New York, Monday, March 1, 2004
relatives killed in Holocaust
SINCE Sen. John Kerry
discovered a year ago that his father's father was
Jewish-born, he has struggled over whether and how
to talk about his Jewish background.
The roots are surprising for a Massachusetts
politician with an Irish name and Catholic
upbringing. Kerry did not know the extent of his
Jewish roots until a year ago when a genealogist in
Vienna, hired by The Boston Globe,
discovered that Kerry's paternal grandfather,
Frederick Kerry, a converted Catholic, was
actually born Fritz Kohn to Jewish parents
in what was Austria-Hungary, now part of the Czech
Republic. Kerry, 60, has known for about 16 years
that his paternal grandmother was born Jewish as
Ida Lowe and converted to Catholicism.
Sunday, the Vienna genealogist, Felix
Gundacker, posted new findings on his Web site
that the Nazis killed two of Ida Lowe's siblings --
a sister in the Treblinka
concentration camp, and a brother in Theresienstadt,
a Czechoslovakian ghetto that held Jews before they
were taken to camps.
"I'm very touched by
the knowledge that one of my relatives was in
the Holocaust," Kerry said in an interview last
night. "It gives an even greater personal sense
of connection [to the Holocaust] that is
very real and very touching. It makes you wonder
how horrible their lives must have been."
Kerry initially embraced his grandfather's
Jewish roots when they were discovered a year ago.
Two days after the Globe published a long
front-page story disclosing his grandfather's
background, Kerry talked about it to a Jewish group
in Florida to assert a personal connection to
Israel. Kerry brought up his grandparents' heritage
again in November, speaking to Jewish Democrats in
Since then Kerry has shied away from the
subject, even as he campaigned recently in New York
and California, which hold presidential primaries
Tuesday and have the largest Jewish populations in
the country, accounting for about 42 percent of the
6.2 million Jews in the United States.
Meeting with about 60 Jewish leaders and
politicians Sunday in Manhattan, Kerry made no
mention of his grandparents or any Jewish ties as
he talked about Israel, according to two people at
"I talked about it a little bit when I first
learned about it. Then people seemed to think, 'Oh,
wow, now he's trying to be this or that,'" Kerry
A Republican strategist in Boston was quoted a
year ago in the Globe warning that Kerry
should be "very careful to make sure people don't
think he's trying to be all things to all people."
And after the speech in November, a Globe
reporter pressed Kerry on whether he was
identifying himself as Jewish.
"It just seemed simpler to go on the way I've
been," Kerry said. "I had a sense people were
saying, 'Now he's trying to use that for political
purposes or something,' and I don't want to do
that. I don't want people to sense that there's
some great transition. If it comes up, I mention
Rabbi Marc Schneier said that while
Kerry's heritage received special attention in the
Jewish media, he doubted it would heavily influence
Jewish voters, who tend to be Democrats. "That's
like icing on the cake, but what appeals to members
of the Jewish community are his stands on the issue
of Israel, civil rights, religious liberties," said
Schneier, president of the Manhattan-based
Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which promotes
improved racial relations. He did not identify
himself as a Kerry supporter.
The discovery of a Jewish grandfather, who
immigrated to the United States in 1905 and
converted to Catholicism at some unknown point,
added yet more complexity to Kerry's multi-layered
past. His mother is connected to well-known New
England clans, the Forbes and Winthrop families.
Kerry, whose middle name is Forbes, traces his
mother's roots to England, Scotland and, back in
the 13th century, to Ireland. Asked how he
identified ethnically, Kerry said, "I've never
really thought about it. I'm an American."
A year ago Kerry told the Globe that
learning that his grandfather was Jewish-born "has
a big emotional impact" and raised questions about
why he converted.
But today Kerry speaks about it more as a
curiosity than an epiphany. "It hasn't really
changed anything," Kerry said. "I find it
fascinating and eye-opening. As I say, it raises a
lot of questions for me that I can't answer."
-- Staff writer Craig Gordon
and special correspondent Bruce I. Konviser in the
Czech Republic contributed to this story.
2004, Newsday, Inc.