This week we mourn the loss of America’s first female Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. Albright broke the glass ceiling for women in national leadership. Like Queen Esther whose Jewish identity was initially hidden, there is a fascinating Jewish story of Albright’s parents trying to hide their Jewish identity from their daughter.
Albright was born in Prague, but the family fled to London to escape the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939. As a child, refugee Albright endured the Nazi Blitz of London, in which the German Luftwaffe rained down tens of thousands of bombs killing thousands of civilians in the UK. Fearing a likely Nazi invasion of England, Albright’s family converted to Catholicism and kept their Jewish origin a secret.
In her 2020 memoir, “Hell and other destinations,” Albright wrote, “About the time I became Secretary of State, I learned that my heritage was Jewish and that more than two dozen members of my family, including three of my grandparents, had died in the Holocaust… When I said that I had been unaware of these facts, many commentators accused me of lying and suggested that for reasons of personal ambition, I had taken pains to conceal my Jewish ancestry. This was a mortifying accusation that left me feeling helpless and yet made no sense…”
In 1997, Albright flew to Prague, “where I saw the names of our family members inscribed on the interior walls of the Pinkas Synagogue, along with those of more than 77,000 other Czechoslovak Jews who had perished during the war. With the help from local Jewish officials, we were able to form in our minds a general outline of what our ancestors had gone through during the Nazi occupation…”
In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Albright said “I have reasons for gratitude that my origins are richer and more complex than I had thought; but still, I wish my parents would have explained to me, when I was old enough to understand, what they had done. I would like to have had a chance to discuss every aspect of their deliberations.” Albright said that finally, years after learning she was Jewish, she celebrated Hanukkah with her grandchildren.
Denied the opportunity to talk frankly about her family’s Jewishness while her parents were alive, Albright painstakingly researched her family’s lost history. In her final years, learning about her Jewish family took up much of her time. “I felt driven to learn more about the grandparents whom I had been too young to know,” she told Mr. Blitzer, “especially by then I had become a grandparent myself.”
My youngest grandson is just studying for his bar mitzvah,” she said. “We have been talking about the various Jewish traditions, the appreciation for history, for family, for humanity, for education. This year … I went to a Passover Seder with one of my friends, Reform Rabbi David Saperstein.”
While we mourn the loss of a great leader, her grandchildren are mourning the loss of their Jewish grandmother, who like Queen Esther, only publicly embraced her Jewish heritage later in life.
May we not take for granted that we live in a blessed time and place in which we can feel safe to publicly embrace our Jewish identity and Jewish life.
Zichrona Livrocha, May the memory of Madelaine Albright (Miriam Bat Yosef v’Hanah) be for a blessing.
Rabbi David Wilfond