Review: Albright’s ‘Prague Winter’ mixes the personal, historical

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“Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948"

Madeleine Albright

Harper: 480 pp., $29.99

Madeleine Albright is a formidable figure. She was a member of the National Security Council and the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. When she became secretary of State in 1997, she was the first woman to hold the position. Her manner is direct, with a frankness uncommon for her level of statecraft. Nowadays she teaches at Georgetown, has a school of international studies named for her at her alma mater, Wellesley College, and writes the occasional book.

In her latest, “Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948,” Albright traces her family’s history and draws a clear picture of Europe during World War II.

Born in Prague in 1937, Albright was the eldest child of Joseph and Anna Korbel. Her father was press attaché to the Czech delegation assigned to Belgrade, where she spent most of her first year. As tensions mounted, Madeleine and her parents returned to Prague, and then, in 1939, escaped to England.

Their path, which seemed motivated by politics, had an underlying secret that Albright did not discover until her diplomatic career was underway. Raised Catholic, Albright had no idea that her parents had converted as a young couple and were, in fact, Jewish. More than 20 relatives, including her grandparents on both sides, were killed during the Holocaust.

The stories of their fates form the emotional core of the book, but the threads are slim. Individually and in small family groups, they are displaced, removed, listed as passengers on trains.

Frequently the stories end in blankness, with no written record or witnesses who were there until the end. When they do not, as in the case of Rudolf Deiml, the father of Albright’s cousins, the story is heartbreakingly knowable. A carpenter friend lived to explain that when Deiml got off the train from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz in 1944, he told the waiting Germans he was a doctor; he was directed to the gas chambers.

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.

For the first 100 pages, we get a thorough backgrounding in the cultural and political history of the region. Albright presents a coherent vision of the multilingual, blended heritage of Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, Hungarians and others that built a small country up to an industrial powerhouse and fostered a vibrant tradition in music and the arts.

Then she follows the moves from World War I through the inter-war period, providing context in which the threat of Hitler’s rise to power can be seen. Over and over she writes of the considerations a small country must make when trying to forge a secure place in a world of shifting allegiances — which was Czechoslovakia’s dilemma before World War II. We seeGermany’s march into Prague from the Czech point of view, as the tragic result of domestic ties unraveling, conflicted and weak national leadership, and betrayal by international powers.

As the war progressed, Albright’s family was in London, where her father was part of a core group of displaced Czech expats led by former President Eduard Benes. Albright’s father, Joseph Korbel, mainly wrote and produced daily broadcasts on the BBC directed at those in Czechoslovakia resisting the Nazis. Korbel reported to Jan Masaryk, former ambassador to Britain, whose father, Thomas, was Czechoslovakia’s first president and a major uniting figure.

For American readers who may not be familiar with the legacy of Thomas and Jan Masaryk, this book provides enough sweeping history and close-up detail so that Jan’s end, after the war, comes as a shock. That is much later, when Benes and his colleagues have fought many well-articulated diplomatic battles to cement allegiances and secure power as the war grinds on. When Benes’ crew of expat Czechs returned to the country, ostensibly in charge, the balance of power rapidly shifted to the Communists. On the eve of a trip abroad, Jan Masaryk, then foreign minister, was found dead outside his bathroom window. His death was ruled a suicide by authorities at the time but he is thought to have been assassinated by Russian agents.

That tragic end is an important part of the history of Czechoslovakia, which is the organizing force of the book: This is history told from the Czech point of view. The Theresienstadt camp, where most of Albright’s relatives were sent, is called by its Czech name, Terezin. Pearl Harbor gets a single mention, while two chapters are devoted to a small band of expat Czech soldiers, trained in England and dropped behind enemy lines to assassinate Nazi officer Reinhard Heydrich. Sometimes, the shift in perspective seems to leave the arc of the war incomplete, but it provides an interesting counter-narrative to the standard American version of World War II.

Albright is more than just a historian — she’s been a major international decision-maker, one whose choices have been as important as those she chronicles in this book. In a few moments — too few — she brings that knowledge into the text. “The plot against Heydrich illustrated the complex choices faced by leaders and citizens alike,” Albright writes. “Benes had to weigh, on the one side, the political benefits of landing a dramatic blow and, on the other, the inevitable repercussions — the Nazis had the ability and the will to retaliate harshly.”

The retaliation for the assassination was the razing of the town of Lidice, the murder of much of its population, and the order to ship Jewish civilians on trains to Terezin. Albright’s maternal grandmother, Ruzena Spiegelelova, was aboard one. There were no survivors.

The “remembrance” promised in the title is scant and often disconnected from the action. Albright was a child listening for air raid sirens in England, while the men and women who fought and suffered were deep in the continent, unknown to her. More than a memoir, this is a book of facts and action, a chronicle of a war in progress from a partisan faithful to the idea of Czechoslovakian democracy.