Czech tracks Kerry's Jewish roots
Originally published 09:48 p.m., March 11, 2004, updated 12:00 a.m., March 12, 2004
HORNI BENESOV, Czech Republic -- What began for genealogist Felix Gundacker as a brief assignment from an American newspaper has become a yearlong obsession -- tracking Sen. John Kerry's Jewish family roots in this forlorn Moravian village.
"I did nearly nothing else the past year -- it was fascinating," Mr. Gundacker said in an interview Monday. "It was interesting to learn the circumstances" of why the family changed its name from Kohn to Kerry and eventually moved to the United States.
The story, unraveled by Mr. Gundacker at the behest of the Boston Globe, has turned up several surprises, not least that Mr. Kerry's paternal grandfather was born into a Jewish family as Friedrich "Fritz" Kohn and converted to Roman Catholicism as a young man in the face of rampant anti-Semitism.
Two cousins whose branch of the family remained Jews died in Nazi concentration camps while others survived the Holocaust.
And, according to family lore, the name Kerry was chosen entirely by chance when Fritz Kohn's elder brother dropped a pencil on a map and it landed on County Kerry, Ireland.
"This is amazing. That is fascinating to me," Mr. Kerry told the Globe last year as the results of Mr. Gundacker's research were published. Mr. Kerry did not respond to telephone calls and e-mails seeking comment for this article.
Mr. Gundacker said he has been besieged with inquiries since Mr. Kerry emerged as the almost-certain Democratic challenger in the U.S. presidential election this year, but the genealogist's interest in the family has little to do with American politics.
"My interest to learn more was not the fact that he was a senator, but to learn more of the history -- what the Jewish families did here," he said.
Manfred Kerry, 39, whose great-grandfather Otto was a brother of the senator's grandfather, said in an interview that the family had long known that there were relatives in the United States but had not tried to contact them.
"If you haven't had contact for several decades, why contact them? The distances were much larger then," said Mr. Kerry, who is a deputy mayor in the Josefstadt section of Vienna, Austria.
Like much of Europe, this corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was afflicted with the most virulent forms of anti-Semitism when Fritz came of age around the turn of the 20th century, according to Charles Gati, a European studies professor at the Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.
"There was the blood charge -- that Jews sucked the blood out of young children," Mr. Gati said. The situation was so overwhelming that many Jews simply abandoned their faith.
"You don't want yourself and your children to face all those problems -- it's just not worth it," Mr. Gati said. "It seems like cowardice today, but it was survival."
Fritz was 3 years old when his father, Benedikt, died in 1876. His mother, Mathilde, moved soon afterward to Vienna with him, his nine-year-old sister Ida, and a newborn brother, Otto.
"There was always anti-Semitism, but we don't really know" whether that's why they left Moravia, said Mr. Gundacker, the director of the Institute for Historical Family Research in Vienna.
Family ties were certainly a factor. Mathilde's brother, Alfred Frankel, was co-owner in a successful shoe-manufacturing plant in nearby Modling.
In any case, Mr. Gundacker said, the family had been left comfortably off by Benedikt Kohn, who had worked as a master brewer.
Fritz and Otto fared well at school and, after graduation, Fritz became an accountant at his uncle's shoe factory. Otto joined the military, where he rose to the rank of major and eventually died in Austria in 1933.
Despite their successes, or perhaps because of them, the family could not escape the weight of anti-Semitism, and so began to abandon their Jewish heritage. Otto was baptized as a Roman Catholic in 1896 at age 20 and changed his name to Kerry the following year.
Mr. Gundacker says he believes the family legend that, having decided to shed the Jewish-sounding Kohn, Otto chose a new name by dropping a pencil on a map and that it landed on Ireland's County Kerry.
Fritz Kohn followed suit in 1901, changing his name to Frederick Kerry and moving three years later with wife Ida and son Erich to the United States.
Siblings of Ida, who shared the same name as Frederick Kerry's sister, were not so lucky, Mr. Gundacker said. Sister Jenni died in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II and brother Otto -- who shared the same name as Frederick Kerry's brother -- suffered a similar fate at Terezin. Another brother, Felix, died in Vienna in 1935 at 62.
Even for those members of the family who had converted to Christianity, the Holocaust was a horror.
"During the war everyone had to show their historical family identity," said Czech archivist Jiri Stibor, who has worked with Mr. Gundacker on the family history. "If they had any Jewish ancestry they would be sent to the concentration camps. All the Jews from this area ended up in Auschwitz."
Upon arriving in America in 1905, Frederick Kerry and his family lived in Chicago for several years before moving to Boston, where he reportedly continued in the shoe business. The details are not clear, but it's thought that his business declined or that he suffered a financial collapse.
In 1921, at age 48, he walked into the posh Copley Plaza Hotel and killed himself with a revolver shot to the head. The tragedy, which was front-page news in Boston newspapers, left Ida a widow with two sons, Richard and Erich.
Richard grew up and married Rosemary Forbes, and the couple gave birth to a son -- now Sen. John Kerry.