A churchgoing Roman Catholic as a young girl and a practicing Episcopalian as an adult, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Monday she has received information that two grandparents may have been Jewish and may have perished in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Discussing her background with The Associated Press, Albright said, “This obviously was a major surprise to me. I had never been told this.
“I do believe this to be a personal issue, but since it is an object of discussion, I would just as soon have you know what I know,” she said.
Albright, 59, began exploring her ancestry after her nomination by President Clinton in December touched off a flood of letters - some of them “completely off the wall” - from people who claimed to have known her family.
Her appointment also drew complaints in some parts of the Arab world, as did the nomination of William Cohen, whose father was Jewish, to be defense secretary.
Albright’s father, Josef Korbel, was a Czech diplomat who fled Czechoslovakia with his family for Britain after the 1938 Munich agreement turned over part of the country to Nazi Germany.
She was reared a Catholic and the family was “fairly religious,” Albright said. “I never thought of myself as anything else.” The family left Czechoslovakia when she was just a year old; a brother and sister were born later.
In 1959 upon her marriage, she became an Episcopalian and today occasionally attends church. She is divorced and has three daughters.
In addition to the letters, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said, Albright received information and documents provided to her by reporters looking into her background.
“I started to think about it and to put pieces together. There was more and more information, and it began to make more sense to me,” Albright said.
Burns said the secretary was intrigued by the information brought to her and would “look into” it. “No one ever mentioned there were Jews in her family - parents or grandparents,” Burns said. All are dead now.
“She thinks it’s more than likely her grandparents were Jewish,” Burns said. “She wants to ascertain that for herself.”
Albright said the information that her father’s parents died in Auschwitz “seems fairly compelling to me but I want to check it out, obviously.”
Burns said questions about her ancestry would not complicate Mideast peace efforts.
“It’s not going to have any effect on her performance as secretary of state. … It has nothing to do with her job,” Burns said.
As ambassador to the United Nations, Albright blocked Arab efforts to push the Security Council to condemn Israel for the shelling of a U.N. base in south Lebanon that killed at least 91 civilians. She also vetoed a resolution declaring invalid Israel’s expropriation of Arab-owned land in east Jerusalem.
Her defense of Israel was consistent with longstanding U.S. policy.
“The appointment of Albright will virtually make Tel Aviv the capital of the United States, and not Washington,” Egyptian columnist Moustafa Amin wrote weeks ago in the As-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper, which is Saudi-owned and published in London.
Both of Albright’s parents were born in small towns in Czechoslovakia. They were in the first generation of the pre-war democratic Czechoslovakia, and they spoke to their children in terms of their “political existence,” not their religious background, she recalled.
Albright’s father was a press attache in Yugoslavia at the outset. His association with Eduard Benes, the democratic president of Czechoslovakia, impelled him to flee to London, where he sought a job as a reporter for a Yugoslav newspaper, then worked for the Czech government in exile.
Returning to Prague after Germany’s defeat, he resumed his diplomatic career, only to leave with his family for the United States when Czechoslovakia fell to Soviet control.