Richard Holbrooke testifying before a House subcommittee in July.(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The phone rings nonstop in Richard Holbrooke’s home. It’s difficult for him to complete a thought. “Hello? Hey, Claire. What’s going on tonight? Is Colin going to be there or not?” We’re sitting in Holbrooke’s muted study in his apartment on Central Park West—one of three homes he shares with his wife, Kati Marton. Married since 1995, they’re a high-profile New York couple: Holbrooke was assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Carter Administration, managing editor of Foreign Policy, U.S. Ambassador to Germany from 1993 to 1994, credited for brokering the 1995 peace agreement that ended the war in the Balkans (nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts), and then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1999 to 2001.

Marton is a well-respected journalist and former ABC News foreign correspondent who has written five books, including a biography of Raoul Wallenberg, who saved Jews during World War II, and an investigation into the murder of CBS reporter George Polk. She serves on the board of the International Rescue Committee, whose focus is on refugees, and she used to head the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Both are tall and striking, they host star-studded parties with guest lists that include everyone from Bill Clinton to Robert De Niro, and both are also Jewish, though Holbrooke was raised by his German mother as a Quaker, and Marton didn’t learn of her lineage until she was an adult.

It’s not easy to get Holbrooke’s story, because the phone keeps ringing and he keeps picking it up. “Hello?” He starts chatting with someone on the line, deconstructing what sounds like the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. “I also thought Les’s piece was very good,” Holbrooke says. “I thought Paula’s defense was pathetic and Judith’s piece was really good. The Milosevic piece said nothing. That was a lost opportunity.”

When he’s off the phone, I ask about Slobodan Milosevic—whether comparisons to Hitler ran through his mind as he sat at the negotiating table with the man considered to be the architect of ethnic cleansing. “Milosevic himself was certainly aware of my Jewish background,” Holbrooke allows, “because as a Serb, ethnicity would be exceedingly important. In that screwed-up part of the world—you might call it Southeastern Europe—where the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires and the Russian Empire all met and mixed, ethnic identity was a very important thing. And so Milosevic was certainly aware of it.”

Again the phone. “Hello? Yeah, put him on.” Holbrooke stands up from the couch and leaves the room for about 10 minutes. When he returns, I make the mistake of asking a question with the wrong information: How meaningful was it to him to be the first Jewish ambassador to Germany? “I wasn’t,” Holbrooke corrects me. “Arthur Burns was.” I apologize—my research had led me astray. “I don’t think you can find a single statement that I was the first,” he scolds me. Great start.

“Well, of course it was significant,” he goes on. “I had expected to be named ambassador to Japan, and then [Walter] Mondale wanted to go to Japan. So, when I got the call from Christopher [Warren Christopher, Clinton’s secretary of State], I was totally unprepared for it. Never ever had anyone hinted at the possibility of Germany.

“The administration asked me to reply in 24 hours. My first call was to Les Gelb—this was like 7 in the morning.” Leslie H. Gelb, at the time Holbrooke and I meet, is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and an old friend of Holbrooke’s. “So, Les correctly said, ‘This opportunity is better than Japan. It puts you in a new area of the world, it’s more challenging, there are more issues.’ And he of course was right. And then I called my mother and I said, ‘I’ve got bad news and good news. The bad news is I’m not going to Japan; the good news is I’m going to be the American ambassador to Germany.’ And there was this kind of long pause,” he recalls. “She had not set foot in Germany since 1933.” Trudi Kearl escaped Nazi Germany when she was a young girl. “And here I was, 60 years later to the year, going to Germany. I think she was completely stunned. But she ended up visiting me three times.”

Holbrooke says he never felt—either in Germany or in the Balkans—that anyone made an issue of his religion. “Never noticed it,” he says. “When I joined the foreign service in 1962, my grandmother was still alive; she was Swiss-Jewish, not German-Jewish, and she said, ‘How can you be a diplomat? Jews can’t possibly succeed in the diplomatic world; it’s not possible.’ I said to my grandmother something like, ‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about.’ It never occurred to me.”

A New York Times profile of Holbrooke during his tenure in Germany described how he displayed, in his elegant ambassador’s residence, a photograph of his grandfather in a World War I uniform: “I show it to German visitors as a symbol of what they lost,” Holbrooke told the Times. When I ask him about it now, he shows me the very picture. “Every German family has a photograph like that. And so I just kept it in the living room. Some people would ignore it; others would stop and stare at it. Some would demand to know why it was there—what was the message I was sending? I said, ‘This is an existential fact; this is my grandfather. You may read anything you wish into this photograph.’ And I also said, ‘If history had turned out differently, maybe I’d be Germany’s ambassador to the United States instead of America’s ambassador to Germany.’ My mother didn’t like it at all. She said it was a militaristic picture and there are a lot of nicer pictures; she’s not into symbolism at all. And it’s true; I could have had an ordinary picture of my grandfather. But don’t you find that picture—the original, with his handwriting—extraordinary?”

Holbrooke takes another sip of Diet Coke. “I think the most memorable day I ever spent in Germany was the opening in Frankfurt of Schindler’s List. About 15 members of Schindler’s list—I think they were called ‘Schindler’s children’—came to it. And Schindler, as you know, had died a broken-down man in Frankfurt sometime in the 1960s or ’70s [1974]. And these were the people who had taken care of Schindler and brought him dinner and watched over him as he declined, after his wife left him. Spielberg and Liam Neeson and some of the cast came. And beforehand, Spielberg went around and talked very quietly with the survivors—some of whom he had interviewed for the movie for research. And then we watched the movie in this large auditorium in Frankfurt—there must have been 1,400 people there. Hearing the movie dubbed into German, with the harsh, guttural accents of people saying these grotesque anti-Semitic things in their original native language, was very powerful.”

Holbrooke’s parents chose Quakerism instead of Judaism, and I ask if he knows why his mother decided not to raise him as a Jew. (His father, a physician, died of colon cancer when Holbrooke was 15.) “You have to ask her that. But remember that she was assimilated; she wasn’t raised Jewish. Hungarian and German Jews were very assimilated, much more than Eastern European Jews. And so, as I understand the story, when Hitler came to power, my grandfather called his four children in and said, ‘We’re Jewish; time to go. We’ve got to get out of here.’ He was very smart and he’d read Mein Kampf as a literal document, not as some kind of fantasy. And he had enough money to get the family out immediately. But when he said to them, ‘We’re Jewish,’ they said, ‘But Poppy, we’re not Jewish; we’re Catholic!’—or Lutheran, or whatever they thought they were. He said, ‘No, you’re Jewish.’ ”

So, where does that leave Holbrooke and his identity? Would he call himself Jewish? Holbrooke says with a laugh, “I don’t call myself anything.”

But if someone asked him what he was?

“It depends what they ask. I’m very literal-minded. If they say, ‘What religion are you?’ I say, ‘I don’t go to church much—to put it mildly.’ If they say, ‘What’s your background?’ I say, ‘Jewish.’ It’s no big deal. I read an article or two a long time ago that said I was trying to deny it or suppress it; that wasn’t true. I never had any doubt about my background, my parents never disguised it. But I didn’t go to synagogue or shul, I didn’t have a bar mitzvah. My parents didn’t believe in organized religion; that’s why they chose Quakerism. They loved the values of Quakerism. They were humanists in the best sense of the word, which the conservatives now consider a dirty word.”

Although his parents did not identify as Jews, Holbrooke says their experience as refugees—his mother’s escape from Nazi Germany, his father’s from Stalinist Russia—informed his professional focus. “There’s absolutely no question in my own mind that my involvement with refugees, starting in 1978, is related to the fact that my parents were refugees. Although my mother refuses to agree that she was a refugee; she was ‘an immigrant.’ ” He smiles.

“There isn’t any question that people like Mort Abramowitz, who was ambassador to Thailand in the seventies, and myself, were driven in part by the fact that the U.S. had failed in its responsibilities vis-à-vis refugees in the thirties and could have saved an enormous amount of people if the State Department itself had not been as bad a bureaucracy as imaginable in dragging its feet on permitting entry into the U.S. for refugees. The then-assistant secretary of state was a virulently anti-Semitic man named Breckenridge Long. He was a terrible man. I ended up in his job, so my photograph’s on the corridor along with this dreadful Breckenridge Long. So for all of us, refugees were key.”

Not just key, but formative—more so, it seems, than Holbrooke lets on to me. In June 1999, when Holbrooke testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation hearings for the U.N. ambassadorship, CNN reported that “an emotional Holbrooke teared up when describing his father’s background as a European refugee and, unable to read the rest, he submitted that part of his statement into the record.”

“What you want to know”—Holbrooke points a finger toward me—“is whether the fact that I came out of a Jewish background was a factor or not in who I am or what I do, and you know what? I don’t know. It’s your book. You decide. If you think it did, you can say it, and I won’t disagree with you. If you think it didn’t, you can say it, and I won’t disagree with you. All I can say is that every single person is the combination of his or her experiences subliminally submerged and accumulated, and combined with one’s DNA when one comes into a problem.”

However he feels about his Jewish DNA, Holbrooke is held up as a compassionate Jew by countless Jewish organizations that have hailed his peace efforts. He has received prizes from the World Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, and Yeshiva University. “Les Gelb has this great joke that they’re inventing Jewish organizations to give me awards,” he says with a laugh. “Don’t ask me. They invite me; I’m very proud to do it.”

Excerpted from Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish by Abigail Pogrebin. Copyright 2005 by Abigail Pogrebin. Used by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.