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Irish Catholic or Czech Jew?

John Kerry's Jewish Roots

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Fooled you! And you, and you, and you.

Even the best friends of Senator John Forbes Kerry, a practicing Catholic from Massachusetts (the state which contains America’s largest Irish Catholic population), thought of him as an American Irish Catholic through and through.

The discovery of Kerry’s European Jewish roots has surprised many people, including the senator himself.

Benedikt Kohn (Great-Grandfather)

Benedikt Kohn, the great-grandfather of Senator John Kerry, was born about 1824 in southern Moravia. Benedikt was successful as a master brewer of beer.

In 1868, after the death of his first wife, he moved to Bennisch (today called Horni Benesov) and married Mathilde Frankel Kohn. Benedikt and Mathilde Kohn were two of the only 27 Jews living in Bennisch, which is listed as having a total population of 4,200, in 1880.

Soon after Benedikt died in 1876, Mathilde moved to Vienna with her children Ida (7), Friedrich "Fritz" (3) and Otto (newborn).

Fritz Kohn/Fred Kerry (Grandfather)

Fritz and Otto excelled in their studies in Vienna. However, like other Jews, they suffered greatly from the anti-Semitism that prevailed in Europe at this time. As a result, both Kohn brothers abandoned their Jewish heritage and converted to Roman Catholicism.

In addition, in 1897, Otto decided to shed the Jewish-sounding name of Kohn. He chose a new name by dropping a pencil on a map. The pencil landed on Ireland's County Kerry. In 1901, Fritz followed his brother’s example and officially changed his name to Frederick Kerry.

Fred, who worked as an accountant at his uncle's shoe factory, married Ida Loewe, a Jewish musician from Budapest. Ida was a descendant of Sinai Loew, a brother of Rabbi Judah Loew, the famous Kabbalist, philosopher and Talmudist known as the "Maharal of Prague" who some say invented the character of the Golem. Two of Ida's siblings, Otto Loewe and Jenni Loewe, were killed in Nazi concentration camps.

Fred, Ida and their first son Erich were all baptized as Catholics. And in 1905, the young family immigrated to America. After entering through Ellis Island, the family first lived in Chicago and then settled in Boston. Fred and Ida had two more children in America, Mildred (1910) and Richard (1915).

Fred and Ida and their three children lived in Brookline, where Fred became a prominent man in the shoe business and regularly attended Sunday Catholic church services. Fred did not tell and no one would have guessed that the family had Jewish roots.

In 1921, Fred Kerry, at age 48, entered a Boston hotel and shot himself in the head. Some say the suicide was due to financial stress or depression. Perhaps the transition from Czech Jew to American Catholic was too great and unsupported a spiritual, psychological and social change.

Richard Kerry (Father)

Richard was six years old when his father committed suicide. It has been said that he dealt with the tragedy by ignoring it. Richard attended Phillips Academy, Yale University and Harvard Law School. After serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps, Kerry worked in the U.S. Department of State and later the Foreign Service.

He married Rosemary Forbes, the beneficiary of the Forbes family trusts. The Forbes family amassed a huge fortune in China trade.

Richard and Rosemary had four children: Margery (1941), John (1943), Diana (1947) and Cameron (1950). John, a Massachusetts Senator, is the 2004 Democratic Nominee for President. Cameron, who married a Jewish woman and converted to Judaism in 1983, is a prominent Boston lawyer.

John Forbes Kerry

In 1997 Secretary of State Madeleine Albright learned three of her four grandparents were Jewish. Then Wesley Clark announced that his father was Jewish. And now a researcher has discovered that John Kerry is really John Kohn.

So what if John Kerry has Jewish roots? If the discovery had been made in Europe in the 1940’s, Kerry would have been sent to a Nazi concentration camp. If the discovery had been made in America in the 1950’s, Kerry’s political career would have been negatively affected. Today, however, the discovery of Kerry’s Jewish roots seems inconsequential and unlikely to affect the 2004 presidential race.

The story of Kerry’s Jewish past is of interest because it reflects the story of many European Jews who shed their Jewish heritage en route to America at the turn of the century. The story makes one wonder how many Americans today have Jewish roots of which they are unaware.
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