Albright in Prague finds roots ‘forever seared into my heart’
Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 1997
PRAGUE — For U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, all doubt has disappeared.
Like the names of her grandparents who perished in the Holocaust, her Jewish roots are carved in stone.
And at least for the Czech Jews who accompanied her on her historic visit here this week, any doubts that she knew about her Jewish background prior to their revelations in the media earlier this year have been erased.
Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, said Albright's emotion was genuine during their tour of the historic Jewish Quarter on Sunday night.
She seemed on the verge of tears many times as she toured the Old Jewish Cemetery and the adjacent Pinkas Synagogue — which has inscribed on its walls the names of more than 77,000 Czech and Slovak Holocaust victims, Kraus said.
It was among those thousands of victims that Albright found the names of her paternal grandparents, Olga and Arnost Korbel.
Her encounter with her Jewish past was first on the secretary's agenda as she arrived in Prague as part of a tour devoted to NATO and its expansion to Eastern and Central Europe.
Kraus said that during Albright's Jewish tour, which was closed to reporters, it was apparent that she had developed "very strong feelings about her Jewish roots" since learning about them earlier this year.
Standing in front of the 16th-century Jewish Town Hall at the end of her tour, Albright said that when she visited the synagogue last year with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, she didn't look for the names of her grandparents or other family members.
"I did not know my own family story then," she explained, her voice cracking. "Tonight, I knew to look for those names. And their image will forever be seared into my heart.
"To the many values and many facets that make up who I am, I now add the knowledge that my grandparents and members of my family perished in the worst catastrophe in human history. So I leave here tonight with the certainty that this new part of my identity adds something stronger, sadder and richer to my life," she said.
Leo Pavlat, the director of Prague's Jewish Museum, who also accompanied the secretary of state, said he understood Albright's reaction. "She is not here for the first time, but it is the first time she came with the aim to look at the names," he said.
In addition to locating the names of her two paternal grandparents on the synagogue walls, Albright was also shown file cards describing their tragic fate: Her grandfather died in Theresienstadt in 1942, her grandmother at Auschwitz in 1944.
Her maternal grandfather died before the war. The fate of her maternal grandmother is unknown.
What Kraus saw with Albright, he has seen before: "It is common for Jews from this part of the world to be ignorant of their Jewish roots. A substantial number of Czech Jews have only recently discovered their ancestry."
Both during and after World War II, many European Jews shed their religion and their Jewish identity to break with their painful past and to ensure better lives for their children.
Albright was born here and fled twice as a child. Her father, a diplomat, took his family with him when he left Czechoslovakia in March 1939, days after Nazi forces occupied the country.
Albright said she reflected on her parents' choices as she looked at her grandparents' names on the synagogue wall.
"I felt not only grief for those members of my family that were inscribed there, but I also thought about my parents. I thought about the choice they made. They clearly confronted the most excruciating decision a human being can face when they left members of their family behind even as they saved me from certain death.
"I will always love and honor my parents and will always respect their decision, for that most painful of choices gave me life a second time."
The family returned but left again after the communists seized power in 1948; they settled in the United States.
Raised as a Roman Catholic — she is now an Episcopalian — Albright expressed surprise when it was revealed in a February story in the Washington Post that at least three of her grandparents were Jewish and that they, along with more than a dozen other relatives, died in the Holocaust.
"The only thing I have to go by is what my mother and father told me, how I was brought up," she said at the time.
But the question of whether she had known about her past surfaced after reports suggesting that the mayor of the Czech town of Letohrad, where her paternal grandfather once lived, sent her a letter three years ago about her Jewish roots.
Albright's tour of the Jewish Quarter came on the eve of her one-day state visit to Prague.
She met Monday with Czech Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec to discuss NATO's recent invitation to the Czech Republic to join the alliance. She also had dinner with Czech President Vaclav Havel.
In a speech before throngs of cheering Czechs on Monday, she spoke of her ties to the Czech Republic and her childhood in Prague, but she made no reference to her Jewish roots.
Kraus said he and Albright spoke in Czech, and that they did not have in-depth discussions about the restitution of property looted by the Nazis or any of the other issues facing the Czech Jewish community. "It wasn't a political visit," he said. "It was personal."
Czech Holocaust survivors dubious about compensation
Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 1997
PRAGUE — For Vera Schimmerlingova, the possibility that Germany may finally pay individual compensation to Holocaust survivors in the former Soviet bloc is too little, too late.
"I am sick and tired" of discussions about compensation, said Schimmerlingova, a 72-year-old Czech Jew who survived the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. "We are all going to die soon anyway. I don't think the German government is really prepared to compensate us."
Her bleak assessment of the situation came after Jewish negotiators failed last week to reach an agreement with Germany on reparations to Holocaust survivors living in Eastern Europe.
Schimmerlingova and other Czech Holocaust survivors are frustrated and angered by Germany's long-standing reluctance to compensate them directly for their wartime suffering.
She is one of some 1,300 Czech Jews who would be eligible for compensation if and when the German government reaches agreement with the Jewish negotiators.
Unable to secure a deal last month, the German government and a delegation of Holocaust survivors and Jewish officials of the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany announced the establishment of a joint commission to recommend solutions in three months.
But even if Germany agrees to compensate survivors living in former Soviet-bloc countries, the country will not be as generous with them as it was with survivors living in the West, German officials have said.
This has provoked anger among Jewish leaders here.
"This is the German government's last chance" to compensate Czech Holocaust survivors "because more of them are passing away every month," said Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic. "If the German government doesn't meet its responsibilities now, the German state will live in eternal shame."
Among the issues to be negotiated is whether the German government will make a one-time payment or provide pensions to survivors in Eastern Europe.
Israel Singer, the secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress who led negotiations for the Claims Conference, has been optimistic that the negotiations will result in pensions. He also described the commission that was created last month as an important development in the long-running effort to seek justice for the so-called "double victims" of World War II.
"They were twice victims—once of Nazism and the second time of Communism," Singer said of Eastern European survivors who never received reparations. "We saw to it today that they will not be a third time victimized."
Friedrich Bohl, the chancellery minister representing the German government in the negotiations, said at a news conference two weeks ago that he was optimistic a solution could be found.
Parliamentary members of the opposition Green Party, who have long urged the government to pay survivors in Eastern Europe reparations similar to those paid to survivors in Western countries, said it was unacceptable to further postpone the decision when survivors are dying every day.
Germany has paid more than $54 billion in compensation to Holocaust survivors since World War II. However, those living in Soviet-bloc countries were unable to apply for compensation during the Cold War, and Communist East Germany refused to make any payments.
The Claims Conference and other Jewish groups are now demanding that these survivors, estimated at between 15,000 and 40,000, be deemed eligible for compensation.
Germany has come under increasing pressure to reach an agreement amid revelations that it is paying pensions to thousands of SS and Nazi police veterans living in Eastern Europe and outside of Germany while refusing to compensate Eastern European Holocaust survivors.
Last year alone, Germany paid 1.1 million veterans and dependents of Nazi Germany's armed forces so-called disability pensions totaling nearly $8 billion, according to recently published figures. The recipients included tens of thousands of suspected war criminals.
Czech company attacked on Iran ‘nuclear link-up’
Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 1996
PRAGUE — Israel's ambassador to the Czech Republic, Raphael Gvir, has voiced concern over the business activities of Czech companies in Iran and other countries where "irresponsible regimes and governments" pose a threat.
Maintaining that "countries like Iran and others are on the verge of achieving nuclear capability," Mr. Gvir has asked the Czech government to ensure that Czech companies do not transfer nuclear "technology, know-how or equipment" to these countries.
"We expect democratic countries, the Czech Republic included, to prevent their industries from participating in the nuclear endeavours of Islamic countries that are active in terrorism," he said.
Similar concerns have been raised by other leading Israelis.
President Ezer Weizman discussed the issue with Czech government officials during his state visit last month.
In January 1995, a Czech newspaper, Mlada Fronta Dnes, reported that Israeli security services had contracted the Czech government out of concern that nuclear technology from the Skoda Plzen company might reach Iran through Russia, whose nuclear plants it had supplied with upgraded components.
The Israelis noted that the Russian government had concluded an agreement with Iran on the completion of a reactor in the Persian Gulf, the report said.
But such fears were unfounded, said Skoda's spokesman, Jaroslav Hudec, adding that the company had done business with Iran since 1932.
While he acknowledged that it was "not impossible" that the Russians had helped the Iranians reap the fruits of Skoda's labour in nuclear engineering, he insisted that "it's unlikely.
"If the Russians want, they can build the power plant fin the Gulf without any help from us. They don't need us," he said.
The Russians turned to Skoda Plzen for nuclear reactor components out of cost considerations only, he explained. He added: "We don't have any contract with Iran concerning nuclear plant technology."
Skoda Plzen, which signed two contracts with Iran worth $38 million this year, has ambitious plans for operations in the country, including the sale of trucks and heavy machinery.
"There are 150 ambassadors in the Czech Republic," explained Mr. Hudec. "Each one has his own wish, and each one is entitled to this. But we have our own wishes." He added that Skoda Plzen has pursued its interests in accordance with Czech law and United Nations regulations.
Mr. Hudec was as enthusiastic about Iran as Mr. Gvir was critical.
While the Israeli ambassador viewed it as a wellspring of Islamic fundamentalism, as a base for terrorism that has "caused havoc not only in Israel, but in countries such as France, Germany, and the U.S.," Mr. Hudec viewed it as a country in which companies from France, Germany and other countries were thriving.
This, he said, was one of the reasons Skoda helped sponsor Iranian culture days in Plzen, and an exhibition that featured 1,500 displays of ancient Persian art presented by the Iranian Culture Minister.
The exhibition was criticized by Amnesty International, which protested
against the "tragic situation in human rights observance" in Iran, and the Iranian "government's activities abroad."
Mr. Hudec defended Skoda Plzen's business affairs in Iran by comparing them to America's relations with China.
"The US is constantly talking about human rights violations in China. But on a business level, the [two countries] are very interactive.”