Albright's Czech Roots Bring High Hopes in Her Homeland

Recent revelations about the Jewish ancestry of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright - and her questionable response to the news - served up weeks of fodder for American journalists and pundits.

But in her homeland, Czechs greeted it with a collective yawn.

It's not uncommon here to have Jewish or German roots. Besides, Czechs seem more interested in what Ms. Albright can do to hasten their integration into the West.

Topping their wish list are the comfy confines of NATO, since many in the former Soviet sphere perceive Russia as a potential threat. "Why shouldn't she help us?" says Jana Krestova, a Prague resident. "She was born here. It doesn't matter where she lives now."

Yet Czech politicians and analysts are more sober and realistic. The big winners from Albright's appointment, they say, may be the countries of Central Europe. Albright, compared with her predecessor, Warren Christopher, has an intimate knowledge of the region's past and present, its strengths and weaknesses.

So they disregarded the initial enthusiasm of the Czech media, which bragged that Albright's appointment would give the republic an advantage in the unspoken competition with fellow NATO front-runners Poland and Hungary. Observers expect Albright to be neutral, like the foreign-born American secretaries of state before her, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger.

"She's an American first and foremost, and she'll defend US interests," says Michael Zantovsky, who served as Czech ambassador to the US from 1992 until his recall in February. "She'll be careful not to play favorites, including with this country."

It's unclear exactly how Albright, regards her homeland. Born Marie Jana Korbel in 1937, she fled then-Czechoslovakia with her family to London when she was two years old. Her father, a junior diplomat before the World War II, soon became Czechoslovakia's ambassador to Yugoslavia after the war. His post forced the Korbels to take flight again following the 1948 Communist takeover. The US then granted the family political asylum.

Albright was baptized a Roman Catholic and became an Episcopalian when she married in 1959.

But early this January, she learned from a Washington Post investigation that three of her four grandparents were not only Jewish, but reportedly perished in concentration camps.

The New York Times later alleged Albright may have known the truth since 1994, when various Czechs began mailing her documents. The secretary of state responded she was unaware of her Jewish origins, but not stunned. It was, however, a "major surprise" that her grandparents may have died in the gas chambers.

For its part, the Czech news media barely considered it news. It apparently conducted no independent investigations and mostly rewrote American newspaper pieces. In some cases, the stories were buried inside the newspaper. The public is following the news media's lead and is generally unfazed by the whole affair.

Now, as the highest ranking Czech-born US official ever, Albright is suddenly a source of national pride. And she may soon rank up there with Czech #migrant and tennis legend Martina Navratilova, as she continues to champion a US policy that favors NATO expansion. Invitations to the alliance will be issued this spring.

It seems the only drawback for the 10 million Czechs is that Albright may know their country too well. "In foreign affairs there's always a degree of public relations, and you can easily fool those who don't know your country well," says Jiri Pehe, a political analyst with the Open Media Research Institute in Prague. "But you won't be able to fool Albright about the Czech Republic."

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