Column

Hiding the past poses a moral dilemma

Barbara Amiel February 17 1997
Column

Hiding the past poses a moral dilemma

Barbara Amiel February 17 1997

Hiding the past poses a moral dilemma

Column

Barbara Amiel

Last week, Madeleine Albright, America’s first female secretary of state, discovered something that I have known ever since I first saw her on television some years ago—namely, that she is Jewish.

Albright came to Britain when her parents fled Czechoslovakia in 1939. She was brought up as a Roman Catholic and later became an Episcopalian. This past week, rumors that Ms. Albright was Jewish were confirmed by a story in The Washington Post. At least three of her grandparents died in Názi concentration camps and a number of other relatives were Holocaust victims.

This is not an important story, but it fascinates me because it tells so much about the many ways in which human beings choose to survive under harsh circumstances or fashion their lives under more benign ones. We all have so many choices to make: what in our lives to conceal, what to reveal, what to unearth and investigate. Albright is a bit of a puzzle. She is known by those who have dealt with her to be abrasive and stubborn as blazes, all of which you probably need to be coming from a background that is certainly not American Establishment. As a foreignborn female, the chips were stacked pretty highly against her, even though Henry Kissinger had made it possible for foreignborn Jewish U.S. citizens to become secretary of state.

As UN ambassador, the only aspect of her that struck a slightly queasy note was a habit she shared with her predecessor at the state department, Warren Christopher, and shares still with members of the Clinton administration. That habit consists of a need to constantly remind others that they speak in the President’s name. But this is by the way.

When I say that I had known that Albright was Jewish, I mean that one look at her features told me so. Of course, I put it in the back of my mind because I attribute absolutely no significance to it, just as I would have attributed no significance had she been Mediterranean or Chinese. (Well, perhaps I dissemble. Being Jewish myself, I had a feeling of kinship and admired her achievement just a notch more.) What is somewhat amazing to me is that such an intelligent and well-travelled woman would not have made that association herself many years ago. I would have made the association the first time I looked into the mirror.

Obviously, not all individuals conform to their national or ethnic types in physical appearance. Alas, not all Greek men are dark and handsome nor all Swedish women stunning blonds. Most certainly, not all Ashkenazi Jews Qews from eastern Europe) or Sephardic Jews (originally from Spain, North Africa or the Middle East) look like Ashkenazi or Sephardic Jews. But national types do exist, and many individuals correspond to their ethnic types in appearance to

the extent that it is evident the minute you look at them that they belong to that group. Albright happens to be the type of person whose attractive features correspond to her tribal affinity in an almost unmistakable manner.

According to her and close friends, Albright’s parents chose not to tell her of her background. She grew up a serious Catholic. The little girl who was exiled twice—two years old when her parents fled the Nazis and then 11 when her family, having returned to their homeland, fled the Communists—simply never asked questions about her dead grandparents or missing relatives. “When people are not a visible part of your life,” she has said, “I didn’t ask about them.” Actually, most people do. The interesting question on which one can only speculate is why Albright did not.

Many European Jews who shared similar backgrounds to Albright’s parents, namely highly educated, accomplished and proud of the country of their birth, decided not to burden their children with the additional danger of Jewish self-awareness. Often, such Jews were non-religious and totally assimilated in their societies. They could derive nothing from their Jewish background but exclusion at best and mortal danger at worst. Their Jewishness conveyed no pluses for them and, given the rise of Nazism and fascism, it could create an infinite number of minuses. So they hid their identity from their children. One of Albright’s longstanding American-Jewish friends has been quoted as saying “And who are we, who haven’t experienced such horror, to say that it is wrong?”

I don’t share this view. While one is filled with the most profound sympathy for those who suffered through the Third Reich, it is possible to say that Albright’s parents were wrong. They were wrong or, more accurately, given that this is not a moral judgment, they were mistaken because this attitude of hiding denotes a profound pessimism. People only create a fictional life when they believe that the world will be ever thus, and that just to live in society and prosper they will have to hide their ethnic origins forever. It is a mistake, further, because such people posthumously aid Hitler in eliminating the Jews.

If I had to bet, I would say that unless Albright has the most astonishing lack of curiosity for a woman of her mental powers, the truth is she inherited her parents’ sense of utility and took refuge in the story they concocted to see, hear and ask no questions. We can never know. Regardless, this cannot be taken in any sense as a negative comment on Albright. Speaking for myself, I would never as a journalist have thought it seemly to have “outed” her. Luckily, the result is a triumph: she comes from a great tribe, she was born in a splendid nation and she holds citizenship in the greatest country in the world. For Czechs, Americans, Jews and Episcopalians, it’s a winner all around.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s parents were mistaken in disguising their Jewishness from their daughter