Seven years ago, then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright discovered that more than a dozen of her relatives had perished in the Nazi concentration camps because they, like Albright, were born Jewish.
Albright’s discovery raised an even larger question: How many other American leaders have actually been of Jewish descent, but because of records and memories eroded by time, they never knew it?
In the case of Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry — thought by many to be a Boston Brahmin — the answer to the question is a convoluted one. It follows a path from a small Czech village near the Polish border to a long-forgotten suicide in a posh Boston hotel. It is the story of a young man who abandoned his Jewish faith, his nation and his name to pursue the American dream.
In 1873, in the Czech hamlet Bennisch, there were not enough Jews to form a synagogue. But anti-Semitism and pogroms were still a fact of life, and it was into this world on May 10 that year that Fritz Kohn was born.
The son of Benedikt and Mathilde Kohn, he became a simple brewer. He married a Jew named Ida Lowe but grew dissatisfied with his place in Moravian society.
Most of the population were Catholic and spoke German. Jews often found themselves the victims of discrimination, and many posed as non-Jews under pressure to assimilate.
“It was easier to do business as a Christian,” said Prague genealogist Julius Miller. “But many Jews just stopped being Jewish during this period and had no belief at all.”
On March 17, 1902, Kohn took his wife and infant son, Erich, to a government office in Vienna, changed his family name to Kerry and renamed himself Frederick. On May 4, 1905, the family traveled to Genoa, Italy, and boarded a ship bound for the United States.
The steamer was configured to carry nearly 2,000 passengers in steerage. However, the Kerrys did not make the typical immigrant crossing. Instead, they traveled in first class, with only 29 other passengers who had names like Hale, Walker and Bridgeman.
The ship’s records suggest that Kohn was already actively obscuring his roots. Ellis Island records note that he identified his family as Austrian Germans, rather than as Jews from Bennisch. By the time he arrived in New York on May 18, 1905, he had left his Jewish heritage behind.
A New Life
By January 1906, the Kerrys had settled in Chicago. Once there, Kohn — now Kerry — quickly set out to live the American dream.
On June 21, 1907, he filed his initial citizenship papers. By 1908, he appeared in a business directory with an office in Chicago’s Loop and, in 1910, he made it into the Blue Book, a catalogue of notable Chicago residents.
He filed his naturalization petition on Feb. 6, 1911, listing an address in the tony Uptown district. Signing as a witness was famous State Street merchant Henry Lytton.
Kohn’s second petition witness, Frank Case, worked as a manager at Sears & Roebuck, and was also regarded as a well-known member of society. Kohn had been involved in the reorganization of Sears and, by 1912, ran an ad in a directory as a “business counselor” under the name, Frederick A. Kerry & Staff.
However for unknown reasons, Kohn left Chicago, settling in the prominent Boston suburb of Brookline where, in 1915, his wife gave birth to Richard, father of Sen. Kerry. He continued life as a merchant in the shoe business, seeing enough success to hire a live-in German servant girl, who appears in his household’s 1920 U.S. Census record.
The census offers a glimpse into lengths to which Kohn had hidden his lineage. Both he and his wife listed their native tongues as German — when, as Czech Jews, their first language would have been Yiddish. At this point, both had been devout Catholics for nearly 20 years — a fact that adds greater mystery to the events that were about to unfold.
On Nov. 15, 1921, at the age of 48, Kohn wrote his last will and testament. Six days later, he walked into the lobby washroom of the posh Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston, put a revolver to his head and pulled the trigger.
Probate records show he was virtually bankrupt. Other reports suggested that Kohn may have been in failing health — he suffered from severe asthma — and that he may have recently received an inheritance, which he transferred to his wife before his suicide.
The gunshot that took Kohn’s life also silenced a family history for more than 50 years. It would take the notoriety of a U.S. senator running for president to bring the story back to life.
A Rising Star
Unlike Kohn, a peasant who climbed the social ladder into America’s privileged class, John Kerry was to the manner born. His father served as an Army pilot during World War II, before becoming a noted U.S. diplomat. His mother descended from two dyed-in-the-wool Massachusetts blue-blood families: the Forbes and Winthrop clans.
Kerry’s early years were the transient life of a diplomat’s son at exclusive boarding schools in Europe and New Hampshire. He attended Yale at about the same time as President Bush, but while Bush lived the fraternity life, Kerry became president of the school’s political group.
Upon graduation in 1966, Kerry followed his father’s military footsteps, volunteering for Vietnam. He was mustered out in 1969, after receiving the Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. However, he soon became a vocal antiwar protester, using his military experience to criticize the war, including testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971.
After graduating from law school in 1976, Kerry launched his political career, becoming Massachusetts lieutenant governor in 1982 under Michael Dukakis. He eventually ran for Senate in 1984, winning the seat vacated by Paul Tsongas.
The mystery of his family history continued. He learned from a relative that his grandmother had been born Jewish, but he knew virtually nothing about his grandfather. He eventually became so fixed on the subject that once, on a visit to Europe, he stopped in Vienna and called every Kerry in the phone book.
His office even contacted the regional Czech archives that, unknown to him, actually contained the original record of Kohn’s birth, but the senator never heard back. The bureau had stopped conducting searches for foreigners two years earlier.
The Mystery Revealed
In late 2002, rumors began to circulate that Kerry would seek the Democratic nomination for president. The Boston Globe’s editors solicited reporters for articles on Kerry’s life, and journalist Michael Kranish volunteered.
Kranish’s experience gave him a significant edge: He had recently spent four years piecing together his own family history. He knew that he’d need an overseas collaborator to check European records, so he hired prominent genealogist Felix Gundacker, an Austrian from the Institute for Historical Family Research.
Gundacker had developed a specialty in tracking the bloodlines of Jews in parts of what is now the Czech Republic. Eventually, he uncovered the document that detailed Frederick Kerry’s name change — the clue that would enable him to search for Fritz Kohn, the man’s birth name and the key to his past.
Had Kohn’s name been changed at Ellis Island, like so many other immigrants, it might have been lost in the fog of time. Because Kohn had changed his name before he immigrated — perhaps, ironically, to conceal his background — his origins could now be traced.
Gundacker only needed to find Kohn’s birth records. That took him to the Czech city of Opava, where vast regional records remained stored. One recordkeeper there, Jiri Stibor, opened letters each day from people around the globe seeking genealogical aid.
On June 20, 2002, Stibor received a letter in English from a man he only remembers as “Samuel C.” It carried the seal of a high-ranking Washington, D.C., official.
The letter related that Kerry was running for president and asked about a “Fritz Cohn.” However, the archives had stopped processing foreign requests, and the misspelling would have sidelined the search.
Stibor never forgot about the letter, the first he’d received from a prominent U.S. government official. So when Gundacker eventually visited his office, Stibor immediately remembered the request.
Both men began scouring the archive’s records, playing on Gundacker’s hunch that Kohn had been born Jewish. That meant extra time pursuing an additional, essential step.
“The Catholics at the time weren’t interested in keeping good records [of the Jews],” Stibor said. “I took note to find any entry in the books, and I couldn’t find him in the Catholic section. But if there were Jews in the town, they would be the last entries, at the end of the book.”
And that’s where it was — revealing a secret that Kohn had sought to hide a century earlier: the senator’s grandfather had been born a Czech Jew, in what is now the town of Horni Benesov. Gundacker phoned The Globe and told them he was “1,000 percent sure of it.”
No Trace of a Past
Kranish gathered the evidence and presented it to Kerry a short time later. Kerry could not contain his surprise.
“This was an incredible illumination,” Kerry explained. “It really connected the things I’d talked about for years but now understand even 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,” the senator said. “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.”
The Czech town’s current mayor said he has considered extending an invitation to Kerry to visit, although he added that there isn’t much to see. A box-shaped apartment building sits on the lot where Kohn’s house once stood. A small Jewish cemetery, where Benedikt and Mathilde Kohn were possibly buried, has vanished over time and the Kohn brewery is now the location of a discount sauna.
Such absence of history is typical of the Jewish immigrant experience, genealogist Miller said.
“People who left for America left all of their history,” he explained. “Grandparents and great-grandparents sometimes didn’t tell anything to anyone. In the 18th and 19th century, they wanted to leave their past behind.”