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“We will not be intimidated or pushed off the world stage by people who do not like what we stand for, and that is, freedom, democracy and the fight against disease, poverty and terrorism.” — Madeleine Albright (1937-2022)
This week one of those special people passed away. A woman who broke glass ceilings, whose leadership inspired so many others, a woman who knew what she stood for and was determined to fight for what she knew to be right. She had a life well lived and has left her mark on the world. The reality is our society is lessened by her passing, but we were lucky to have her, and we so nearly didn’t.
Madeleine Albright was born Marie Jana Korbelová, in Prague in 1937, to a Jewish family. Her family fled to London in 1939 when the Nazis invaded. They converted to Roman Catholicism and hid their true identity for decades. The first female US Secretary of State only discovered the truth and the fact that 26 members of her family had been murdered in the Holocaust as an adult. At the end of the war her family chose to return to Czechoslovakia, but this proved short-lived and they were forced to flee the Communist regime in 1949 and seek asylum in the States.
As traumatic as her early life was, Marie Jana Korbelová did more than most to shape the future, to find hope and to cherish the democratic values that were stolen from her and her family. Her personal story and her impact were exceptional. But reflecting on her life has caused me to think a lot about the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum.
There is a single candle surrounded by mirrors. The reflection of each flame represents a life not born – a story not told. It highlights, in simply imagery, the lives that were extinguished, the families that were destroyed and, heartbreakingly, the children never born because their parents had been murdered. We have no idea of what the world lost because of the Shoah. The poetry and books not written, the art not created, the scientific discoveries not made.
Which brings me to the horrors we see every day on our news. The images of the death and destruction in Ukraine. Lives of every Ukrainian citizen have been turned upside down. We see daily reports of war crimes. Of children being killed, of journalists being kidnapped, of humanitarian aid being blocked.
In Ukraine today, the daily horrors shock and upset us all but for me it is also the devastation of the lives not lived. The talent that is being brutally removed from our world. Our collective society is being lessened because of their deaths and those that will now never be born. We will never know what we have lost. We can only hope that among those that survive there will be someone as inspirational as Madeleine Albright.