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Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as U.S. secretary of state, died. Trains played a key role in her family's life

Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as U.S. secretary of state, died. Trains played a key role in her family's life
photo: USA embassy/ČT24/Madeleine Albright
26 / 03 / 2022

Madeleine Albright (born Marie Jana Korbelová), a native of former Czechoslovakia, died of cancer on March 23, 2022, at age 85. She was the first woman to lead the United States Foreign Service. Madeleine was subjected to hardships, long railroad journeys, and heartbreaking discoveries about her origins and her family's history before succeeding in life.

Born May 15, 1937, in former Czechoslovakia to the Jewish family of diplomat Josef Korbel and his wife Anna, she was nicknamed "Madlenka" by her grandmother, which later stuck with her while studying at Kent Denver School in the United States.

In 1938, as the crisis between Nazi Germany intensified, then Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš announced the mobilization. Josef Korbel and his entire family traveled to Belgrade, the Serbian capital, to join the army, but, due to anti-Jewish sentiment breaking out in Yugoslavia, they had to return home to later emigrate to London in 1939. There Joseph worked for Jan Masaryk, while little Madeleine attended school. Ironically, the only subject she failed was geography, which would later become an integral part of her political career.

When World War II ended, the whole family returned to Czechoslovakia, and life seemed to begin to return to normal. However, soon the family had to leave their home for good due to the pro-Soviet communist regime established in the country. The Korbels emigrated to the United States: the father began teaching at the University of Denver, and Madeleine continued her high school education, later enrolling at the University of Massachusetts at Wellesley, where she graduated with a degree in political science.

Albright began her political career as an activist in the Democratic Party. In 1993, Bill Clinton, who won the presidential election, appointed her permanent U.S. representative to the United Nations and a member of his cabinet. There she proved herself to be a staunch and unyielding diplomat. Journalists subsequently dubbed her the "Iron Lady," similar to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She advocated NATO expansion and the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, which led to NATO fighting in that country being referred to as "Madeleine's war. In 2012, Barack Obama honored the former secretary of state with the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for her efforts to bring peace to the Balkans.

Madeleine learned of her Jewish ancestry after years of living in the dark. In 1997, when Albright was nominated for U.S. Secretary of State, the public media was particularly interested in her candidacy. Driven by a desire to gather data for Madeleine's dossier, the Washington Post conducted an independent investigation and informed Albright how many people in her family had died from the Holocaust. She later sent her siblings to the Czech Republic to learn as much as she could about the family history, and in 1997 Madeleine herself joined the investigation when she visited the Czech Republic on the occasion of its accession to NATO.

What few people know, however, is that the Albright family and her relatives got a chance to carry on in large part because of trains, railroads, and people who risked their lives to save entire families and their generations. For instance, Madeleine's cousin, Dáša, was one of the children lucky enough to be on Sir Nicholas Winton's evacuation train. Between December 1938 and September 1939, he arranged for the transportation and reception in London of children threatened by Nazi racial laws imposed by Czechoslovakia after the German invasion in March 1939. The first shipment of children left Prague by plane on March 14, 1939, just one day before the Third Reich invaded Czechoslovakia, annexed the Czech lands to Germany and created a Slovak puppet state. Between March and August, Winton and his associates took seven more shipments of children out of the country by rail. The last train left Prague on August 2, 1939, a month before World War II began. He saved 669 Czechoslovak Jewish children, for which he was knighted in 2002 and was awarded the Czech Order of the White Lion in 2013. One of these children was Madeleine's cousin Dáša, with whom they lived together in London and later returned to Prague. Another cousin, Milena, who was four years younger than Dáša, did not get on the train because her parents decided that she was too young for that.

More recently, in February, shortly before the war in Ukraine began, Madeleine Albright reappeared again, lashing out in the New York Times with criticism of Vladimir Putin, whom she first encountered back in 2000, when he first became Russian president.

"Ukraine has a right to sovereignty no matter who its neighbors are," she stated. "All great powers recognize this nowadays, so you, Mr. Putin, should do so, too."