In 1997, Madeleine Albright couldn't have been more certain that she knew everything important about herself and was in possession of every relevant fact about her life.
And then, at age 59, just days after being confirmed as U.S. secretary of state, Albright became aware that her parents had kept a big secret from her, her sister, Kathy, and their brother, John.
"I had no idea that my family heritage was Jewish," said Albright, a native of Czechoslovakia. "I had no idea that more than two dozen of my relatives died in the Holocaust."
She likens the timing of the revelation to being "the first woman to represent my country in the running of a marathon. Just as the race was starting, I was given a very heavy package. I not only had to hold it, I had to unwrap it as I ran."
By all accounts, she stayed the course.
Albright was selected last week by President Barack Obama as one of 13 recipients of the 2012 Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the nation can award to a U.S. civilian.
She'll visit the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Thursday to read from her new memoir, in which she delves into what she has learned of her ancestry. "Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948" was released April 24 by HarperCollins Publishers.
As befits a career politician who has dedicated her life to influencing the fate of nations and who is fascinated by "why we make the choices we do," at least half of the 416-page book is devoted to a history of Czechoslovakia and to foreign policy in Europe before World War II. The footnotes include extensive references to former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and former Czech President Eduard Benes.
But beneath it all is the story of Albright's past.
She said she was first informed of the truth about her background in 1997 by Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs, who then made his findings public. It took 15 years to publish her account of her history, she said, because it took her that long to conduct her own investigation and come to terms with what she discovered.
"I was beyond shocked," she said. "One day, I had a complete story of my life, and the next day, I didn't. It was a burden of an unbelievable, horrendous kind, and I had to figure out what to do about it."
During the ensuing years, Albright made several trips to Europe with her brother and sister, during which she reconnected with family members she hadn't seen in decades. She visited the concentration camp of Theresienstadt, where several relatives were sent, and studied crematory records.
The death toll included three of Albright's grandparents (the fourth died of natural causes before war broke out), and a young cousin, Milena Deimlova, who played with little Madlenka in Prague.
"I was 2 years old when I left Czechoslovakia," Albright said, "and I have no memories of them."
But now, at least, she has photographs, which are reproduced in the book.
There's the chubby-cheeked future diplomat as a toddler, flanked by her grandmothers. Another heartbreaking snapshot appears to show the then-12-year-old Milena in the concentration camp in June 1944, four months before she died.
As Albright puts it:
"When my history first came out, there were people who said, 'This woman thinks she's so smart. How could she have been so stupid not to figure this out?' But I didn't suspect, not even subconsciously. My parents were remarkable people, and I think they did not want to burden me and my siblings with their grief."
Once Albright knew where to look, she discovered evidence of how her parents had mourned their families. She found a novel that her father, Josef Korbel, had started but never completed, a novel that strikes her now as thinly veiled autobiography.
In the excerpt included in Albright's memoir, the novel's hero, Peter, fantasizes about a reunion with his mother, only to learn from a stranger that she is dead. In Korbel's novel, Peter concludes: "The past was to be deaf and dumb to him. It was to be neither heard, nor spoken."
Because both of Albright's parents died before their daughter was named secretary of state, she'll never know definitively why they remained silent or why they made another controversial decision.
In May 1941, the Korbels and their 3-year-old daughter were baptized into the Roman Catholic Church, which at times during its 2,000-year history has demonized Jews.
"I was a very serious Catholic," Albright said. The family celebrated Christmas. The girl had an altar in her bedroom and harbored aspirations of growing up to become a priest. As "Prague Winter" makes clear, neither Albright's parents nor their extended family were particularly observant when they lived in Czechoslovakia. In addition, she said, the information available to her parents in 1941 was limited.
"My parents converted to Catholicism before anyone knew about the camps," she said. "I don't think that in their wildest dreams they imagined how barbaric the Nazis were."
In retrospect, Albright has come to realize "the democratic, humanist values" inculcated in her by both parents stemmed in part from their personal tragedy. And in turn, the parents' values helped form their daughter's foreign policy. When Albright was secretary of state, for instance, she was one of the leading advocates for using force to end the war in Bosnia.
"I would presume that yes, their background did influence my political philosophy," she said. "When I first became interested in Bosnia, I didn't know that ... my family heritage was Jewish. But my parents obviously did, and the inheritance I received from them includes a commitment to freedom and to human rights.
"My parents are long dead, but I'm still trying to be the perfect daughter. I still want to make them proud."
If you go
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will discuss her new memoir, "Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948" at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St. Free. For information, call 410-545-5430 or go to prattlibrary.org.
Age: 74 (She turns 75 on May 15)
Birthplace: Prague, Czechoslovakia
Birth name: Marie Jana Korbelova
Education: Bachelor's degree, Wellesley College; master's and doctorate, Columbia University
Awards: Has been chosen by President Barack Obama to receive the Medal of Freedom later this year.
Career highlights: Served as the first female U.S. secretary of state, 1997-2001; U.S. representative to the United Nations, 1993-1997.
Personal: Divorced, three grown daughters