What Madeleine Albright Couldn’t Know

Everyone has an opinion about Madeleine Albright. Did she know her family was Jewish? How could she not have known? Michael Dobbs’s carefully researched biography, Madeleine Albright: A Twentieth Century Odyssey, aims to settle the question once and for all. Piecing together evidence of Albright’s Jewish identity that was brought to her attention as early as 1967, Dobbs concludes that Albright “learned the essential details of her family’s past long before February 1997. It is quite probable that her parents kept her and her siblings in the dark about their origins for many years. But too many people, both in America and in Europe, knew what had happened for the secret to be kept forever from such an intelligent, inquiring woman.” He adds that “there are simply too many contradictions and inconsistencies in her story for it to be believable.”

Despite his meticulous attention to historical detail, Dobbs misses a crucial consideration: the psychology of family secrets.

Several recent books and films bring to light the growing number of men and women who have recently learned of their parents’ secret Jewish heritage. Louise Kehoe‘s beautifully written memoir In This Dark House, explores the subject with sensitivity and insight. Raised on a remote sheep farm in England by avid communist and atheist parents, Kehoe only began to understand the mysteries of her childhood four decades later, after both parents had died. She discovered that her father, renowned architect Berthold Lubetkin, had in fact been a Russian Jew whose family died in the Holocaust. He and his young English wife had hidden his identity from their three children for nearly half a century. Similarly, Kathleen Frank, a New Hampshire filmmaker, learned of her father’s Jewish identity after his death. Her film, “Faith of Our Fathers,” traces his hidden past. And Lisa Lewenz‘s film, “A Letter Without Words,” is a tribute to her German-Jewish grandmother, whom she never knew. Lewenz was raised Episcopalian and did not know of her Jewish heritage until she was 13 years old.

I, myself, was raised Roman Catholic in suburban America in the 1960s by Eastern European parents. At the age of 35I learned for the first time that my parents are Jewish Holocaust survivors. My father had been imprisoned in Siberian labor camps for six years, and my mother escaped the Nazis dressed as an Italian soldier. I documented my discovery this year in a memoir, After Long Silence.

Susi Bechhöfer‘s story is even more unsettling. Born in Germany in 1936, she and her twin sister were evacuated on the Kindertransport to England three years later. She was adopted by a Welsh Baptist minister and his wife and given a new identity. Fifty years later, she learned the truth of her past: She was the daughter of a German soldier in Hitler’s army and a young Jewish woman who was later killed at Auschwitz. Her story is told in Rosa’s Child: The True Story of One Woman’s Quest for a Lost Mother and a Vanished Past, by Jeremy Josephs with Susi Bechhöfer.

The sheer volume of these belated discoveries by intelligent, insightful women suggests that uncovering a family secret of such magnitude is not merely a matter of intelligence, historical research or willpower. Far more complicated issues are at stake—questions of family dynamics and the psychological effects of secrecy on children. Albright’s story differs only in that she has been forced to face the complicated and painful emotions stirred up by the past under the intense glare of the public eye.

Like Albright, I grew up knowing that World War II had brought tragedy to my parents, and that they had lost their homes, friends and loved ones. It was too painful to be discussed. As a child I learned to respect this; as a teenager I adhered to it, and as an adult I never questioned it until both my sister and I reached our mid-30s. Unlike Albright, neither my sister nor I were married at the time, and neither of us had children. We were both comfortably employed—I as a lawyer, and she as a psychiatrist—and we approached the issue as a team. My sister and I now agree that it is unlikely that either of us would have been able to make the discovery alone.

When I look back now, I’m embarrassed that I never suspected anything sooner. The clues were everywhere. Our family of four had always eaten matzoh at Easter. We had always tip-toed out of Catholic church every Sunday before Communion, which my mother assured me was “not an important part of Mass.” Many of my parents’ closest friends were Holocaust survivors; some of these “friends,” I later learned, were in fact my mother’s first cousins. In short, if Dobbs had gotten hold of my story, he would have found my lack of knowledge even more incredible than Albright’s.

“Madeleine’s claim that she needed time to do her own research into her family background is disingenuous,” Dobbs writes. “Had she wanted to verify or disprove the rumors that were swirling around her by the fall of 1996, she could have done so with a couple of telephone calls.” The same could be said of me. I first toyed with the idea that my parents might be Jewish in 1989, upon the suggestion of a woman with a similar story. It took another three years before I started questioning my parents about it. “Maybe your mother was Catholic, and your father was Jewish,” I finally suggested to my mother one Christmas. “So when they married, your grandparents went through the roof, and that’s why you don’t know anything about them.” At first my mother shrugged and said she didn’t know. A few minutes later she started shaking with anger. “What difference does it make?!” she screamed. “What difference does it make whether you’re Jewish or Catholic or Protestant or Buddhist?! Who cares?” When I told her that I cared, she burst into tears and cried, “Then I’ve failed you as a mother! I’ve failed!”

I was terribly shaken by my mother’s reaction and vowed never to raise the subject again. It was my sister who picked up the baton in 1992 and wrote a letter to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel. The proof she received a few months later stunned us. Within weeks we learned how scores of cousins, aunts and uncles had been shot, gassed and otherwise killed in the Holocaust. There was not a single non-Jew in our family.

As I later discovered, dozens of close family friends and relatives knew of my parents’ Jewish identity. Many others had guessed or assumed that we were Jewish. Many of my own classmates and colleagues had assumed I was Jewish. Yet I was unaware. I could not imagine why my parents would hide our Jewish identity in America, and I felt fiercely loyal to them. I trusted them more than all the evidence to the contrary.

“‘Hindsight clarifies everything,'” Madeleine told Lally Weymouth of Newsweek. ‘”It’s a little bit like seeing a lot of dots on a piece of paper and when you finally draw the lines you’ve got a picture. But if you’re not looking for a picture, then you don’t see it.'” Albright describes my own experience. Perhaps anyone who has managed to cast off a pervasive, closely-held family secret knows what it means finally “to connect the dots.” The force field built by families around forbidden information renders the secret far more powerful than the underlying facts. For nearly 40 years I accepted my parents’ reality without question. If they had chosen not to tell me certain details of our history, then I trusted that they had reasons I must not disturb.

A specialist in post-traumatic stress later told me that “confronting a carefully held family secret is like ripping a scab off a deep wound”; it is a form of violence. At the time, I had been terrified. When my sister and I finally began to uncover the secret, I was wracked by guilt. What right did I have to dig into my parents’ lives? Was this truly any of my business? At times I felt angry that my parents had deprived me of an essential part of my identity. At others, I felt terribly sad that they had lived under the shadow of a profound silence. At yet others, I had to struggle with the pure force of my parents’ response: My mother shouted, “You’ve shattered my life! You’ve destroyed me! I was fine, until you came along and destroyed everything!” My sister has told me that at times she wishes we had never found out the truth.

The consequences of exposing a family truth are perhaps no less traumatic for people who make such a discovery after their parents are dead, since the ingrained acceptance of parental authority is profound. For someone like Albright, who is herself a parent, the issue is even more complicated. What responsibilities does she have not only to the memory of her parents, but to the needs of her children?

To this day I continue to sift through our history, questioning what was knowable, to whom, and when. As a lawyer I know that witness testimony and documents are suspect: Each of us brings our own motives, misunderstandings and blind spots to our perceptions. How we understand the information in our world depends on who we are and how we were raised to see or not see the elephant in the living room.

To understand Albright and others with family secrets, the literature on family dynamics and ambiguous loss is helpful. In Secrets in Families and Family Therapy, edited by Evan Imber-Black, Marilyn J. Mason writes, “Childhood loyalty involves the exercising of the unconsciously taught and learned assignment of how to function within and protect the parameters of family comfort. Family rules are taught and learned, unstated rules with implicit injunctions about what we can see, hear, feel, and comment on.” Disturbing a family rule, I have discovered, can shatter families.

I believe Albright never connected the various pieces of evidence. She could not make sense of evidence contrary to her essential family myth. “When I write my own book,”
Albright said, “I will make it very clear that I failed to put all these pieces together, and that hindsight is a wonderful thing [but] there are things in life you just miss. I missed this.”

In the preface to her book, The Secret Life of Families, Imber-Black, a family therapist, writes, “It made perfect sense to me that Madeleine Albright not only did not know as a child that her parents were Jewish, but also showed no interest in her grandparents’ personal history and chose to become a historian of that very part of the world that held her family’s secret. Madeleine Albright lived with a powerful paradox, absorbing the family ‘rule’ not to ask, to live in the present, and to believe her loving parents, while at the same time feeling a compelling pull toward the past.”

Perhaps the recent surge of stories by adults whose Jewish parents fled or survived the Holocaust can tell us something about the pervasiveness of secrets in family dynamics. Such stories reflect the remarkable power of family secrets to control and shape not only who we are, but also what we are able to see and make sense of in our own lives. Despite our best intentions, until the family prohibitions we carry with us fall away, we may see only dots.

Helen Fremont is a lawyer with the Massachusetts public defender agency and a consultant for the U.S. Department of Justice. Her stories and essays have appeared in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, Ploughshares, and The Harvard Review, among other publications.

Related Books:

Madeleine Albright: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey, Michael Dobbs, Henry Holt, $27.50

After Long Silence: A Memoir, Helen Fremont, Delacorte, $23.95

Secrets in Families and Family Therapy, Evan Imber-Black, editor, W.W. Norton and Company, $36.95

The Secret Life of Families: Truth-Telling, Privacy, and Reconciliation in a Tell-All Society, Evan Imber-Black, Bantam, $23.95

Rosa’s Child: The True Story of One Woman’s Quest for a Lost Mother and a Vanished Past, Jeremy Josephs with Susi Bechhöfer, St. Martin’s Press, $24.95

In This Dark House, Louise Kehoe, Schocken, $22