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Escape from the Ghetto
Unlike the well-tended Christian cemetery next door, the "new" Jewish cemetery in the little Bohemian town of Nový Bydžov is a picture of neglect and ruin. The gate is usually locked and, in the absence of a caretaker, the only way in is over an eight-foot wall. The two hundred graves are covered with an undergrowth of brush so dense that many of them are inaccessible.
The gravestone of Josef and Auguste KorbelMadeleine Albright's great-grandparentshas fallen off its pedestal. It lies, forgotten and partially obscured, beneath a thicket of thorns. The inscription carved into the black marble slab is in Hebrew and German:
Senior Inspector JOSEF KÖRBEL Stationmaster Austrian Northwest Railway Company Passed Away in Litomice On 15 November 1906 In His 61st Year.AUGUSTE KÖRBEL Born Lustig. Passed Away on 24 February 1929 In Her 77th Year.
A few feet away from the fallen tombstone stands a matching marble base. Inscribed in small letters on the top right-hand corner of the pedestal is the name of Madeleine's paternal grandfather: ARNOŠT.
In the absence of family records, most of which were lost during the Holocaust, attempts to unravel the ancestry of America's first woman secretary of state must begin with this gravestone. Every word etched into the marble contains a clue to her ancestral roots. Pieced together, these clues tell the story of a typical Central European Jewish family: escape from the ghetto, the grasping of new economic opportunities, migration, linguistic and cultural assimilation. And all around, in the fallen tombstones and overgrown weeds, are signs of the unspeakable tragedy that befell a once-thriving Jewish community.
A century ago, there were nearly one thousand Jews in Nový Bydžov, around 15 percent of the total population. The town boasts two Jewish cemeteries, the oldest dating to 1520. The cemetery in which Josef Körbel is buried was consecrated in 1885. Today, not a single Jew lives in Nový Bydžov, and the synagogue and Jewish Quarter have long since burned to the ground.
Josef Körbel spelled his family name with an umlaut over the first syllable, as recorded on his gravestone. After World War II, and his conversion to Roman Catholicism, Madeleine's father officially changed the name to Korbel without the umlaut, a small but significant modification. With the umlaut, the name Körbel rhymes with "burble" and has a distinctly German-Jewish sound to it. Without the umlaut, it rhymes with "doorbell" and sounds much more Czech. "Korbel" is, in fact, an old Czech word denoting a wooden pitcher used for drinking.
Unlike the Czech Korbels, the Körbel family arrived on the territory of what is now the Czech Republic comparatively late. According to family tradition, supported by fragmentary genealogical records, Josef Körbel was born across the border in Galicia, in what is now southernPoland. At that time, Galicia, like the historic Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, was part of the Hapsburg empire, having been annexed to Austria-Hungary in 1772. Galician Jews were considered more bound by tradition and religion than their Bohemian or Moravian counterparts.
For the Körbels, like hundreds of thousands of other Central European Jews, the nineteenth century was a time of freedom and rapid economic progress. In 1781, the emperor, Joseph II, had issued edicts describing the Jewish people as "almost equal" to Christians. He offered the Jews a Faustian bargain. In return for giving up many of their ancient customs, and the Yiddish and Hebrew languages, they would be encouraged to acquire a German education and wear "Christian costumes." They would also be permitted to trade, set up factories, and invest in real estate. Jews without surnamesthe vast majoritywere obliged to adopt German ones.
Jewish emancipation was taken a step further after the revolution of 1848. Restrictions on domicile were lifted, paving the way for huge population shifts within the empire as newly liberated Jewish families sought economic opportunity. The hated Familiantengesetz legislation, which prevented all but the oldest son of each Jewish family from marrying legally, was abolished.
Lifting all these restrictions was like lifting the lid on a pressure cooker. After being bottled up in the ghetto for hundreds of years, living under archaic laws enforced by both Jewish rabbis and the Christian majority, a hugely talented people was suddenly free to realize its potential. The result was an explosion of energy and creativity. The Jewish nation, which had produced scarcely anyone of international reknown in the nineteen centuries since the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, suddenly spawned a string of world-class geniuses. Hapsburg Jewry alone produced the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the musician Gustav Mahler, the writer Franz Kafka, and the father of modern psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. In many cases, the motivating force behind all this creative energy was the yearning for assimilation in majority "Christian" society. It is characteristic that Wittgenstein, Mahler, Kafka, and Freud all turned their backs on the religion of their forefathers.
Central European Jews were both the agents and beneficiaries of economic progress. The factories, banks, and railroads built by Jewish entrepreneurs were the means by which poorer Jews clawed their way out of the ghetto. The railroad system of the Hapsburg empire was largely financed by Jewish bankers such as the Rothschilds and the Pereires. They were among the few private investors willing to risk their own capital in the pioneer stage of railroad construction.
For the Körbel family, the railroads were a symbol of freedom and economic opportunity. Thanks to the patronage of his fellow Jews, Madeleine's great-grandfather was able to get a job with the imperial railroad soon after he became an adult. The family followed the railroad as it expanded through the rolling countryside of northern Bohemia in the 1870s and 1880s. The Austrian North-Western Railroad Company was like an employment and marriage agency for Josef's children. His sons got jobs with the railroads. His daughters married railroad employees.
Josef's choice of occupation suggests that he was not particularly religious. Many of the villages and towns in which he lived did not even have a synagogue. On the other hand, Madeleine's great-grandfather observed basic rituals and made no effort to hide his origins. He had his sons circumcised. Like many Austrian Jews, the Körbels probably went to synagogue three or four times a year for the main Jewish festivals.
Jewish migrants like Josef Körbel were caught between conflicting loyalties. The German-speaking administrators of the Hapsburg empire expected the Jews to do their bidding. At the same time, the Jews also sought to remain on good terms with their predominantly Czech neighbors in the towns and villages of northern Bohemia, who were mistrustful of anyone who did not share their aspirations for political independence.
The resulting psychological conflicts were well described by Theodor Herzl, a Viennese Jew remembered as the father of modern Zionism. "Poor Jews," he wrote in 1896. "Some tried to become Czech, so they got into trouble with the Germans. Some tried to become Germans, so they were attacked by the Czechs as well as the Germans. It's enough to make one lose one's sanityor find it at last ... ." He went on to tell a joke about two coach-drivers who meet on a narrow country road:
Neither of the drivers will give way. There is a Jew in each of the coaches. Thereupon each driver cracks his whip at the passenger in the other coach, "You beat my Jew and I'll beat yours!" But in Bohemia they add, "and mine too," so that the Bohemian Jew gets a double beating for his journey.
For Herzl, the obvious solution to this dilemma was for Jews to assert a distinctly Jewish identity. But that seemed a risky proposition to most of his coreligionists, who feared losing everything unless they assimilated into one of the dominant cultures.
Frequently, the choice of culture depended on matters like geographical location. Madeleine's grandfather, Arnošt, settled in a Czech-speaking part of the country and opted to bring his children up as Czechs while also speaking fluent German. Several of his brothers and sisters ended up in German-speaking regions and spoke German with their children. German remained the lingua franca of the Körbel family. "Arnošt really wanted to be Czech and spoke Czech more than the others," recalls his niece, Joža Gruber, who now lives in Israel. "I was born near the border with Austria, so we spoke German at home. We also spoke German with Arnošt."
It is possible to plot the movements of Josef Sr. and his family around northern Bohemia against the opening of new railroad lines. The oldest daughter, Marta, was born in the town of Litomyšl in 1876. Shortly afterward, the family moved some ten miles to the north, to Ústí nad Orlice, where Josef was appointed the town's first stationmaster. Their first son, Rihard, died of scarlet fever in Ústí before reaching his first birthday. Four days after Rihard's death, Arnošt was born. Three sons and two more daughters followed at regular two-year intervals.
Josef Körbel ended his career as the official in charge of the movement of trains in and out of Litomice, an important railway junction at the foot of the Sudetenland mountains. It was here that he died in 1906, aged sixty-one. There were few Jews in Litomerice, and no Jewish cemetery. As the oldest surviving son, Arnošt had the filial duty of organizing the funeral service. At the time, he was working on the railroad at Nový Bydžov, the site of a well-established Jewish community. Hebrought his father's body back to the Jewish cemetery at Nový Bydžov to be buried.
Madeleine's grandfather, Arnošt Körbel, was a classic example of a self-made man. Uneducated in any formal sense, he began his career as a railroad clerk in a remote corner of Bohemia far from the big cities, and ended up as the owner of a very successful building materials business in Prague. His energy, drive, and native intelligence propelled him inexorably upward, to the point where he was able to send his second son Josef to Paris for an education. (Madeleine's father was named after his grandfather.) It was thanks to Arnošt that the once penniless Körbel family entered the ranks of the bourgeoisie.
Like Josef and Madeleine after him, Arnošt seems to have owed much of his success to a mixture of sociability and ambition. In the little Bohemian town of Letohrad, where he first began to make money, he is still remembered as a progressive and charismatic businessman who provided his coachman with cooked lunches. A natural salesman, Arnošt had "a talent for getting on with other people," said Vera Ruprechtova, granddaughter of his first business partner, Jan Reinelt. "He was a humanitarian."
Although he did his duty by his father and buried him according to Jewish tradition, Arnošt refused to have anything to do with Judaism himself. He forbade his wife Olga and their three children from attending synagogue. Olga, who was conventionally religious, would occasionally go to the synagogue in secret. The only time the children ever went to a synagogue was when they were with Olga on holiday in the spa town of Karlsbad, away from their father's surveillance.
The drive for assimilation may have been particularly pronounced in Arnošt's case because he was trying to make his career in the building trade, which was difficult for Jews to enter. But his anti-religious attitude was not at all unusual for Czech Jews, who wanted nothing more than to be accepted by their Christian neighbors. In 1899, when Arnošt was twenty-one, the entire Jewish community of Polná, just fifty miles from where he was living, was accused of "ritual murder" following the unexplained killing of a Christian seamstress. A Jewish shoemaker, Leopold Hilsner, was sentenced to death for the murder, and anti-Jewishpogroms broke out across the country, causing many Bohemian Jews to flee to the big cities. The Hilsner case tapped into one of the oldest anti-Semitic myths: that Jews use the blood of Christians to make Passover bread.
The drift away from religion has been well described by numerous other Hapsburg Jews, notably the writer Franz Kafka. The Körbel family sounds very much like the Kafka family, as depicted in this 1911 letter from Franz to his father:
What kind of Judaism did I get from you? ... When I was young, I could not understand how, with the insignificant scrap of Judaism you yourself possessed, you could reproach me for not making the effort to live with a similar nothing ... . On four days in the year you went to the synagogue, where you were (to say the least) closer to the indifferent ones than to those who took religion seriously, you patiently went through the prayers in a purely formal manner ... . That was how it was in the synagogue; and at home, if possible, it was even more pitiful, being confined to the first Seder evening, which increasingly developed into a farce with fits of hysterical laughter ... . That was the religious material handed on to me ... . How one could do anything better with this material than get rid of it as fast as possible was something I could not understand.
It is not difficult to imagine Madeleine's grandfather expressing the same anti-religious sentiment to his father Josef.
Members of the Körbel family recall Arnošt as a stern but loving parent who was able to look at life with a sense of bemused detachment. After his children grew up, and the family moved to Prague, he became inordinately fond of a little wire-haired terrier called Drollo, or Drollik. "It was the dog that attracted me to Arnošt," said his niece, Joža. "Arnošt was very warm. You could see that from the twinkle in his eye. But he was usually very busy and was not at home all that often. He was very energetic. He built himself up from nothing to be a rich man."
Woe betide any child who treated Drollo with less than full respect. Arnošt's granddaughter, Dasha, recalls an incident in Prague in the late 1930s when she was six or seven. She wanted to read and the dog was irritating her, so she tied it to a door handle. "Grandfather was very cross. Hetook a piece of string and tied my leg to the table. I remained tied up there until Grandmother came and let me go." Arnošt's oldest son, Jan, told his children the story of how he had received a severe beating from his father as punishment for painting the dog. Madeleine's father, Josef, also had vivid memories of the dog. When he got his own dog later in life, he insisted on naming it Drollik, in honor of his father's dog.
Animals and small children seemed to fare better with Arnošt than older children. "He could be a bit of a bully," said Alena Korbel, Madeleine's first cousin. "He loved children until they started saying 'No' and arguing with him."
If Arnošt was the disciplinarian in the family, Olga was remembered for her gentleness and kindness. An excellent cook, she played with the children and protected them from their father's flashes of temper. Alena Korbel remembers her as "nice, but from my point of view not very exciting ... . She would say all these conventional things like how wonderful everything was." Although Olga may have struck a five-year-old as unexciting, it was she who did most to keep the family together during the Nazi terror. Her unselfish generosity shines through in letters that she wrote to her relatives after Hitler's troops occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939.
Many years later, in written reminiscences to her children, Madeleine's mother, Mandula, described the different personality traits that her husband had inherited from Arnošt and Olga. She wrote that Arnošt's most remarkable feature was his "perseverance": "From a little shopkeeper, he became a shareholder and director of a big building company." Olga, by contrast, was responsible for endowing Josef with what Mandula described as his "good heart, gentleness, unselfishness, and loyalty to his family."
Arnošt appears to have met his future wife while working for the railroad in Nový Bydžov. Olga's father operated the pub at the station in the nearby village of Ostrom. Running a pub was a typically Jewish occupation in nineteenth-century Bohemia. Catholics steered clear of the distribution of alcohol, which was organized through a lease-holding system. In Czech literature, the Jewish innkeeper is almost as ubiquitous as the Jewish peddler or moneylender. The portrayal was frequently negative. In the words of an American writer, the Jewish-run tavern was "a place of weddings and other celebrations but also of shadydeals, the only venue in which a Gentile, a Jew, a count, and a criminal might meet."
Several years after their marriage, Arnošt and Olga moved from Nový Bydžov to the town of Letohrad (then called Kysperk), in northeastern Bohemia, near the border with Galicia. Situated on a hillside, Letohrad is built around a dilapidated castle and a square with a baroque Catholic Church in the middle. It was here that Madeleine's father, Josef, was born, on September 20, 1909. He was the youngest of three children. (His sister Grete was born in 1903; his brother Jan in 1906.) Josef's birth certificate, issued by a Jewish registrar in a neighboring town, describes him as "Jewish and legitimate." There was no synagogue in Letohrad, and the Jewish community was very smalljust half a dozen familiesanother sign of Arnošt's indifference to religion.
The Körbels lived in a modest two-story row house opposite the train station. Arnošt used the ground floor of the housenow a bicycle storeas an office for his building materials business. He also helped set up the local match factory, the first of its kind in the country, turning what had previously been a cottage industry into the most profitable business in town. It was Arnošt's job to supply the wood for the factory. He transported fifteen-foot logs into town on the railroad and then used his own coach and horses to get the logs to the match factory.
The horses were stabled at the back of the Körbel house, in the courtyard. The coachman and his family lived in a small room on top of the stable. Jan Koloc, who was born the year after Josef, remembers playing hide-and-seek among the logs in the station yard with the Körbel children and the coachman's children. When they tired of this game, they would play marbles on the street.
The most momentous event of Josef's childhood was the end of World War I and the collapse of the Hapsburg empire. After three centuries of Austrian rule, the Czechs and Slovaks were finally free to set up their own state. News of the end of the war arrived by telegraph at the railway station shortly after midnight on October 28, 1918, touching off wild celebrations. According to Koloc, "municipal employees went around with accordions, waking up everybody, telling them, 'Don't sleep. We have won our freedom, come celebrate.'" By morning, all the Austrian eagles had been replaced by the double-tailed lion, symbol of the Czech lands.
Czech-speaking Jews like Arnošt and Josef immediately identified with the new state. While never entirely eliminated, anti-Semitism was more muted in Czechoslovakia than anywhere else in Central Europe. There were some 350,000 Jews in the new republic, out of a total population of thirteen million. In some ways, the Jews were the only real Czechoslovaks in a multiethnic country, most of whose citizens regarded themselves as primarily Czech, Slovak, German, or Hungarian. Even after emigrating with his family to America, Josef was always very insistent on this point. "I was brought up as a Czechoslovak," Madeleine would recall after her appointment as secretary of state. "That was the big deal ... . When I asked my parents, 'Are we Czech or are we Slovak?', they would always say, 'You are a Czechoslovak.'"
Czechoslovakia's first president, Tomáš Masaryk, was a humanist committed to full equality between the country's ethnic groups. His staunch resistance to anti-Semitism made him particularly popular among Jews. He had made his reputation defending Leopold Hilsner, the Jewish shoemaker accused of "ritual murder" in 1899. When Masaryk wrote a series of articles demolishing the case against Hilsner, he was attacked by the Catholic Church for "selling his soul to the Jews."
Josef would always revere Masaryk. In his book, Twentieth Century Czechoslovakia, he describes the philosopher-president as "an intellectual and ethical giant" who "fought anti-Semitism all his long life." Without Masaryk, he wrote, "there would have been no Czechoslovakia."
There was no high school in Letohrad so, at the age of twelve, Josef was sent by his parents to the nearby town of Kostelec. He stayed with a family that made a living renting rooms to students. It was here he met his future wife, Madeleine's mother. As Mandula later recalled in notes to her family, "we met and fell in love" in the high school in Kostelec.
With some ten thousand inhabitants, and closer to the plains, Kostelec was twice the size of Letohrad and a generally more prosperous place. Mandula's family, the Spiegels, were one of the wealthiest families in town. Mandula's maternal grandfather, Alois, had founded a profitable wholesale business that serviced stores throughout the region. Among other items, the Spiegel family was renowned for producing its own sweetliqueur, which it marketed under the name "Asko" (short for Alois Spiegel Kostelec). They also roasted their own coffee.
After Alois' death in 1913, the business was taken over by his two sons, Gustav and Alfred, Mandula's father. Of the two brothers, Gustav seems to have been the more dynamic. "He was the brains behind the business," recalled Zdenek Beneš, a family friend still living in Kostelec. "Alfred was diligent and a hard worker, but not particularly intelligent." Gustav and his family lived above the warehouse. A picture from the early 1920s shows Gustav and his son Pepik, both of whom would be killed in Hitler's concentration camps, standing proudly in front of one of the first cars in Kostelec. They are both dressed in flashy pinstripe suits and white socks and look the very image of rich Jewish merchants. Both brothers had the reputation for being ladies' men and telling risque jokes. Gustav kept a mistress, who lived several blocks away from the family warehouse. By 1921, when Josef arrived in Kostelec, the family employed thirty or so clerks and workers.
Avigdor Dagan, who knew Josef and Mandula in London in World War II as an official with the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, visited Kostelec as a traveling salesman in the early 1930s. He was struck by the similarities between Alfred Spiegel and his daughter Mandula. "The Spiegels sold anything to do with food: tea, coffee, margarine, all kinds of spices. I remember [Alfred] Spiegel and his wife. They were both very small people. Mrs. Spiegel was a very quiet woman. She would sit at the cash register. I don't think I ever heard more than two words from her. Mr. Spiegel, on the other hand, was a very lively man. He would run around the shop, talking all the time, telling typical Jewish jokes, and asking me to tell jokes. [Mandula] was very much like her father. She had the same kind of wit."
The Spiegels appear to have been a little more observant than the Körbels. It is likely that they went to synagogue once or twice a year, for the main Jewish festivals. "There weren't very many pious Jews in Bohemia," says Dagan, who later edited the standard work on Czech Jewry. "Most Jews in Bohemia limited their Jewishness to taking part in high holidays and going to synagogue occasionally. It was something they just did because it was expected of them. Jewishness with [the Spiegels] was certainly not something very deep, but everybody knew they wereJews and society forced them to observe a certain limited number of things."
Intellectually, Madeleine would model herself on her father Josef. But she seems to have inherited her sharp tongue and ready repartee from her mother's side of the family. Physically, too, she is a Spiegel. "She looks very much like her maternal grandfather," says Dagan, who emigrated to Israel after the war and became a prominent writer and diplomat. "If I look at her face and take off the hair, it is to a large extent the face of [Alfred] Spiegel."
Nearly half a century later, in a letter sent to his classmates, Josef reminisced fondly about his time in Kostelec. He recalled dances at a nearby baroque castle, walks in the surrounding hills, and the trouble he got into for shooting someone's hat with an air gun. "I can imagine all of you before my eyes as if it was today," he wrote. "I see before me the school with Rabstein and Rabišak [school friends], Havlikov street and the gray house number 510 [where the Spiegels lived], the charming river Orlici and the little trails on the hills, the square full of flowers, and the Spiegel store."
Another friend, Josef Marek, remembers spending New Year's Eve in the company of Josef Körbel and Pepik Spiegel. Together with other high school students, they dressed up in costume and paraded around town. More than seventy years later, he can still recall the song they used to sing:
Kostelec is a town known all over the world, Everybody must be envious of our Kostelec, Whoever sees Kostelec will become mute, Kostelec is the only place on earth.
Josef stood out from the other students because of his determination and ambition. "Already at an early age, he knew exactly what he would like to be, and was trying to plan his education accordingly," Mandula wrote later. "He wanted to be a diplomat, newspaperman, or politician. There were so many possibilities in the new Czechoslovakia for talented young people who wanted to [take part] in building a real democracy under the leadership of T.G.M[asaryk] ... . Joe wanted very much to be one of them."
In order to prepare for his future career, Josef knew he would have to learn foreign languages and acquire political connections. His family hired a tutor to teach him German, and he lived for a while in the German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia. He became a firm supporter of the National Socialist Party founded by Eduard Beneš, Masaryk's successor as president of Czechoslovakia. (The Czechoslovak National Socialist Party was social democratic in orientation, not to be confused with the German Nazi Party.)
Josef spent the academic year 192829 in Paris, studying French and acquiring the social graces of a man of the world. He was quick-witted and opinionated. Once in Paris, he happened to overhear two Czech students, neither of whom he knew, conducting a heated philosophical debate on the street. "Excuse me, but I couldn't help hearing what you were saying," he interrupted in Czech. "Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Josef Körbel, and I disagree with absolutely everything you said."
There would later be some confusion about exactly where in Paris Madeleine's father studied. He said the Sorbonne, but his friend Josef Marek insists he attended a slightly less celebrated school known as Science-Po.
As the daughter of one of the richest men in Kostelec, Mandula also received part of her education abroad. Her parents sent her to a private school in Switzerland. Pretty and vivacious, she was a good catch for Josef. It was he who coined the nickname "Mandula." Her real name was Anna, but Josef started calling her "Ma Andula" (My little Anna) as a term of affection. The name was soon contracted to Mandula, which stuck with her for the rest of her life.
Josef had asked Mandula to marry him in 1928, shortly after leaving high school. She agreed, but their families felt they were too young. The marriage would have to wait until April 1935, after Josef had received a doctorate in law at Charles University in Prague and embarked on a diplomatic career. In her notes to her family, Mandula gives only a hint of the frustration she must have felt over this seven-year engagement. "Joe was certainly a man worth waiting for ... but it was not always easy." A picture taken on their wedding day outside the registry office shows Mandula, pert and happy as a bird, clutching her husband proudly by the arm. A fur is slung around her neck. Her hat is slanted rakishly over herforehead. A head taller than Mandula, Josef is doing up his coat and moving briskly on with his life.
By the mid-twenties, the descendants of Josef and Auguste Körbel were scattered all over Czechoslovakia. Work with the railroads had taken them from Bohemia in the west to Slovakia in the east. But every summer the family made a big effort to get together again. They rented a cottage in the Bohemian village of Choce, in the same part of the country where they had been raised.
Since Josef Sr. was long dead, it was left to Auguste to preside over these annual gatherings. By this time, the family matriarch was living with her youngest son Max, a bachelor who later died in a car accident. She had a difficult personality. "Auguste was a very capricious woman," recalls her granddaughter Joža. "She was very good to us grandchildren, but would change her mind about everything all the time. Max, who was the manager of a bank, had a beautiful, comfortable apartment, but nothing was ever right for Auguste. She was always finding fault with something, always making allegations."
Even though they went their separate ways and would eventually end up all over the world, the Körbels retained some distinctive family traits. The most striking of these characteristics are meticulousness and persistence. It is tempting to trace the penchant for orderexemplified in later life by Madeleine's incredibly neat handwriting and her habit of using different-colored pens to take notesback to the experience of so many family members on the railroads. This was a family that liked to have the trains run on time.
"As a family, we are calm, well-organized," says Chaim Körbel, another grandchild of Josef and Auguste who emigrated to Israel in 1939 and founded a kibbutz. "Because my father worked for the railroads, we could travel very cheaply. Even before we left, my father would have everything planned. Nothing was allowed to interfere with the plan." The love of order, Chaim adds, is accompanied by a certain stubbornness, even obduracy. "I am very persistent. I keep going, I never quit. My father was the same way."
While the Körbels clearly had a lot in common, they differed sharply in the way they reacted to persecution. Even though Czechoslovakia had awell-deserved reputation for being a haven from anti-Semitism in the twenties and thirties, it could not entirely insulate itself from the winds of hatred blowing from neighboring Austria and Germany. Hitler's screed Mein Kampf, "My Struggle," first appeared in 1925, denouncing the Jews as "traitors" and "Satans" and calling for the creation of an ethnically pure state. In 1933, the year Hitler came to power in Germany, the German Nazi Party formed a Czech offshoot under Konrad Henlein.
There were essentially two ways for Czech Jews to react to these gathering storm clouds: to become more Jewish or to become less Jewish. Each solution carried certain advantages and certain risks. The Zionists felt that the only way to withstand persecution and discrimination was to combat it openly and support the idea of an independent Jewish state. The Assimilationists believed that such action would only play into the hands of the anti-Semites. They reacted to anti-Semitism by redoubling their efforts to demonstrate their loyalty to the democratic Czechoslovak state founded by Masaryk.
Sometimes, the same individuals reacted in different ways at different times. There are numerous cases of Czech Jews being baptized as children or young adults and then rediscovering their Judaism later in life. It was not at all infrequent for the religious schism to go down the middle of a family, separating children from parents and brothers from sisters. Much depended on an individual's formative experiences, the part of the country he grew up in, and whether his first language was German or Czech. German-speaking Jews tended to hold themselves more aloof from the young Czechoslovak democracy than Czech-speaking Jews.
Chaim Körbel says that his father, Karel, was "not particularly religious." (Karel was the younger brother of Arnošt, Madeleine's grandfather.) "We only went to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah [the Jewish New Year]," he recalls. But the views of this branch of the Körbel family began to change in the thirties, after the Nazis came to power in Germany. Chaim attended a German-speaking school in Brno, the second-largest Czech city after Prague. He left after some of his fellow students showed up at school in white socks, the symbol of Henlein's extreme nationalist party, and began taunting the Jewish children.
Chaim and his older brother Gert both responded to the rise of Hitler by joining the youth wing of the Zionist movement. So did theircousin Joža, who grew up in Slovakia, where anti-Semitism was more pronounced than in the Czech lands. On the other hand, Joža's older sister, Herta, wanted nothing to do with Zionism. (Such distinctions made absolutely no difference to the Nazis. They would kill Herta anyway, together with her parents.)
Chaim, who was fourteen years old when he became a Zionist, thinks that age had a lot to do with his decision. "We were younger, and more aware of these new organizations popping up around us," he says.
By contrast, Zionism was never a real option for Chaim's cousin Josef. By the time Hitler came to power, Madeleine's father was twenty-three and eager to make a diplomatic career for himself. It was hard enough for an assimilated Jew to get into the Czechoslovak Foreign Ministry; for a Zionist it would have been impossible. From this time on, whenever he was asked to state his religion on a form, Josef replied simply: "Without confession."
"Körbel was one of the very, very few Jews who succeeded in getting into the Foreign Ministry before the war. He did so by not giving any signs of his Jewishness," says Dagan, his Foreign Ministry colleague later in London. Dagan speculates that Josef was helped in his chosen career by his connections with the National Socialist Party. "They probably arranged things for him. Without that kind of patronage, it was very difficult."
So determined was Josef to be a Czech that he never publicly explained his decision to repudiate his Jewishness. His voluminous writings as a leading American expert on Eastern Europe contain only fleeting references to Jews. It seems likely that he simply absorbed the stridently secular views of his father, Arnošt, and took them one stage further. None of Arnošt's three children showed the slightest interest in Judaism. After Hitler unleashed his genocidal policies, they and their children were all baptized. In the words of Madeleine's cousin, Dasha Šima, "The only sense in which we were Jews was under the definition of the Nuremberg laws, Hitler and the Nazis."
But even as he rejected his Jewishness, Josef remained influenced by it. Indeed, the quest for acceptance and assimilation is the most striking theme in his life, and by extension the life of his daughter. Fear can be as powerful a stimulus as religion or ideology. The words of the Czech Jewish writer Oskar Baum seem to apply to Josef:
The secret of Jewish energy is the knowledge of near destruction. For two thousand years the nation has constantly stood at the edge of annihilation. Once the sardine canas a joker called the ghettohas been broken open, it is free, exposed to all dangers ... . The danger of destruction, which is now hardly avoidable and which everyone carries around deep in his unconscious, spurs us on.
One-year-old Madeleine, holding doll carriage with her two cousins, Dasha and Milena, in Czechoslovakia in 1938. Milena, right, died in the Holocaust. Courtesy of Dasha Šima.
Copyright © 1999 by Michael Dobbs