Proud European Towns Stake Out Kerry’s Roots
The house is no more. The street name has changed. But an entry in a local church’s baptismal register, recorded in a spidery hand, confirms that on Sept. 26, 1901, a man named Fritz Kohn changed the family name to Kerry.
Evidence of John F. Kerry’s family presence in this small town outside Vienna may be thin on the ground. But that hasn’t stopped Moedling from celebrating the connection to the U.S. Democratic presidential nominee.
And Moedling, until now best known for being home to Europe’s biggest shopping mall, is not alone. With British lineage and French cousins on his mother’s side, a wife with Portuguese ancestry, and a paternal family tree that branches through a swath of the former Austro-Hungarian empire, Kerry and his pedigree have made headlines in much of Europe.
France, which can boast first cousins who have actually met Kerry, perhaps trumps the field, but Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland have lost no time in laying claim to the candidate.
Austria, still reveling in native son Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ascent to governor of California, is happy to claim the man who could be the next president of the United States as one of its own.
“The basis of the Austrian interest, not only in Kerry but Schwarzenegger, is the inferiority complex of a small country that was once very big,” said Georg Hoffmann-Ostenhof, a commentator with the Austrian news weekly Profil.
Until World War I, Austria was the center of a multiethnic empire; it is now a small Alpine nation with a population of 8 million.
Austrian media have hailed the presidential candidate “with old Austrian roots.” The state-run television station and the local press have interviewed distant Kerry relations, including a Vienna politician, Manfred Kerry, whose great-grandfather was the brother of Kerry’s grandfather.
Moedling touts its crucial role in the history of the Kerrys.
Kohn, Kerry’s paternal grandfather, was a German-speaking Jew from Austrian Silesia, now a part of the Czech Republic. In 1880, at age 7, he moved with his widowed mother and two siblings to Moedling, where his uncle ran a shoe factory. In 1900, he married Ida Loewe, a Jew from Budapest.
Anti-Semitism was a fact of life in turn-of-the-century Austria, and many assimilated Jews changed their names and converted to Roman Catholicism in an effort to escape prejudice.
In 1901, Kohn changed the family name to Kerry -- according to legend, the Kohns took their new name from the Irish county of Kerry by randomly pointing at a map. The similarly spelled Kery, however, is not an uncommon last name in Central Europe.
Just two weeks later, Fritz Kerry was baptized at St. Othmar, a Late Gothic church perched on a hill above the old town square.
A few years later, the Kerrys emigrated to the U.S., where Fritz, short for Friedericus, became Frederick. Richard Kerry, father of the Democratic nominee, was born in 1915.
By the time John Kerry was born in 1943, Frederick had committed suicide and the family past, as well as its Jewish ancestry, had been consigned to history. Two world wars and the Holocaust -- two of Kerry’s relatives on his grandmother’s side died in Nazi camps -- left few traces of the family on this side of the Atlantic.
Now, Moedling has a page devoted to the Kerry connection on its website, and St. Othmar has a Web page too.
“All of Moedling is proud of the connection,” said Gerhard Kunze, who has written a history of the town.
Meanwhile, the Czech town of Horni Benesov, formerly called Bennisch, has found fame as Fritz Kohn’s birthplace. According to a report by Radio Free Europe, the local amateur soccer team has been renamed the John Kerry team, and there has been talk of honorary citizenship for Kerry.
In interviews with local and foreign media, officials of the down-at-the-heels town of around 2,500 have expressed hope that a Kerry win could result in a tourism boost, or at the very least a little more attention from the Czech government.
For their part, Hungarian media have devoted their attention to Ida Loewe, Kerry’s Budapest-born grandmother, although her family originally came from Moravia, now a part of the Czech Republic. Not to be outdone, a regional Polish newspaper uncovered still more Kerry ancestors. Mathilde Fraenkel, Kerry’s great-grandmother, was born in 1845 in the town of Glogowek, which has also set up a website, in Polish, English and German, outlining the family connection.
“We even sent a letter to Kerry,” said Jan Mencler, the town’s mayor. “We congratulated him on his nomination and wrote about our discovery that his relatives come from this part of the world. It was in April. He hasn’t replied, but we are still hoping he will.”
A Kerry victory in November would probably unleash a new wave of Kerry fever.
Hans Stefan Hintner, the mayor of Moedling, said that if Kerry won, the town would probably honor the new U.S. president with plaques commemorating the local connection.
Few Kerry-related landmarks are still standing -- Fritz Kohn’s house, at Feldgasse 67, was torn down long ago, and the street has since been renamed Friedrich-Schiller-Strasse. But, Hintner pointed out, Moedling is still where the Kerrys became Kerrys.
“It is a tourism opportunity, and naturally that would be great for us,” he said.
In addition to becoming an honorary citizen of Horni Benesov, Kerry could receive a similar tribute from Glogowek if he became president, Mayor Mencler said.
“Maybe the City Council would name a street or a square after him,” he said.
Pride in a “local” boy making good and hopes for a Kerry-related tourism boom aren’t the only reasons behind European desires for a Kerry win. Many on the Continent are deeply opposed to U.S. actions in Iraq and to what is perceived as the Bush administration’s contempt for international alliances.
In a recent editorial, the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine wrote that “in Europe, a great majority is crossing its fingers that
Kerry appears to have strong supporters even in Poland, part of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s “New Europe,” which backed the U.S. moves in Iraq.
“We are really rooting for Kerry -- there is no reason to root for Bush,” Mencler said. “He started a war in Iraq and got Poles involved in it. Now we can’t get out because it just wouldn’t look good.”
The basis for some Europeans’ support for Kerry may be familiar to many Americans: He is not Bush.
“He has the most sympathy you can imagine simply for not being Bush,” Hoffmann-Ostenhof, the Austrian commentator, said, adding that the discovery of Kerry’s Pan-European origins is simply “the cream on top.”
Special correspondent Ela Kasprzycka in Warsaw contributed to this report.