The Boston Globe has unraveled quite an amazing genealogical mystery surrounding the family history of John Kerry. The story came out a year ago and I’m shocked that I never heard it. In case you never heard it either, I’m writing about it here. Thanks, to my brother Marc who first e mailed the story to me last week.
In Search for Kerry’s Roots Finds Surprising History, (there is no means of finding this article at the Globe website, but it is reprinted in full at RootsWeb.com, an Austrian genealogy website). Mitchell Kranish reveals that Kerry’s paternal grandparents were Czech Jews who renounced their religious identity, changed their names and converted to Catholicism. They did this apparently to make a better life for themselves and their children. Besides being an amazing story that reveals the depth and complexity of America’s immigrant past, it is equally a heartbreaking story about a man who dreamed of making good in a new land and who failed (at least in his own eyes) to do so.
And lest anyone reading this has trouble understanding why a man would flee so desperately from everything he was and embrace a country, language and religion that were all alien to him, we should remember that Strom Thurmond (and even Thomas Jefferson come to think of it) carried to his grave the knowledge that he fathered an African-American child. The shame, real or imagined, that human beings feel for their acts can cause them to do strange and terrible things both to themselves and their descendants.
On May 10, 19873, in a small Czech village then named Bennisch (and now Horni Benesov), a boy named Fritz Kohn was born to Jewish parents. His father was a brewer. Fritz Kohn changed his name to Kerry around 1902 and also converted. Hundreds of thousands of other European Jews changed their names, converted to Christianity or otherwise assimilated. If you were a Jew, you were socially and economically ostracized. Your jobs and income were circumscribed and your children would have no better hope of getting ahead.
He arrived in the United States via Austria in 1905 becoming a businessman who, according to John Kerry, at one point “helped reorganize Sears, Roebuck.” By 1921, he had risen to become “prominent in the shoe business” as a story about him in the Globe stated at the time. But his success faltered and nearly broke, he walked in the Copley Plaza Hotel lobby bathroom, drew out a revolver from his pocket, raised it and shot himself in the head. He had almost nothing to his name to pass on to his family.
We can only imagine the unbearable pain felt by a man who tried to make a new life for himself by first escaping anti-Semitic oppression in Austria-Hungary and then establishing himself anew in America. To do this, he sacrifices everything that he and his antecedents would’ve held dear– religion, homeland, language and neighbors–to venture to an alien place.
Kranish notes that Kerry knew his grandmother had been Jewish earlier in her life. But he was shocked to learn of his grandfather’s conversion and subsequent suicide. He relates this comment from John Kerry about his father: “That explains a lot. My dad was painfully remote and shut off and angry about his lack of a father.”
And who wouldn’t be? Imagine Richard Kerry (John’s father) losing a father to self-inflicted violence. Imagine the family history that Richard’s mother would’ve tried to keep from him in order not to embarrass him. It couldn’t help be a life based to some extent on secrets and lies.
Frederick Kerry sought the American Dream and for a time he might’ve had it. But he saw the dark side of the American Dream which no one talks about. And once this proud man saw his imminent ruin there must’ve seemed no other path to choose except suicide. How could such a man live with the shame of being a bankrupt?
As if to remind us that the circle forever remains unbroken, Kranish notes that “the senator’s brother, Cameron, a Boston attorney with Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky
& Popeo, converted to Judaism when he married his Jewish wife in 1983. Imagine Fritz Kohn returning to find that though his vision of the American Dream failed, that his grandchildren could embrace it once again and succeed–one becoming a candidate for President of the United States and the other a highly successful attorney. Fritz would no doubt marvel that Cameron could have achieved his success after returning to the faith that he, Fritz deserted.
The circle is unbroken.
For a detailed discussion of Cameron Kerry’s fascinating and close relationship with his brother, John see the New York Times‘s Kerry’s Brother Helps Make the Big Calls