Madeleine Albright broke a glass ceiling when she became the first woman U.S. Secretary of State on January 23, 1997. A few weeks later, at age 59, Madeleine learned that her parents, Josef and Anna (nee Spiegelova) Korbelova, were Jews who converted to Catholicism in 1941, and lived and raised their family in the Catholic tradition. They never spoke of their Jewishness.

Born on May 15, 1937 as Marie Jana Korbelova in Prague, Czechoslovakia, Secretary Albright’s family moved to Great Britain in March 1939, ten days after the Nazis invaded their home country. After World War II, the Korbel (name shortened from Korbelova) family moved to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where Josef, her father, served as the Czech ambassador to Yugoslavia. In order to avoid communist indoctrination in Belgrade, Marie was sent to finishing school in Chexbres, Switzerland, where she changed her name to Madeleine. On November 11, 1948, the Korbel family arrived in the United States, where Josef assumed a position with the recently-established United Nations. The Korbels then moved to Denver, CO, when Josef became a political science professor at the University of Denver, CO. (Among his students there was future second female U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.)

After attending Wellesley College in Massachusetts, on a full scholarship, Madeleine married Joseph Albright and balanced caring for her growing family and attending Columbia University, in New York City, where she received her doctorate in 1975. Prior to serving as Secretary of State, Madeleine taught in various universities, served on the National Security Council, and became the United States Ambassador to the United Nations.

Although Secretary Albright began to hear rumors of her alleged Jewishness for years, she definitively became aware of her Jewish heritage when Washington Post reporters researched her background soon after she was nominated as Secretary of State. The shocking news also revealed that over a dozen relatives, including three grandparents, an uncle, an aunt and a cousin, died in Auschwitz and Terezin. The Washington Post research included Josef Korbel’s birth certificate, found in the Czech Foreign Ministry archives, in which he was identified as Jewish. Ironically, the first mention of Madeleine’s alleged Jewish roots, came in Arab newspapers citing anonymous sources. They used Madeleine’s “Jewishness” as a basis to attack her nomination as Secretary of State. Years later, Secretary Albright returned to Prague and wrote extensively about these revelations in her 2012 book, “Prague Winter.”

Secretary Albright became Episcopalian upon her marriage in 1959, decades before learning about her Jewish heritage. One of Secretary Albright’s daughters, who considered herself Episcopalian until the 1997 revelations, married a Jewish man, and is raising Jewish children.

Copyright © 2023 NJOP. All rights reserved.