I don’t remember when I first heard about former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s childhood in Prague during World War II. I feel like I read it somewhere or heard my parents discussing it and filed the information away for later. When I spotted her new memoir, Prague Winter, on the take shelf at work (one of the fun perks of a career in publishing), I gave a squeak of excitement and promptly rescued it. Questions immediately flooded my brain: What was her childhood like? Did she or any members of her family live in Prague during the Nazi occupation? What memories did she have of the time? Did she lose anybody in the war? I couldn’t wait to start, even as part of me wondered if the writing would be too dry for me to become fully involved.
I’ll respond to that last bit first: this was, honestly, one of the most compelling works of non-fiction that I’ve read in a long time. Albright has a wonderfully engaging voice that grabs you from the very first page and holds your attention throughout. She presents both the historical aspects and her personal remembrances in a down-to-earth fashion that’s extremely easy to read and absorb. Non-fiction tends to be slower going for me, and I marveled at how quickly I flew through the pages.
Prague Winter focuses more on the history of Czechoslovakia than on Albright’s memories of World War II, although as she was barely a toddler when the war broke out, this makes sense. Instead, she goes on papers left behind by her father and mother, reminiscences with her cousin, and her later trips to Prague with her brother and sister, as well as her general knowledge of the period. She gives a brief history of the unification of Czechoslovakia and the challenges faced by the first democratic government before delving into the World War II years, where the big powers used Czechoslovakia as a bargaining chip. This led to the Nazi occupation of the region and the exile of the government to England, where they fought for recognition and for the future of their nation once the war ended.
In the middle of all this is Albright’s family, the Korbels. Her father, Josef, was declared an enemy of the Nazis, both for his diplomatic work for the Czech government and because he was a Jew, albeit non-practicing. He fled with the government to England and helped write the radio broadcasts that would be aired illegally in Czechoslovakia on the BBC. Later, a cousin joins the Korbels via the kindertransport, and they manage to survive the war. Tragically, the rest of the family is deported to Terezin, where they all perish.
Following the war, the Korbels return to Prague, where it is abundantly clear that all is not well. The Soviets have their eye on the region, and when they succeed in making Czechoslovakia a communist satellite, the Korbels must flee again, this time to seek asylum in the United States.
I think what I liked most about this was how much I learned about Prague. It’s always been on my list of places to visit, not just because I love a city with a medieval castle, but also because it has a strong Jewish community that’s rich in history. After learning about the long struggle to establish and maintain an identity in Europe, I know that I need to see this place and celebrate that achievement.
This is also a story that is very much about family, and those parts were alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking. I loved reading Albright’s recollections about going to school in England (and getting a D in geography!) and taking car trips with her father, and I was glued to the chapters on Terezin, which she covers extensively. It was nothing short of miraculous that these people, who were forced to live in such deplorable conditions, managed to rise above everything and take care of one another until the end.
An educational and inspiring read. I definitely recommend it.