Kerry family comes full circle

About a century ago, Fritz Kohn, a 29-year-old Czech-born Jew living in Austria, visited a government office in Vienna and officially changed his name to Frederick Kerry, for all intents and purposes abandoning his Jewish heritage at the same time.

When Kerry and family arrived at Ellis Island in 1905, they were listed as Germans from Austria; they had traveled in the first-class section. The family settled initially in Chicago, did well in business, then moved a few years later to the Boston area, where son Richard was born in 1915 and where the family would attain a reputation of being of solid Irish Catholic descent. But their American success story went sadly awry in 1921 when Frederick Kerry, facing bankruptcy, shot himself in the lobby of Boston’s fancy Copley Plaza Hotel.

These obscure facts have come to light recently because Frederick Kerry’s grandson is Senator John Forbes Kerry, the leading presidential contender for the U.S. Democratic party.

According to articles in the Boston Globe and Reform Judaism magazine, Senator Kerry expressed amazement when a Boston Globe reporter presented him with a thorough dossier of own family history. The file, compiled by Globe reporter Michael Kranish, contained ship manifests, Ellis Island records, genealogical records, newspaper clippings and other materials.

“This is amazing . . . fascinating to me,” Kerry said, explaining that he hadn’t known his grandfather had been Jewish.

“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.”

Kerry seemed to become emotional when reviewing the front-page newspaper stories about his grandfather’s suicide, which had also been kept from him. “God, that’s awful. Oh God, that’s awful. This is kind of heavy,” he said as he examined the material in his office. “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 [who had died of cancer] and lack of a father.”

Kerry is the second prominent American politician to discover long-forgotten Jewish roots. Seven years ago, former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright expressed amazement after making a similar discovery about her own Czech-Jewish ancestry. In Albright’s case, she hadn’t known that more than a dozen of her Jewish relatives, including three grandparents, had perished in Nazi concentration camps.

In a feature article published in Reform Judaism last fall, writer Jennifer Anne Perez explained that Frederick Kerry was one of thousands of European Jews who turned their backs on their roots when deciding to come to America. Her story contained the astonishing postscript information that John Kerry’s younger brother Cameron, an attorney, converted to Judaism and married a Jewish woman in 1983.

“As a member of a Boston Brahmin family [of supposedly Irish stock], Cameron thought he was entering uncharted territory,” Perez wrote. “Only later did he realize that he was returning to his genealogical roots.”

Cameron, who belongs to Temple Israel in Boston, told Perez he was delighted upon discovering the news. “It’s been wonderful for the whole family,” he said. “It’s ironic — I guess things come full circle.” ♦

© 2004