A JEWISH CZECH
IN JOHN KERRY'S COURT
The saga of a U.S. senator and presidential contender in search of his roots--and his reaction to the "revelation."
even years ago, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was confronted with a genealogical discovery: her Czech émigré parents were Jewish. They'd hidden their Jewish roots during and after the Second World War. More than a dozen of her Jewish relatives, including three grandparents, an aunt, an uncle and a first cousin, had all perished in the Nazi concentration camps. Albright has been reluctant to comment on the discovery, telling the Washington Post, "I have to look into this myself...it's a very personal matter."
A similar revelation occurred on February 2, 2003, when the Boston Globe reported that Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, thought by many to be a "Boston Brahmin" of Irish-Catholic ancestry, was the grandson of Czech immigrants who also had concealed their Jewish heritage.
The story begins in the hamlet of Horni Benesov on the tenth of May 1873--the day Benedikt and Mathilde Kohn had a son they named Fritz.
Like his father, Fritz became a simple brewer. Yet it was difficult for him to succeed in an area dominated by German-speaking Catholics. Many Jews hid their religious identity, posing as Gentiles. "It was easier to do business as a Christian," says Prague-based genealogist Julius Miller, who specializes in tracing Jewish lineage. "Many Jews just stopped practicing Judaism during this period and had no belief at all."
On March 17, 1902, shortly before his 30th birthday, Fritz took his wife Ida and infant son Erich to a government office in Vienna and changed their family name. Fritz Kohn would henceforth be known as Frederick Kerry.
The Kerry family settled for three years in Austria before embarking on the steamship Konigen Luise in Genoa, Italy on May 4, 1905, bound for America. The two-masted, twin-screw "Barbarosa"-class ship was configured to carry nearly 2,000 passengers in steerage, about 150 in first class, and 140 in second. According to the ship's manifest, the Kerrys traveled in first class with only twenty-nine other passengers--French, American, and Swiss families with decidedly Anglican names like Hale, Walker, and Bridgeman.
Ellis Island records note that upon boarding the ship, Kerry identified his family as Germans from Austria, their former place of residence as Vienna. By the time the ship arrived in New York City on May 18, 1905, Frederick Kerry had left his Jewish heritage behind.
A New Life
The Kerrys settled in Chicago, where Frederick quickly set out to stake his claim in the American dream. On June 21, 1907, he filed his initial citizenship papers with Illinois' Cook County Circuit Court. By 1908, he was listed in a business directory with an office on Dearborn Street in Chicago's famous Loop. In 1910, the year his daughter Mildred was born, he had made it into the Chicago Blue Book, a catalogue of notable city residents. By February 6, 1911, he had filed his naturalization petition, which was witnessed by the highly respected State Street merchant Henry Lytton and by Frank Case, a business manager at Sears Roebuck. Kerry had assisted in the reorganization of Sears, and by the following year he was promoting himself as a "business counselor" under the title "Frederick A. Kerry & Staff."
But for reasons that remain unclear, Kerry soon left Chicago and settled in Brookline, Massachusetts. There, in 1915, Ida gave birth to their third child, Richard, the future father of Senator John Kerry. Frederick would continue the merchant life, now working in the shoe business and achieving enough success to hire a live-in German domestic worker, who appears on the 1920 census records of the Kerry household.
The census information also offers a glimpse into the lengths to which Frederick Kerry had gone to obscure his Jewish lineage. Both he and his wife listed their native tongues as German--although the first language of Czech Jews of that era who were born near the Polish border would almost certainly have been Yiddish. By this point, however, both Frederick and Ida had been practicing Catholics for nearly twenty years, and by all accounts were regarded as devout in their faith.
Frederick Kerry's American dream ended mysteriously on November 21, 1921 at the age of 48. According to front-page news reports, the now virtually bankrupt husband and father of three walked into the lobby washroom of Boston's posh Copley Plaza Hotel, put a loaded revolver to his head, and pulled the trigger. He left behind $25 in cash, $200 in stocks, and a Cadillac.
The suicide cast a shroud of silence over the family history for more than fifty years. It would come to light again with the first stirrings of a U.S. senator's bid for a possible presidential run in 2004.
A Rising Star
The Kerrys' youngest child, Richard, would also achieve success, but unlike his father, would sustain it. He served as an Army pilot during World War II; married Rosemary Forbes, a descendant of two wealthy Massachusetts families, the Forbes and the Winthrops; and became a U.S. diplomat, holding posts in Oslo, Berlin, and Paris.
Richard and Rosemary's first son, John Forbes Kerry, was born on December 11, 1943. Though he attended exclusive boarding schools in Europe as well as an elite private school in New Hampshire, John later would tell interviewers that somehow he always felt disconnected from his peers, like an outsider. He attended Yale at about the same time as President George W. Bush--both belonged to the elite secret Skull & Bones society--but while Bush lived the fraternity life, Kerry, an admirer of John F. Kennedy, found his niche in politics and became president of the Yale Political Union, a nonpartisan group providing a forum for a wide range of political debate. Upon graduation in 1966, he joined the Navy to fight in Vietnam. Returning to the U.S. in 1969 with a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts, Kerry soon became a vocal critic of the war. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971, he asked a question that would make him famous: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
Five years later, Kerry graduated from Boston College law school and kicked his political career into high gear. He quickly rose through the ranks of state government, becoming lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1982 under then Governor Michael Dukakis, and eventually winning a U.S. Senate seat in 1984.
In the late 1980s Kerry learned from a relative that his grandmother Ida had been born Jewish--a surprising revelation, as he had remembered her as a zealous Catholic. But he knew virtually nothing about his paternal grandfather, Frederick.
John Kerry's constituency assumed that, with his father's name and his mother's lineage, the senator was a full-blooded Irish Catholic. Even his hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe, regularly made the mistake, despite Kerry's repeated attempts to set the record straight. During a 1993 interview with TV host John McLaughlin, Kerry addressed the incorrect presumption that his father was Irish by stating that his grandfather was Austrian and that his grandmother had been born Jewish. He added: "We're still trying to find all the details." And try he did. Once, while on a visit to Europe, he stopped off in Vienna and called every Kerry in the phone book. And in 2002, his office contacted the regional Czech archives, which, he would later discover, actually possessed information on Fritz Kohn's birth, but the senator never received a reply--two years earlier the bureau had stopped conducting searches for foreigners.
It was not until the late 1990s, when John's father Richard was suffering from cancer, that he finally disclosed to John that his grandfather had shot himself to death. "[That] turned on a light bulb for John Kerry on why his father was so understandably reticent to talk about it," Kerry spokesman David Wade told the Boston Globe. "[It] help[ed] him understand his father much more and what his father went through."
Richard Kerry died in 2000. He never revealed that his father had been a Jew. Born in the United States and only 5 years old when Frederick died, it is likely that Richard did not know of his grandfather's hidden past.
The Mystery Revealed
In late 2002, as rumors began to circulate that Kerry would seek the Democratic nomination for president, editors at the Boston Globe began soliciting reporters for in-depth articles on Kerry's life. Journalist Michael Kranish, a veteran Washington correspondent who had spent four years piecing together his own Jewish family history, volunteered for the assignment.
Knowing that Jews had sometimes altered their names and identities--his own family's name had been changed at Ellis Island--and that unless he hired an overseas collaborator to check European records, it would be months before he'd be able to complete an accurate search, Kranish turned to prominent genealogist Felix Gundacker of the Institute for Historical Family Research in Vienna. Gundacker had developed a specialty in tracing the genealogies of Jews in Austria and in parts of what is now the Czech Republic. Within two weeks, Gundacker discovered the original document in Vienna that recorded Fritz Kohn's name change to Frederick Kerry. Ironically, had Kohn's name been changed at Ellis Island, it might have been impossible to uncover the original name. But because Kohn made the change while still in Austria, probably to conceal his background before coming to America, his origins could now be traced.
Gundacker's next step was to find Kohn's birth records. That search took him to the state archives in the Czech city of Opava, halfway between Krakow, Poland and Prague. There he met archivist Jiri Stibor, a traditionalist who refused to use a computer, preferring to search by hand through the millions of musty files collected in the cavernous rooms of a former palace.
Stibor told Gundacker that on June 20, 2002 he had received an unusual inquiry--a letter in English from a certain "Samuel C" which carried the seal of a high-ranking Washington, D.C. official. The mysterious letter noted that John Kerry was a candidate for president (though the senator had yet to publicly announce his intention to run) and inquired about a man named "Fritz Cohn." Stibor knew he couldn't be of assistance; the archives had stopped processing foreign requests several years earlier. In any case, the war and local antisemitism had left little evidence of a former Jewish presence in the region. "The Germans didn't want any trace of the Jews left," Stibor says, "even after so many of them were taken away. So many of the records were simply destroyed."
Keeping in mind the earlier request, and now proceeding on the assumption that Frederick Kerry had been born Jewish, Gundacker and Stibor began scouring the archives. "The Catholics of the time weren't interested in keeping good records [of the Jews]," Stibor says. "If there were Jews in the town, they would be the last entries, at the end of the book." Adds Gundacker: "If there was no [official] Jewish community, parish priests and other Catholics had to add birth records to the central record books. They mostly added those records to the end of the books, not as part of the regular records." Finally, after hours of pulling volume after volume off the archive shelves, they came upon a handwritten entry in the last pages of a yellowed book. "In the year 1873, on May 10th, was born Fritz Kohn, a legal son of Benedikt Kohn, master brewer in Bennisch (the old German name for Horni Benesov), House 224, and his wife, Mathilde, daughter of Jakob Frankel, royal dealer in Oberlogau in Prussia."
This one sentence had put the last piece of the puzzle into place, solving an 80-year-old mystery. Gundacker phoned Globe reporter Kranish and told him he was "1,000 percent sure" that Senator John Kerry's grandfather had been born a Jew.
A short time later, Kranish personally presented the evidence to Kerry in the senator's Washington office. He let Kerry review the documents: ship manifests, Ellis Island records, newspaper clippings, and additional materials obtained through genealogists, Kranish himself, and the Globe's library staff.
"This is amazing...fascinating to me," Kerry told the reporter. "This is incredible stuff. I think it is more than interesting; it is a revelation....It has a big emotional impact, because it obviously raises questions: I want to know what happened, why did they do this, what were they thinking, what was the thought process, and why, once they got over here, they never talked about it."
At one point, Kranish said, Kerry became emotional, particularly when reviewing the front-page news accounts of his grandfather's suicide. "God, that's awful, Oh, God, that's awful. This is kind of heavy," the senator told him. "That explains a lot. It connects the dots. My dad was sort of painfully remote and shut off, and angry about the loss of his sister [she had died of cancer] and lack of a father."
He also shook his head in wonder at the number of times he had visited the Copley Plaza, never knowing its significance in his family's history. "How many times have I walked into that hotel...." he said, his voice trailing off.
No Trace of a Past
Horni Benesov's current mayor, Josef Klech, says that he has considered extending an invitation to Senator Kerry to visit his grandfather's birthplace. But, admits Klech, the unavoidable truth is that there really isn't much to see. Not a single trace remains of Kerry's ancestors; not a single person in town remembers the Kohn family.
Over time, the entire town--except for the Catholic chapel, parish, and church--has been completely rebuilt. An unremarkable box-shaped apartment building now sits on the lot where Kohn's house once stood. Gone is the small Jewish cemetery where Kohn's parents Benedikt and Mathilde were likely buried. In place of the Kohn brewery there is a public sauna advertising discount rates to local residents.
Reflecting on His Roots
In Kerry's office, half a world away, the senator chose to say little publicly about the discovery. He did discuss the matter with Reform Judaism magazine, however. "This was an incredible illumination," Kerry says. "It really connected the things I'd talked about for years but now understand more personally. I never really knew why my grandfather left Austria or why he underwent such personal transformation, but we do know many of the things that were happening under the old Hapsburg Empire. We know what life was like for too many of them, and the ultimate turn for even greater tragedy it would take not much later."
As for why Fritz Kohn chose the path he did, Prague-based genealogist Julius Miller believes he was a man who, like many other European Jews, looked to start over and build a better life for himself and his family. "Thousands of European Jews abandoned their past," Miller says. "The story of Frederick Kerry, alias Fritz Kohn, mirrors the histories of many Jewish families who came to America in the early 1900s."
In a twist of irony, John Kerry's younger brother Cameron converted to Judaism in 1983, shortly before marrying Kathy Weinman, a Jewish woman raised in a Conservative household in Michigan. As a member of a Boston Brahmin family, Cameron thought he was entering uncharted territory. Only later did he realize that he was returning to his genealogical roots.
When Cameron, now a Boston litigation attorney, was courting Kathy, they decided that "we were going to raise any children we had as Jewish," Cameron recalls. After that, he says, it wasn't difficult for him to become a Jew himself. "Converting seemed to me a small step--I wanted to be a full participant in their upbringing. [My decision] was helped along by the warm reception and welcome I received from the clergy at Temple Israel [in Boston]."
Converting, he says, was far less traumatic than he had anticipated. There were no objections from the rest of the Kerry clan, and his new Jewish family at Temple Israel welcomed him with open arms. Today Kathy is a member of the synagogue board. Their two daughters have become b'nai mitzvah at the temple, and were delighted when they found out about their great-grandfather.
"It's been wonderful for the whole family," Cameron Kerry says. "It's ironic--I guess things come full circle."
Jennifer Anne Perez, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, is now an international freelance journalist based in Prague.
Copyright © 2003, Union of American Hebrew Congregations