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.

The Second World War intensified Jewish identity in some, while others fled or shed it out of fear. The liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945, and the promise of a return to Eden, albeit a heavily damaged Eden, gave rise to tremendous exultation. I, for one, couldn't wait to get back. By 1946 I had obtained a new Czech passport and a Certificate of National Reliability. As soon as it was possible to travel, in the summer of 1947, we set out across a war-bombed Germany on a train bound for Prague -- three first-class tickets for two packs of American cigarettes. I wanted to stay in Prague, but I was advised, perhaps warned, against it, and returned to Switzerland a few months later. Safe as my Swiss haven had been, living there was anything but validating and comforting. Swiss behavior during that time as it has recently been exposed is nothing new to me. I was told frequently how lucky I was to be temporarily tolerated there, and that I should not overstep my bounds. I withdrew inward, maintaining a world of meaning and realities that did not correspond to the meaning and realities around me. I was overjoyed at the thought of returning to my home, where, I imagined, I would resume being a Czechoslovak patriot.

*  *  *

The Communist takeover, in February of 1948, at first did not frighten me. The new Czech consulate in Switzerland called me in and ordered me to assume secretarial duties for them. They said I was needed; I knew the required languages and had been found politically acceptable. I was willing, even honored, to do the work. But I was in the middle of my term at school and wanted to finish it. When told that I had to report for work at the consulate within the week and that they were not interested in my school schedule, and when they insisted with increasing nastiness that they would send me to Prague unless I obeyed, my twenty-one-year-old self rebelled and I returned my passport on the spot. I was finished being Czech. I would be someone else. I became once again stateless. Two years later fate blew me to America.

The same fate dropped me after a few months into Connecticut College. This was a profound culture shock for me. I had been out on my own for about five years. Now I had to transform myself into a protected young student who had to be in by seven-thirty. I was given help and well-meaning advice. I was told to listen, to fit in, to learn, not to maintain my own positions. The college was extremely good to me: I was accepted without transcripts and allowed to pick my courses as I saw fit. The dean of students, Alverna Burdick, made sure that I had work so that I could earn spending money, and that I had a place to go during vacations.

*  *  *

When we move from context to context in discontinuous ways, and when no one is there to share our perceptions, our memory does strange things; we invalidate what we know. We forget. We reinterpret. In Switzerland one of my favorite foods had been poached trout. The restaurant would have a fish tank from which you could select the trout you wanted; twenty minutes later it would appear at your table, curled up, a lovely smoky-blue hue. Yes, Forelle blau -- literally, "blue trout." It would be served with lemon, parsley, peeled boiled potatoes, and brown butter. The trout had particular meaning for me, because on our graduation trip I had sat next to my French professor and offered to filet his trout for him. In our Orthodox household we ate fish often, and I was skilled at the task. Indeed, I did it elegantly, and Dr. Staub said playfully, "Well, that will guarantee you an A in the French finals." One might think that poached trout had a well-grounded reality in my inner representations.

Occasionally, when at college we talked about food, I would venture a description of my favorite dish. Bemused, friendly, condescending reactions would ensue: "Trout? Trout is pan-fried. No one poaches trout." I don't know why this trout was so important to me. Perhaps it recalled me to a time when I had been better off -- important to remember at this college where most students wore cashmere sets, pearls, and fur coats on the weekends, whereas I was a penniless alien. In any event, I soon stopped talking about, and then thinking about, poached trout. The memory had the quality of a fantasy, a hazy daydream I might once have had.

Six years after I left Switzerland, I made my first return visit. I walked into a restaurant, and there, to the left of the door, was a fish tank holding trout. I wept, and could not explain what it meant to reclaim an extruded part of my memory, my sanity, my sense of self.

Coming to America in the years after the Second World War meant leaving the old world behind and starting from scratch, as a new person. There was no sense that an integration of events on the two sides of the Atlantic had to occur. Often the good-byes had been final. There were no expectations that one would see either the people or the conditions of one's pre-American life ever again. The task at hand was survival and building up a life to sustain oneself. The horrors and pain of the abandoned world were simply pushed out of one's ken. I met people in the early fifties who within a couple of years of arriving in America spoke their native language brokenly -- and soon not at all. Today we recognize that in abandoning a language we abandon a whole way of knowing, a way of being, a part of who we once were.

In America you could change your name, choose your religion, move and live where you wanted. In the Europe of my youth your name was for life, your domicile was registered with the police, your community collected the tax for your religious affiliation, your profession was regulated by endless requirements and licenses. To escape who you were in Europe, you practically had to engage in fraud. Here you could just do it. What a different world we escapees from Europe found here. If one was a Jew by external classification only, and if that classification was primarily racist as propagated by the Nazis, then why adhere to it in this new country of new opportunities? I know nothing of Albright's parents' relationship to their Jewish identity. They, and their own parents, may have moved away from religious observance. And ethnic identity? In a world of virulent racism that expanded historical anti-Semitism into the doctrine of the superior Aryan race, ethnic or racial self-identification was not highly regarded. It was like yielding to the ideology of the exterminator. What remains of one's Jewishness if one is not religious and neither feels nor seeks ethnic belongingness? It is difficult to see this nowadays, when ethnic identity has become such an important way station in the acceptance of diversity. Perhaps it takes the particularly American stand on pluralism -- one we may not have achieved but one we believe in and strive for -- to make ethnic identification something forward-looking and positive rather than reactionary and constricted.

*  *  *

Here enters the other event in the odyssey of Albright's family: returning to Czechoslovakia, happy, vindicated, survivors of the Holocaust that annihilated their civilization, they were probably ready to resume where they had left off before their exile -- rebuilding their country. Perceiving itself as betrayed by the Western alliance in 1938, Czechoslovakia had emotionally turned toward the Soviet Union in a sort of pan-Slavic romanticism of despair. This spirit may have joined with the inherent sense of social justice and decency prevailing in pre-Second World War Czechoslovakia to elect a postwar government that was far to the left. That government was shortly thereafter engulfed by the next betrayal of Czechoslovakia: the Communist takeover and the Stalinization of the country's politics. Many who could fled then, turning their backs definitively on an unbearable past.

So let us assume that Albright's parents took full advantage of the American freedom to reinvent oneself. Like many others, they let go of the past and lived in the present. For their daughter they created a consistent, stable, supportive home environment. She took their version of the truth as her own.

Were there never any doubts, any questions, any inconsistencies? From the study of the Holocaust we know that some families speak of the horror all the time and others never mention it. We also know that children take their cues from parents with respect to what may be mentioned and what must remain unspoken. Questions that create discomfort are often dropped, and areas of hidden conflict acquire agreed-upon emotional maps honored by all: these boundaries will not be disturbed.