright’s parents left Czechoslavakia, people of Jewish descent were beginning to be persecuted, but their flight was prompted more by her father’s political associations than the family’s ethnic background. By the time the danger became apparent, Albright’s father tried to get safe passage for the relatives who remained, but only his niece Dasa was saved by a program run by a British stockbroker.
Albright’s relationship with Dasa offers a glimpse of what trauma the choices families were faced with under Nazi rule could produce. Dasa grew up in the same house as Albright, but Madeleine “didn’t know anything about her being Jewish.” Much later, Dasa admits that she had never forgiven her parents for not sending her sister to safety with her. Because of course ultimately, that decision sealed her fate. The family was sent to the prison camp in Terezin (also known as Theresienstad). None of them survived. It’s not difficult to imagine how or why the daughter that was the sole survivor retreated into silence.
Albright’s feelings about her parents’ choice to remain silent about their conversion speak to Dasa’s silence as well. She writes: “Although wary of addressing such a hypothetical question, I feel it is important to add my belief–given all I know about their values–that my parents would not have made the choice they did had they waited four more years. The world in 1945 differed from that of 1941, as it has ever since. Nazi persecution of Jews was well under way at the time of our baptism, but the grim unfolding of the Holocaust was still in its earliest stages . . . Perhaps this is why my parents never found a good time to discuss the decision with me and seemed to avoid doing so with others. Before the slaughter of six million Jews, they might have found the words; after it, they could not.”
Prague Winter is much more than a great read–though it is definitely that, too. It should go without saying that most of our parents are probably not hiding information as tragic as Madeleine Albright’s parents were. But her memoir made me eager to talk to my parents about their lives while I was lucky enough to have them in mine.