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 Des Moines.
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 the meeting.
“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 said Friday.
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 it.”
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.
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