Monday, November 5, 2012

Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 by Madeleine Albright

"Too young to have known her relatives beyond the odd childhood memory, Albright pieces together what she can, with letters, family recollections and a few photographs. She embeds these fragments in a well-wrought political history of the region, told with great authority." from a review by Carolyn Kellogg in the Los Angeles Times 5/13/2012

Margaret Albright, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and former Secretary of State, was born in 1937 in Czechoslovakia to Czech Jewish parents who fled to England in 1938 shortly after the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. In London her father, a diplomat who spoke many languages, was part of the exiled Czech government until after the war when he returned first to Prague, and then to his post as Czech ambassador in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Shortly after the Soviet army invaded Prague in May, 1945, he and his family returned to Prague and stayed until 1948 at which point they immigrated to the U.S.

Albright tells the story of what happened to her family and her birth country during World War II mostly through research; she was, after all, born in 1937 and was far too young to remember or understand deeply most of what happened. Her description of England’s experience of the war is quite vivid. And she does have specific early memories, such as when she and her family and neighbors huddled in the cellar of their apartment building south of London as German bombs landed with loud explosions. Though she has many memories of having been sent off at the age of 10 to boarding school in Switzerland, it wasn’t until many years later that she realized that her parents sent her to Switzerland to protect her from the difficulties and tension of living in post-war Soviet-occupied Prague.

Albright discusses her Jewish roots at some length. An article detailing the fact that both sets of grandparents were Jewish was published in the Washington Post shortly before she became Secretary of State. Albright stated that she had never been told about her grandparents’ religion but she comes to learn to her horror that aside from her maternal grandfather who died before the war, her three grandparents and other close relatives were all killed by the Nazis. In this memoir she writes about trying to imagine why her parents had converted to Catholicism and she is sorry she had never asked her parents about her grandparents. She also wonders about  how her father's sister Greta and her husband died in the war. They were parents of a first cousin who lived with her family for a time in England and in post-war Prague.  

Because the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt was in Czechoslovakia which was where many of her relatives were imprisoned, Albright made a visit, read extensively about it, and wrote two chapters on its existence. She details its history and describes daily life in the camp, including its rich educational and cultural offerings, quoting from some of the memoirs written by prisoners in the camp. You can sense her outrage in the chapter she devotes to the carefully orchestrated inspection visit by Red Cross officials to the camp which was transformed for the occasion into a seemingly benign place to live, its residents well-fed and content. She is astounded that the Nazis succeeded in “fooling” the outside world for so long.

This memoir is very strong in its narration of the fate of Czechoslovakia. Albright is obviously well versed in the language, conventions, and machinations of diplomacy and tells the story of the rise of Hitler and the German invasion into Czechoslovakia by introducing us to its leaders. She takes us through meetings that sealed Czechoslovakia’s fate in Munich, Yalta, and Paris. She also spends some time discussing the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine and she brings the story of Czechoslovakia up to date with a mention of the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Velvet Revolution of 1989. And she feels some regret that 1993 saw the official demise of Czechoslovakia as a country. One country became two: The Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Albright is well aware that with hindsight it is easy to see how everything went so wrong. Her experience as a diplomat primes her to apply the plot points of history to current world problems – especially genocide, and she discusses the lessons that world leaders should have learned.

This memoir includes photos of public figures and family. It also includes an index.

To read an article that questions Albright's assertion that she didn't know about her Jewish ancestry, click here.
To read an article about the visit by Red Cross officials to inspect Thereseinstadt click here
To read a previous post of a review of a memoir whose subject is Thereseinstadt, Petre Ginz 1941-1942, click here
To read a previous post of a review of a memoir whose subject is Thereseinstadt, The Terezin Diary of Gonda Redlich, click here
To read a previous post of a review of a cookbook compiled by women in Thereseinstadt that was an earlier blog post, click here.   
Author’s father’s family
Arnost Korbel – married to Olga
            Josef Korbel – son of Arnost and Olga; married to Anna (Mandula) Spiegelova
                        Marie Jana (Madeleine) Korbel Albright – daughter of Josef and  Anna; (author)
                                    Anne, Alice, and Katie Albright – daughters of Madeleine
                        Kathy Korbel – daughter of Joseph and Anna
                        John Korbel – son of Joseph and Anna; married to Pamela
            Jan(Horza) Korbel – son of Arnost and Olga; married to Ola
                        Alena and George Korbel – children of Jan and Ola
            Margarethe (Greta) Korbelova – daughter of Arnost and Olga; married to Rudolf Deiml
                        Dasa (Dagmar) and Milena Deimlova – daughters of Margarethe and Rudolf
Irma Korbelova – sister of Arnost; married to Oscar Pater
            Herta Paterova – daughter of Irma and Oscar
Karel Korbel – brother of Arnost
            Gert Korbel – son of Karel
Marta Korbelova – sister of Arnost

                        Pedro Mahler – grandson of oldest sister of Arnost Korbel (sister not named)

Author’s mother’s family
Alfred Spiegel – married Ruzena
            Anna Spiegelova – daughter of Alfred and Ruzena; married to Arnost Korbel (see above)
            Marie Spiegelova – daughter of Alfred and Ruzena
Gustav Spiegel – brother of Alfred; married Augusta

Friends and Acquaintances of the Korbel family
Jaroslav Stransky
Jirina Smolkova – married Vilem Holzer
                        Mica Carmio – granddaughter of Jirina and Vilem
Frantisek Kraus
            Tomas Kraus – son of Frantisek

Kysperk (Letohrad), Czechoslovakia
Podebrady, Czechoslovakia
Strakonice, Czechoslovakia
Prague, Czechoslovakia
London, England
Terezenstadt, Czechoslovakia
Pikwicka Forest, Latvia

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