Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state and Mortara distinguished professor in the study of diplomacy discussed the tumult of discovering her unknown heritage, as discussed in her memoir “Prague Winter,” to a sold-out crowd Feb. 25.
Albright began by describing her upbringing in Belgrade, London, Prague and Colorado.
“My mother used to say there are only two great cities in the world: Prague and Denver,” Albright said.
Albright’s parents, however, never spoke about her Jewish heritage or family history. After entering the public eye as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Albright began to receive letters from Czech citizens who knew her ancestors.
“The first time I became a public figure … I started getting letters from people from the Czech Republic,” Albright said. “I got a letter from somebody that had all of the names right and the dates right and the villages right and saying my family knew your family to be a fine Jewish family.”
Albright said that fate had played a significant role in her life, especially when her father led her family out of Czechoslovakia to America before World War II in order to escape communist rule.
“All my life, I’ve thought about what would have happened if my father hadn’t left in 1948. How would we have behaved; how would I have behaved? I’m such a joiner, and I believe in political parties. … Who knows how people would behave?” Albright said. “I try to give a little bit more space in the book in terms of not being quite as judgmental.”
Explaining that decisions could appear morally obvious in hindsight, Albright spoke about the complexities of morality, a key theme in “Prague Winter.”
“There are kind of three layers to [“Prague Winter”],” Albright said. “The inner layer is my family’s story. The second layer is about the war itself and what went on during World War II, and the third layer is about the difficulty of making moral decisions.”
Albright said that she initially felt hesitant about “Prague Winter” because of the pain it could cause her and others.
“You grow up with one version of your life, and you begin to examine all the different parts,” Albright said. “I felt it was really important to [write the book], but having already found out things I had no idea about, I didn’t know what else I would find out — and also, just generally, about reopening wounds. It was a really tough period for not just my family but for a lot of people.”
Albright concluded her speech by emphasizing the guidance history and experience can provide to ensuing generations.
“You can’t live in the past, but there are lessons from the past,” Albright said.
After the discussion, Albright opened the floor to questions and hosted a book signing.
Audience members said they appreciated Albright’s points about evaluating the past and learning from heritage.
“I thought [Albright] was very knowledgeable — she clearly has a lot of wisdom from her experiences in foreign policy and public service,” Kristina Ravensbergen (SFS ’16) said. “I think it’s important to consider all sides of the equation as she was saying. It’s not fair to judge people in retrospect based on the knowledge that we have now but to really consider the perspectives of everybody and the situation. It was very interesting to hear her speak, and I appreciate her open-mindedness.”