The Kerry Family's Hidden Jewish Past

Roundup: Media's Take

Joseph Berger, in the NYT (May 16, 2004):

On n May 18, 1905, Frederick A. Kerry, a 32-year-old Viennese, arrived in New York City by steamship, the Königin Luise, with his wife and 4-year-old son, hopeful that his new country would bring him the success and social acceptance that had eluded him in Europe.

Mr. Kerry probably could not have imagined that within a century a grandson, John Forbes Kerry, would find himself the Democratic candidate for president.

Frederick Kerry brought with him a secret: he was born a Jew, Fritz Kohn, in what is now the Czech Republic, but he and his wife, Ida, had converted to Roman Catholicism. Senator Kerry, a Catholic whose maternal side includes such blueblooded names as Winthrop and Forbes, said he did not know his paternal grandfather was Jewish until a reporter for The Boston Globe told him last year that it had been discovered by a genealogist in Vienna who scoured church records from the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Tomas Jelinek, chairman of the Jewish community in Prague, and Rabbi Norman R. Patz, president of the New Jersey-based Society for the History of Czechoslovak Jews, said that Czech Jews, in contrast to those in Poland, wore their identity somewhat more lightly. Given periodic spasms of anti-Semitism and the difficulty of advancing in the government and military as a Jew, many, like the parents of Madeline K. Albright, the former secretary of state, found conversion made their lives immeasurably easier.

The brother and sister of John Kerry's paternal grandmother, Otto and Jenni Lowe, died in concentration camps.

Frederick Kerry's story begins in Horni Benesov, a town near the Polish border that in 1880 had 4,200 inhabitants, most of them ethnic Germans (only two dozen of them Jewish) and was then known as Bennisch. Felix Gundacker, the genealogist who researched the senator's roots, said church birth ledgers include the notation that on May 10, 1873,"was born Fritz Kohn, a legal son of Benedikt Kohn, master brewer in Bennisch, House 224, and his wife, Mathilde." The handwritten entry was included in the"Pages for Israelites" kept by the church in towns with small Jewish communities.

Fritz's father died when he was 3. Fritz's mother then moved with her three children to Vienna, where she had relatives, Mr. Gundacker said in a telephone interview. Fritz attended high school, served in the army, then worked as an accountant for a shoe factory owned by his maternal uncle in nearby Modling.

In 1896, his younger brother, Otto, seeking advancement in the military, was baptized as a Catholic; he later changed his name to Kerry. In 1901, Fritz, who had married Ida Lowe in a Jewish ceremony the previous year, was baptized in Modling.

Later that year, he changed his name to Kerry, too, a fact recorded in the original church birth ledgers for Bennisch confirming that Frederick Kerry was born Fritz Kohn. Mr. Gundacker said the records state that Frederick Kerry gave these reasons:"1) that this very common name is specifically connected to Judaism 2) that therefore this name could be detrimental to his military career."

After coming to the United States, he settled in Chicago, where he counseled stores like Sears, Roebuck on organization. By 1915, he moved to Brookline, Mass., where Ida gave birth to their third child, Richard, who grew to work as a diplomat, marry Rosemary Forbes and father John Kerry.

In 1921, a virtually bankrupt Frederick Kerry shot himself in a bathroom at Boston's Copley Plaza Hotel.

The family's Jewish connections did not end with his death. In 1983, the senator's brother, Cameron, married Kathy Weinman, a Jew whose mother keeps a kosher home. Before the wedding, Cameron converted to Judaism.

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