The Republican Senator George Allen of Virginia and Madeleine Albright, who served as secretary of state in then president Bill Clinton's Democratic administration, have something in common with regard to their pasts and their identity. Both have Jewish ancestry that is undeniable, but because of the Holocaust and persecution of the Jews, their parents chose to "free" their children of the nightmares of the past and to raise them as Christians who could integrate into American society and succeed with new American Christian identities.
For both Allen and Albright, it was the media that discovered their Jewish pasts. For both Allen and Albright, surprise, awkwardness, gossip and sensationalism blended together and led to exposure and to a resounding public debate about the significance of Jewish identity and its political implications. Since Allen's Jewish heritage came to light last month it has become a topic of discussion among journalists, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
Albright and Allen both responded to the revelations with surprise, and many people found it hard to believe that they had indeed known nothing of their parents' identities. The American public learned that Albright was Jewish in February 1997, two months after she was appointed secretary of state, as a result of research conducted for an article in The Washington Post on her family's past in Czechoslovakia.
In 1939, when Albright was two, after Germany had already annexed part of Czechoslovakia, her parents managed to obtain permission from the Gestapo and fled to London. That move probably saved their lives. Relatives who remained behind, including one set of grandparents as well as uncles and cousins, were killed in the Holocaust. Some appear on Auschwitz transportation lists, and they are among the 77,000 names of Czech Jews who died in the Holocaust that are inscribed on the walls of Prague's Pinkas Synagogue, at the entrance to the Old Jewish Cemetery.
Albright maintains that her parents did not tell her they were converts to Catholicism; she knew only that her grandparents and other relatives had died in World War II. When the revelations were exposed, the U.S. media was rife with questions about how it was that a professor of history and international relations, who was also known to be a sharp researcher, had never sought more details about her family history.
Allen's Jewish story is linked to the history of North African Jewry. His mother, Henrietta ("Etty"), was born to a Jewish family, Lumbroso, in Tunisia, and witnessed her father being taken to a Nazi concentration camp. When she reached the United States after the war she sensed anti-Semitism all around her and decided, as she revealed only last month, at the age of 83, that in order to keep her children from experiencing the fear that plagued her, it would be best to completely conceal the fact of their being Jewish from them. She and her husband, George Allen, Sr., a well-known football coach, decided not to reveal her Jewishness to his parents or other relatives.
While Albright's response to the revelation that she was Jewish was a noble awkwardness, Allen reacted with angry denial and aggressiveness during the televised campaign debate at which it came to light publicly. Allen was derided and criticized because of his denials - expressed before he was aware that his mother had already exposed the secret to the press - and over his pathetic attempts to demonstrate that he was a "goy" ("I still had a ham sandwich for lunch, and my mother made great pork chops," he told The Richmond Times-Dispatch after the disclosure).
For many Americans, including Jews, it was easier to accept Albright, an immigrant herself, as a Jew than the son of a football coach from Virginia who wears cowboy boots, chews tobacco and makes racist comments about blacks.
The story of the lost identity of Albright and Allen made headlines because of their public status, but they represent many other people, some of them famous, who in recent years have revealed their Jewish ancestry - in some cases in order to gain leverage during an election campaign. In today's age of globalization and exhibitionistic media, there are those who choose to "out" themselves as Jews. They include French presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, and even Fidel Castro, who claims to be descended from anusim, or "forced converts." Also on this list are former U.S. presidential hopefuls General Wesley Clark (ret.) and John Kerry. Even Hillary Clinton talked about a Jewish step-grandfather when she ran for her current position as U.S. senator from New York.
Historical studies point to hundreds of thousands of Jews who hid their identities due to the Holocaust and learned the lesson of "never again" in reverse, when they decided not to assume the role of victim once again in the society around them. The story of Albright and Allen is in effect the modern version of the anusim. [The term was first used in reference to German Jews in the late 11th century, but often specifically connotes Spanish and Portuguese Jews from the 14th to 17th centuries.]
If in past centuries Jews had to conceal their identity to escape coercion and threats, since the Holocaust and as a result of subsequent anti-Semitism, many of them remained forced converts due to their own reasons, or those of their parents.