Like Albright, many Europeans found roots as adults

WARSAW — U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is far from alone in discovering her Jewish origins as an adult.

A 50-year-old Jewish university professor who was born in Poland after World War II said, "When I was small, I went to Protestant church with my nanny. I liked very much going to church with her."

She, like thousands of other Jews in Eastern and Central Europe, grew up ignorant of her roots.

"My parents never said anything," she said in an interview. "It was something I guessed eventually, from things that the nanny would say. Only when I was grown up did my mother start talking about it as if it was something I should know."

Last week, after conducting extensive research in Europe, the Washington Post revealed that at least three of Albright's grandparents were Jewish and that they, along with more than a dozen other relatives, died during the Holocaust.

The New York Times ran a follow-up story Friday of last week suggesting that Albright had been informed of her Jewish roots a few years ago by Czech government officials, and that she never responded.

But Albright, who was raised a Roman Catholic and is now an Episcopalian, told the Washington Post that she had not known about her Jewish ancestry before the newspaper confronted her with its findings about her past.

In Prague, Albright's first cousin, Dagmar Simova, told an interviewer it was entirely possible that Albright only learned of her background as a result of the Washington Post probe.

"It is possible that she didn't know" about her Jewishness until last week, said Simova, who lived with her cousin's family in England during the war.

The Holocaust "wasn't a topic we discussed," Simova said. "We were strangers living in a strange land, and Madeleine was only a little girl."

Whenever Albright first learned about her Jewish past, it seems clear that the news was broken to her only later in life.

"It is really a common occurrence," Stanislaw Krajewski, the Poland consultant for the American Jewish Committee, said in an interview.

Krajewski, born in 1950 and today an observant Jew, did not find out he was Jewish until he was well into his teens.

His parents, like the parents of the Jewish university professor, were communists who had broken with Judaism long before he was born. They told him nothing of his heritage.

Parents had numerous reasons for concealing their Jewish identity from children in postwar Eastern and Central Europe.

Some wanted to slam the door on the tragic past and not involve their children in their own suffering.

Some wanted to build a "safer" neutral identity for the children in communist countries where anti-Semitism lingered, religion in general was repressed and many Jewish topics were officially taboo.

"I know so many people who did not know they were Jewish," said the university professor. "It's very common."

She remembered how she used to recite Catholic prayers with her grandfather, who died when she was 4.

"Later I learned that he had been in the Warsaw ghetto. In retrospect, I think that with the Catholic prayers he was trying to teach me something for my safety — just in case. So many children were saved because they knew Catholic prayers."

Polish sociologist Pawel Spiewak recently described an "idle" Jewish identity that exists among many people, even today.

They are people who "don't want to be Jewish; they try to hide their Jewish roots," he said. "They are afraid of attacks. The feeling of danger makes it difficult for some Jews to admit they are Jewish."

The phenomenon was common throughout Eastern and Central Europe in the wake of the Holocaust.

In Czechoslovakia and Hungary, many Jews — like Albright's parents — were already highly assimilated or had converted to Christianity before World War II.

Albright's family fled Czechoslovakia in March 1939, days after Nazi forces occupied the country. The family returned to Czechoslovakia after the war, but fled to the United States in 1948 after a Communist coup in Czechoslovakia.

"Some Jews went to the United States after the war because they wanted to be Jews under better circumstances," Hungarian sociologist Andras Kovacs said.

"Some went to the United States because they wanted to be non-Jews under better circumstances," he added. "It was easier to hide in the U.S., far away from the country of origin. The U.S. provided a better field for those wanting to assimilate."

Kovacs has carried out extensive research in Hungary on Hungarian Jews and how they view their identity.

In the 1980s, he conducted interviews with 117 Hungarian Jews.

"Thirty-one interviewees found out from strangers and not their relatives or members of their families that they were Jews, or deduced the fact from certain indications," he wrote.

"Nine of the interviewees did not wish to tell their children that they were of Jewish origin, and 31 would only do so if the situation made it unavoidable or necessary."

The fall of European communism in 1989 and 1990 changed attitudes in this regard.

New democratic governments instituted religious freedom for the first time in many decades, sparking a revival of Jewish communal life — and an explosion of people discovering, recovering or reclaiming Jewish roots.

In Poland, "one of the most typical groups of people finding out they are Jews are people who were babies or small children during World War II," said Krajewski.

"Some are now learning of their ancestry from their elderly adopted parents who feel that they have to reveal this before they die."

No firm statistics exist on how many people have recently learned of their Jewish roots, but hundreds belong to a new organization, Hidden Children of the Holocaust, which brings together individuals who were hidden by non-Jews during the war.

"I found out six years ago from my mother that I am Jewish," said Uri Filipowicz, a leader of the newly formed Union of Polish Jewish Students.

"I don't want to leave Poland — but I don't want the fact that I'm Jewish to be just another empty word, so I decided to learn as much as I could and make this my road."

Learning suddenly of Jewish roots is liberating for some people, especially younger ones.

But it can also be traumatic, particularly for older individuals.

Kovacs wrote that the people he interviewed described "feelings of persecution, defenselessness, and fear" in their first confrontations with a Jewish identity.

In some cases he documented, "the revelation of the secret was a great shock for the children and often led to the disintegration of the parental family."

In Poland, Krajewski and other members of the Jewish Forum, an association of Jewish professionals and businesspeople, last fall created an anonymous telephone hotline aimed at helping people go public with their Jewishness. Recently, some support groups for these people have organized.

Callers, he said, included "Jews of all ages" who had only recently discovered their heritage.

Some said "they haven't told their spouse that they were Jewish, or that they only learned about their Jewish identity from their mother on her deathbed."