The Thread of Time

Imagination often fails us when we try to understand a long-abandoned world

Past and present

THE controversy surrounding Madeleine Albright's unawareness of her family history, which broke out last year when President Bill Clinton named Albright Secretary of State, touched me intensely. We come from the same country, Czechoslovakia, and we experienced devastations wrought by two successive totalitarian systems. Our experiences were different in some significant respects: Albright is about a decade younger than I am, and she spent most of her childhood and adolescence abroad with her family. She probably has little memory of pre-war Czechoslovakia. I spent my first ten years in the bilingual, multicultural setting of southern Moravia; the memory of that time sits like a glowing jewel at the core of my being. Negatives I might remember about that time or might have diligently reconstructed during conventional psychotherapy lose their definition in the surge of intense love and longing that any mention of those years produces in me.
That first segment of my childhood ended in an unforeseen, surreptitious way: A customary summer vacation with my mother's family in Switzerland in the summer of 1938 was marred by the rising threat of war between Germany and Czechoslovakia. My father wrote a letter to my mother telling her to "come back but don't bring the children." Gratitude for shelter left no room to mourn the absence of good-byes. I spent the second decade of my life as a refugee in Switzerland, living with my grandmother, my uncle, and my aunt, who had been summoned from her job as a teacher in a girls' boarding school to look after her older sister's children. My brother, nine years my senior and about to start his university studies, became my parent, albeit a neglectful one. His left-wing politics and philosophically sophisticated atheism formed a counterweight to the old-fashioned Orthodox Jewish household that was our wartime home.

The wider Swiss culture was not welcoming, to say the least. We were temporarily tolerated. At one point the Swiss foreign police demanded that I get a German passport, since Czechoslovakia was no longer a country and its passport was therefore invalid. The notion seemed preposterous: Germany was persecuting Jews, not issuing passports to them. My uncle accompanied me to the consulate, a forbidding building with a swastika on its door. I was afraid that I would somehow be spirited away from that building and not come out alive. I received a passport made out to Kitty Sarah Fischer, "Sarah" being the name attached to all female German Jewish subjects. This document was accepted by the Swiss while they considered deporting me to my home, or at least pushing me across the border. A few weeks later, luckily, that passport was revoked, easing my fears.
During those years I made close friends among my Swiss classmates, with whom I am in touch to this day. They remember that time differently. One of them wrote to me recently, when the role of Swiss banks during and after the Second World War hit the papers, "Was it like that for you? I guess I was too young then to put myself in another person's shoes." I remember being uninvited for an after-school visit by a classmate whose mother told her not to bring a Jew home. In school Dr. Matzig, our philosophy teacher, often wondered out loud how long I would be allowed to stay in Switzerland: "Here you sit safely in class while our German brethren are being slaughtered by the Asiatic hordes." Sometime in 1943 my mother was able to join us, and was eventually followed by my father. In 1939 my mother had managed to obtain an exit visa from the German Protectorate Bohemia-Moravia and an entry visa to France. She was allowed to visit us for one week each year, because she had been a Swiss citizen before her marriage to my father. This ruling did not apply to my father, who owed his miraculous rescue from a deportation train headed for an extermination camp in Poland to the persistence of my mother, the help of influential Swiss friends, and incredible luck.

Madeleine Albright, in contrast, left Czechoslovakia as a young child, together with her parents. They apparently settled in London, where her father was a member of the Czech government in exile -- thus, one might reason, maintaining without interruption his membership in the Czech intelligentsia.

I have no personal acquaintance with Albright; I count an easy two degrees of separation, a friend of hers being married to the son of an old friend of mine. I have no information of any kind about her family or her inner life beyond what was published in the papers. However, reactions to her supposed ignorance of her Jewish roots, many of them hostile and disbelieving, highlighted for me what happens when one pulls the thread of time out of earlier events and ignores the fact that what was true then differs from what is true now. No matter how much lip service we pay to the relevance of sociopolitical and other systemic concepts, our imagination fails us when it comes to applying historical context to specifics.

*  *  *

The effective existence of Czechoslovakia -- between the two world wars -- lasted from 1918, when it was founded, to 1938, when it was dismembered, never truly to be whole and autonomous again. It was a new nation-state, liberated from imprisonment within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It excelled in industrial competence (at one point it was the eleventh most industrialized state in the world), in social consciousness, and in the patriotism of its citizens. Among the most intensely patriotic were its Jewish citizens.

Until the French Revolution the Jews in Europe had been defined as a roving, outcast population with no rights of citizenship. Heavily restricted in their rights to engage in most occupations, to own land or buildings, or to maintain permanent domiciles, they were tolerated by their host countries in good times, and persecuted, expelled, or killed in bad. Against this history the full citizenship granted to Jews in Czechoslovakia was a deliverance that made them ardent supporters of the state. A saying went, "The only Czechoslovaks are Jews; the others are either Czechs or Slovaks." I was a passionate Czechoslovak nationalist. For me and my acquaintances, Judaism, like Catholicism and Protestantism, was in those days primarily a religion rather than an ethnic-group designation.

In addition to an ardent love of the homeland there prevailed among many Jews of Czechoslovakia an optimistic attitude that tended toward rationalism, secularism, and internationalism. Clear thinking, science, technology, and a sense of justice could solve human problems. Religion was not a prominent concern, especially among the intelligentsia. Many people in those days were atheists, or at least agnostics. Or perhaps they subscribed to the kind of pantheism espoused by Spinoza, another apostate Jew. But for the persecution of Jews, my identification as a Jew would have slipped very far down on my list of significant self-descriptions. During the war, however, when the National Socialist ideology redefined Jews as a race to be exterminated, it became impossible not to take a position about defining oneself as a Jew. Internal definition became necessary as external definition was imposed. My parents applied for an immigration visa to Brazil in 1942, when they were in Vichy France. As a matter of course, the consulate enclosed a baptismal certificate to be submitted as proof of conversion to Christianity, along with the other papers. Authorities in countries other than Germany often honored conversion; a Jew could become a Christian. That was not possible in Germany. I don't know whether my parents would have exercised that choice had they been forced to apply for admission to Brazil. Life went otherwise, and my father found himself first in a camp and then in Switzerland.

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