By Sally Friedman Special to the BCT
CHERRY HILL — For a few shining minutes, a frail 93-year-old woman with a cap of silver hair and a megawatt smile had a remarkable experience.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stopped by for a very personal chat with Hana Stranska, who had been sitting in a wheelchair in a private room at the Katz Jewish Community Center on Springdale Road. It was before Albright’s public appearance Thursday night before a capacity crowd of more than 750 people at a kickoff event for the center’s annual Festival of Arts, Books and Culture.
When the two came face to face, there were hugs, and without words, since Stranska has basically been robbed of speech from a stroke, the resident of Medford Leas basked in the moment.
“I am so happy to see you,” Albright said to the woman who had been her father’s devoted assistant years ago, in the period after World War II ended.
Stranska, whose Jewish family perished in the Holocaust, survived because she had fled to England.
There was no question that Stranska perfectly understood the words of Albright, who was gracious and warm to the woman whose name appears prominently in several places in her new book, “Prague Winter,” a chronicle of her family’s wartime experiences.
“It’s a great honor to meet you,” Albright told Stranska. “I remember how my father used to tell us about the lovely young woman who worked with him at the foreign ministry in Prague.”
That brought a smile to Stranska’s face.
Albright’s father, Josef Korbel, a well-known diplomat, had converted his family to Roman Catholicism after seeing the storm clouds gathering over Europe — and over Jews.
Albright never knew of her Jewish heritage or of the relatives she lost until decades later, as she was about to be sworn in as secretary of state.
The family ultimately moved from Czechoslovakia to England, then to the United States in 1948. Her father became a professor, and then dean of the University of Denver’s School of International Studies, where one of his students was former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
“You are part of our history,” Albright told Stranska during their brief but warm talk. “My father said that there were those he didn’t trust when he returned to Prague, but he always trusted you.”
Trust became an issue in Stranska’s life, and it did for many Jews who were victims of the Holocaust. She is quoted in Albright’s book in an exchange in which she explained angrily to German military sympathizers that she could never trust again because of the atrocities they had perpetrated.
Sitting beside Stranska at Thursday’s private meeting was Kim Fendrick of Maple Shade, a child survivor of the Holocaust born in Poland whose family was among those hidden and sheltered by several Christian families. Fendrick, who is well-known in the local Holocaust community and has lectured widely, has become close to Stranska in recent years.
“I was so happy to observe how alert Hana was, far more than I’ve seen her recently, or could have anticipated,” said Fendrick, who held her friend’s hand and even got several words from her during the evening. “She so appreciated being present for such a significant part of her past.”
It was through Fendrick, who alerted the administration at Medford Leas to Stranska’s place in history, that the private meeting was arranged.
Afterward, Albright took the stage and participated in a spirited dialogue with Steve Highsmith of NBC 10/PHL 17.
She charmed the audience with personal anecdotes, including one about her granddaughter, who commented to Albright that “only girls are secretaries of state” (since the current list includes Albright, Rice and Hillary Clinton).
“Maybe if some boy works hard, he can get there,” her grandmother assured her.
Most of the far-ranging subjects were in a more serious vein and focused on national and international affairs, including the state of Congress and the explosive situation in Syria.
Albright also took time to publicly mention Stranska and her place in Albright’s family history. She read a passage about her from the book.
Before and after her presentation, Albright signed copies of “Prague Winter.”
Clutching their copies were sisters Donna and Jaimie Ackerman of Cherry Hill, who had waited patiently for their chance to meet the former secretary of state.
“It was definitely, absolutely worth it,” Jaimie Ackerman said. “She’s wonderful. I can’t believe I actually shook her hand. I won’t wash mine for a while.”