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Czech Records Tell the Story of How Jewish Kohn Became Catholic Kerry

OPAVA, Czech Republic — Ever since The Boston Globe broke the story of Senator John Kerry’s Jewish roots last year, the rise of the humble Kohn family of Silesia to Boston Brahmanism has been presented to the public as a prime example of the American Dream.

Earlier this month, I set out to trace the route from Kohn to Kerry, beginning at the desk of Jiri Stibor, the chain-smoking head archivist of Opava, the relevant municipal seat in Moravia. Stibor’s task for visiting Western journalists is to produce a large leather ledger, one of hundreds he has on hand, and open it to its final pages. These are the “Pages for Israelites,” the records for the area that were always kept on the very last pages of each year’s ledger.

In the now-heavily publicized ledger, we found a man named Fritz Kohn, born a Jew in 1873 in the town of Horni Benesov (then Bennisch) to Benedict Kohn, and, on the very last page, appended to the ledger, is a notation that “Kohn, Fritz” received permission on March 17, 1902, from Viennese authorities to change his surname to Kerry. By the time this decree had reached the priest who made the ledger notation in Opava, Fritz Kerry was living in Vienna and had converted to Catholicism, following the lead of his brother Otto, who had converted and changed his name in 1897. Later, Fritz Kohn left for America, changed his first name to Fredrick, and eventually shot himself in the head in a Boston hotel, leaving behind a few hundred dollars in stock and a Cadillac.

Now his grandson — a lifelong Boston Catholic, a senator and a member of the Forbes and, through marriage, Heinz clans — is set to become the Democratic nominee for the presidency of the United States. If he wins, he’ll be the first American president with known Jewish roots.

This is as far as Kerry’s lineage is known. But if one examines the Opava Jewish records — extending back 61 years before Fritz Kohn’s birth notation — a compelling picture emerges of a small, close-knit Jewish community, as well as of a family whose relationships had become complicated.

As far back as the Kohn records in Opava go, a man named Benedict Kohn, Kerry’s great-grandfather, arrived in Bennisch, a small town in the northeast corner of Moravia near the Polish border, and worked as a brewmaster. (The exact year Benedict arrived in Bennisch is unclear because the records note only births, marriages and deaths. Benedict’s birth records haven’t yet been found.) Over a decade, Benedict fathered a number of children with Mathilde Frankel, the daughter of Jacob Frankel, a Prussian royal trader. Ida, Fritz, Otto and Bernhard Kohn are the children who are at least on record.

Kohn was of course a Kohen, a member of the priestly class, which led me and my friend Aron Ivo and photographer Ahron Weiner to the Jewish cemetery in nearby Krnov, one of two Jewish cemeteries in the area that were in service during the 19th century and the probable burial place then for Jews from Bennisch. Contrary to previous reports, there was neither a synagogue nor a cemetery in Bennisch proper, because the Jewish community there was too small: 57 Jews at its height, and only one Jew remained at the outbreak of World War II (a lone Feldmann). A neo-Romanesque synagogue still stands in Krnov — the only synagogue in the rural area around Horni Benesov — but it’s in terrible condition and defaced with many swastikas.

Here in the Krnov cemetery, we find two Kohns: a Maier Kohn and a Carl Kohn. While it has so far been impossible to ascertain relationships with Benedict, the years work out so that Maier (1821-1906) could be Benedict’s father and so Maier Kohn could possibly be the great-great-grandfather of the future president of the United States. Carl Kohn (1844-1899) might have been Benedict’s brother. On the other hand, there could have been many unrelated Kohn’s living in so small a place with so few Jews… but that doesn’t seem plausible. The Krnov cemetery hasn’t been touched since the Nazis desecrated it during the war, so we three almost suffered hernias trying to right the heavy tombstones to check the German and Hebrew inscriptions. Many stones here are missing, effaced or, frankly, too heavy for us to pick up, so other Kohns might be there, too. Needless to say, no burial records for Krnov exist.

We developed what came to be known as “the duchening hands theory,” according to which Kohanic lineage is indicated by the hands disposed in the priestly benediction depicted on the top of a tombstone. If we are right, the only other Kohanim we found were Becks, including a Jacob Beck. According to the records in Opava, a Jacob Beck, who previously ran a liquor distillery, took over the lease on a brewery from the municipality in Bennisch, the same brewery at which Benedict worked. It stands to reason that Benedict may have come to Bennisch from a neighboring town (possibly Krnov) for the express purpose of working for this Beck, his fellow Kohen — but if so, were they merely friends (who met how and where?) or is it possible that they were also relatives?

Contrary to previously published reports, Fritz Kohn, Kerry’s grandfather, was never a brewmaster. He’s not on the census records as living in their house in Bennisch in the 1880s, nor is his father, mother or siblings Ida and Otto. Where did they go in the 1880s, when Fritz would have been in his teens? It’s tempting to speculate that Benedict packed up his whole family and left for Vienna in the mid-1880s, placing Fritz there much earlier than previously thought. Maybe Ida, the eldest child and only daughter, got married and left the town separately from the rest of the family. Unless the labyrinth of municipal (non-Jewish) records in Vienna provides any evidence, we might never know.

But some Kohns stayed on in Bennisch. The only Kohns on record in their house in the 1880s are the family members of Bernhard Kohn, the third son of Benedict, who took charge of Beck’s brewery after his father left. In Opava, there are records of three of his children by a woman named Hermine Kolban: Bruno (born 1880), Alfred (born 1882) and Richard (born 1887). Richard is particularly interesting because there is a record in Opava of him changing his name to “Keri,” a German surname that would discredit the popular story that the “Kerry” family chose its name at random off a map of Ireland. A note is appended to Alfred’s and Bruno’s birth records regarding their conversions, saying in effect that they are no longer to be listed among the Jews. No research has turned up thus far as to what happened to this branch of the Kohn/Kerry/Keri family. Are descendants still living in northern Moravia? In Vienna? Despite their conversions, did they (and/or their families) die in the Holocaust? Or did they eventually follow the rest of the family to America?

Contrary to previously published accounts, the Kohn house was not on a site where a Socialist-era house now stands. Instead, it stood along with another house on what is now a playground about 50 meters up the road from the former brewery. On a wall, a block up toward the town square, is graffiti: the name Kerry in blue next to an enormous (and backwards) swastika.

Despite a recent recommendation by the town’s mayor, Josef Klech, to bestow honorary citizenship on Senator Kerry, he can have no real Jewish connection with the Horni Benesov of today. All of the present inhabitants are Moravians who moved in when the Germans were moved out after World War II. They were enticed here by Socialist-built factories and cheap living, as the government put up two-floor concrete structures to replace older German buildings throughout the 1950s and 1960s and offered work incentives to families willing to relocate to a remote corner of the country. After the fall of communism, most of the factories that employed Horni Benesov citizens closed, and now only one remains, a small factory employing under 200 people making small metal parts (hinges and locks) for doors and windows. With a 17% unemployment rate and some of the worst living conditions in the Czech Republic, what Horni Benesov needs isn’t a plaque where Kerry’s/Kohn’s house once stood. It needs a Heinz ketchup factory.

“John Kerry will win and be president of the United States. But I don’t see any reason why it affects me. This is a momentary boom,” said Mayor Klech, a middle-aged engineer. “It’s definitely not [Horni Benesov’s] primary problem. People are more interested in their livelihoods.”

Marketa Chulakova, 22 and unemployed, agreed. “What we need is a factory that would remain here, to assure prosperity,” she said. Her mother, Maria, 45, works at the town square’s only bar. She said that Queen Elizabeth II used to get all her linen from local craftspeople, and she’d like to see a revival of small, artistic labor along these lines.

Maria asked me why I was so interested in asking local townspeople about Kerry, and when I answered that he might be the first U.S. president with Jewish roots, she nodded unconvincingly.

This point hits me in the car ride back to Prague: Why should these people care about a senator whose Jewish grandfather was born and lived in a German incarnation of this town for at most a little over a decade? Kerry’s ancestors themselves didn’t seem to care much about their roots. This is a family whose members changed their names and converted en masse, a family that wholly remade itself in search of a better life, in the hope of finding more opportunity outside of their religion and the bleak rural village that Horni Benesov in many ways still is.

While most of the American media is sure to overdo and distort the sentimental trappings of this particular American dream, this now public genealogy stands as a testament to the power of immigrant self-determination. Kerry has an amazing opportunity to understand what shaped him, what decisions and sacrifices preceded him on the Kohns’ long road to America, a road that might lead to the White House.

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