Madeleine Albright, the first woman secretary of state of the US under President Bill Clinton, has published her latest book Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 (Harper Collins 2012). An Episcopalian who was raised Catholic, she discovered at age 59 — through a Washington Post report — that she was born to Jewish parents.
The memoir reveals that more than a dozen of her family members died in the Holocaust, including three grandparents. Her father, a former Czech diplomat, and her mother never told her the family secret.
Albright faced down the Serb tyrant Slobadan Milosevic and stopped his ethnic cleansing of Muslims; her father did the same sort of thing earlier in the century.
Albright’s late father Josef Korbel (1909-1977) is intertwined with Pakistan’s destiny. He was the head of the first UN Commission that landed in Kashmir to help India and Pakistan sort out their differences. He was a Czech diplomat favoured by India for the job because Czechoslovakia was friendly to India.
For that the All-India Muslim League was to blame, siding with the Sudeten Germans in 1938, who became an excuse for Hitler to invade Czechoslovakia. One should remember that whereas Afghanistan cast the only negative vote in the UN General Assembly on the admission of Pakistan, Czechoslovakia’s was the only abstention.
But Korbel ended up favouring Pakistan in his book Danger in Kashmir (1954) because he sensed that India, being on the wrong side in the Cold War, would not be able to prevent Communism from establishing an outpost in Kashmir.
After the Second World War, Korbel was on an important post in the Foreign Office in Prague. (He actually lived in a house abandoned by a Sudeten German industrialist, Karl Nebrich, whose family later claimed their paintings from Madeleine Albright.)
The Korbels did not have a Hebrew name. It appears that they took a safe name to ward off suspicion of the Jew-hating Slavs, and later, Jew-hating Germans. Korbel relates to ‘crow’. Joseph Shipley in his book of roots gives it the meaning ‘related to the beak of a raven’. He also tells us that in architecture ‘Corbel’ means a projection jutting out from the wall like a crow’s beak.
We know that in French, ‘crow’ is ‘corbeau’ which comes in a changed form from the Latin ‘corvus’. The Romans got it from the Greeks who called the bird ‘korax’. The name was clearly derived from the noise the bird makes.
The Urdu version is ‘kavva’ but we know that such formations come about through the elision of an ‘r’. In Punjabi the name of the bird is ‘kaan’. The Slav version is ‘krava’ (close to our ‘kavva’ with the ‘r’ dropped) but ‘kos’ is also found in Serbo-Croat.
The province of Yugoslavia, Kosovo, is actually called Kosovo Polye. ‘Kosovo’ means of crows or blackbirds. ‘Polye’ means ‘field’. 600 years ago this was where the Serbs were defeated by the Turks. By the time they were finished, there were blackbirds eating the corpses on the battlefield.
John Updike, reviewing a biography of the great writer Franz Kafka, wrote: “In 1900, some 85 per cent of the roughly 35,000 German-speaking citizens in the Prague population were Jewish. The Kafkas were unusual in bearing a Czech name — ‘kavka’ means jackdaw — and in speaking Czech at home.” The word is a diminutive of ‘kav’ (crow).
The idea was to allay the Slav nationalism among the Czechs. In the 1897 pogroms, the Kafkas were spared. The Korbels, too, were not only spared but Josef Korbel was taken under his wing by the great Czech leader, Jan Masaryk.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 9th, 2012.
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