Madeleine Albright used to be America’s top diplomat.
She was Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001, when the war in Kosovo broke out.
She also served as US Ambassador to the UN during the Rwanda genocide.
But her new book tells a more personal tale.
In it, Albright writes about what it was like in 1997, after learning that some of her relatives were Jewish, and that many of them died in a Nazi camp called Terezin.
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. Madeleine Albright used to be America’s top diplomat. She was secretary of state from 1997 to 2001, when the war in Kosovo broke out. She also served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. during the Rwanda genocide. But her new book tells a more personal tale. It is called Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937 to 1948. In it Albright writes about what it was like in 1997, after learning that some of her relatives were Jewish and that many of them died in a Nazi camp called Terezin.
Madeleine Albright: I had to absorb that at a strange time. I had just been the first woman secretary of state, and the only way to describe it is I had been asked to represent my country in a marathon and was given a very heavy package to carry as I ran. Not only to carry, but to unwrap. People were trying to figure out if a woman could even be secretary of state. So I asked my brother and sister to go to the Czech Republic in order to begin to unravel the story. And they did.
Werman: Right. In Terezin, this camp where a lot of your extended family were sent and later died, it was billed by the Nazis as a spa, but it was obviously far from that.
Albright: Actually I have been there and on the surface it is an attractive town, but horrible in terms of what was going on there. People were being prepared to be sent on to the death camps and among the sado-masochistic cynical things that the barbaric Nazis did, was in fact to create a group of Jewish elders who then had to make the choices about who went on to the death camps.
Werman: You have a firsthand account written of the train that transported your 12-year old cousin Milena that night in 1944 to her death. I’m wondering if you could read that for us.
Albright: At 9:30, getting people into the cars. The sick, the sick, stretchers without end. And all this, including loading luggage, is done by 40 people with white caps. Luggage everywhere. Luggage in front of the sluice gate; luggage in the sluice gate, on the platforms, in the cars. And everyone has so ridiculously little. And even that will probably be taken from them. Small children, three to ten, screaming – each has a little backpack. There’s not a person here whose history is not a tragedy. All have been abandoned. Those who walk have turned to stone. Those who remain swab their tears. In the end, the luggage remained. There was no space.
Werman: That just leaves a pit in your stomach. That is the night that your cousin gets taken away. What was it like piecing together this history?
Albright: Unbelievably sad. I have to tell you, when you asked me earlier what I knew, and I obviously had known about the Holocaust, but then putting my own family into the middle of it and going to Terezin and trying to visualize what it was like. I mean, it’s empty, obviously now. And then when you are there you can hear the screaming. There are a lot of ghosts and it’s creepy- there’s no other way to describe it.
Werman: Let’s talk about what this history says about policy. Terezin, this camp where a lot of your extended family were sent and later died, used by the Nazis as propaganda, invited in the International Committee for the Red Cross. They said, look, it’s a spa. And a lot of people believed that. Let’s bring this to the current day. Within the next month 300 inspectors will be arriving in Syria. What are your thoughts with the lessons of Terezin in mind?
Albright: I didn’t actually think that it would be so germane right away when I wrote about this. And so I think the lesson is, first of all, for observers, monitors; they have to be prepared and push and ask questions and not be satisfied. And not allow themselves to just be taken around by minders.
Werman: We’ve seen a number of inspectors go into Syria now, and the net result is that they haven’t been terribly fruitful. What is left in the diplomatic toolbox?
Albright: I’m sure that behind the scenes there are things going on to push the Chinese and the Russians to join the rest of the world in terms of condemnation of what is going on. I think also, though, there are additional ways to provide non-lethal humanitarian assistance. Try to figure out how to help the refugees. A lot of economic tools. I teach courses about the national security toolbox and there are not that many tools in it. So as far as I am concerned, one should never take the option off the table, including the military one. But the bottom line is, as decision makers look at this, they have to figure out what’s do-able, and what brings the right results.
Werman: World opinion seems to keep inching toward action, and President Obama’s speech this week on atrocities kind of implies a moral responsibility. What do you think, then, is the tipping point? How bad do things have to get before someone intervenes militarily?
Albright: I think that there is no exact tipping point. If we’re looking at numbers, the tipping point has been reached. But the bottom line is I think it is a matter of what is a useful thing to do; what does not make things worse. Syria is in a very difficult geographical location and whatever can happen there could explode outward in terms of the various sectarian aspects of it. What happened in Libya is interesting because the Arab League was very supportive of it. So you need a regional partner, and you need to figure out who would actually go in and do something more militarily.
Werman: Libya is a good example. Let’s take an extreme example of waiting for that tipping point. Rwanda. Romeo Dallaire, who headed the U.N. force during the genocide in Rwanda notes that when you were the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., you avoided describing the killings in Rwanda as genocide until the evidence of genocide was overwhelming. Three-quarters of a million people had died in that, as you know, in that genocide. Does that haunt you and are you worried that President Obama could face a similar situation where he’s behind the tipping point?
Albright: Well first of all, definitely it haunts me and President Clinton. We’ve talked about it. But it’s a different situation. You have to put yourself in the position of the decision makers at what information they had at the time. The bottom line is, I think that we couldn’t have gotten there in time to stop it, no matter what. On Syria I think we do have more information. That is the thing that has been going on and the role of information, one could argue that nobody had information about what was happening to the Jews during World War II. I obviously would not be one to do that, but it was not the kind of level of information that we have now as a result of social media and penetration. And so this concept about protecting people is much more vivid.
Werman: The flip side, of course, are the dangers of intervention, like as we saw in Iraq.
Albright: I don’t believe that people sit in their offices trying to make stupid decisions, but the bottom line is the war in Iraq, I think, was a mistake.
Werman: Madeleine Albright, having done this incredible body of research for your book Prague Winter, how does what you’ve learned about your family’s past color your thinking on what must be done now to prevent genocide?
Albright: I do think that it does provide a very important motivation to everybody about making sure that we care about other human beings that live in places that are far away with unpronounceable names. That is what the British and French said about Czechoslovakia â€“ a far away place with unpronounceable names. And that we do have, as human beings, a responsibility for each other and trying to figure out how to not just mitigate but make sure that terrible things do not continue to happen because people target others, not for anything that they have done but who they are.
Werman: The book is called Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937 to 1948. Madeleine Albright, thank you very much indeed.
Albright: Thank you.
Werman: You can see an excerpt from my interview with the former secretary of state. We posted a video at TheWorld.org
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