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Hearing of roots, Czech village roots Kerry on

HORNI BENESOV, Czech Republic -- Josef Klech can't vote for the American president, but if he could he would cast his ballot for John F. Kerry.

A year ago, Klech, the mayor of this Czech hamlet, sent Kerry an e-mail message wishing the Massachusetts senator good luck. But Klech's enthusiasm has nothing to do with the Democratic front-runner's positions on health care, welfare, or even foreign affairs.

"I don't know what his policies are," Klech said. "I don't even know the difference between the Republicans and Democrats."

Like others in Horni Benesov, a poverty-stricken village of about 2,500 people, Klech is for Kerry because he views him as a native son. About two weeks before Klech sent his good-luck e-mail, a Globe genealogical search found that Kerry's grandfather, Fritz Kohn, was born to a Jewish family here, changed his name to Fredrick Kerry, and converted to Roman Catholicism before he immigrated to the United States in 1905. Kerry committed suicide in a Boston hotel washroom in 1921.

That report was little more than a curiosity until Kerry's string of Democratic primary victories made him the favorite to face President Bush in November. But since Kerry's rise, the citizens of Horni Benesov, in the Czech Republic's depressed industrial belt near the Polish border, have something to cheer for.

"We feel proud that a person who could become president of the mightiest country in the world has roots in Horni Benesov," said Maria Culakova, 45, who runs a cafe in the center of town, adding she hopes Kerry will visit the town some day. "We would definitely give him the proper welcome that he deserves, whether or not he becomes president. He should visit because it is good to see where you came from, especially in light of what he has become."

Klech says he wants to make Kerry the town's first-ever honorary citizen. And he has proposed that a memorial plaque be put on the lot where Kohn's house once stood -- now nothing more than a small fenced-in yard with a children's swing.

The town where Kerry's grandfather was born in 1873 bears little resemblance to the Horni Benesov of today. Two world wars, the Holocaust, and four decades of communism have transformed it beyond recognition.

When Kohn was born, the town was called Bennisch, was populated almost entirely by Germans, with a minuscule Jewish community, and was part of the Silesia region of Austria-Hungary. Today it is almost entirely Czech.

"The people who live here today settled in the area after the Second World War," Klech said.

The late 19th century, when Kohn was born, was a period of rapid change in the empire, particularly for Jews.

With the emancipation of 1848, Emperor Franz Josef abolished the quotas that existed for Jews in Austro-Hungarian cities, allowing them freedom of movement. Moreover, Jews in the empire were allowed to open businesses and change their names.

This was the time of the Haskaleh, or Jewish Enlightenment, in Europe. This led to a degree of secularization within the faith. It was in this period that Sigmund Freud, as a child, moved with his parents to Vienna, where he would earn renown as the founder of psychoanalysis. It was also at this time that the writer Franz Kafka's parents moved to Prague.

But although Jews had won legal rights, informal discrimination and casual anti-Semitism remained a fact of everyday life.

"Many Jews . . . wanted to be as assimilated as possible, but you cannot expect centuries of prejudice to disappear," said Leo Pavlat, director of the Jewish Museum in Prague. "There were many ways of coping. Many Jews wanted to hide their Jewishness, and one way to do this was to change their names."

It was in this environment that some members of the Kohn family -- including Kerry's grandfather Fritz -- converted to Roman Catholicism and changed their name to Kerry, or some variation.

According to local birth records, Fritz Kohn's father, Benedict Kohn, worked at a local brewery run by Jakob Beck, patriarch of another local Jewish family.

Between 1854 and 1876, Benedict and his wife, Mathilde, had four children: Bernhard, Ida, Fritz, and Otto. But census records indicate that only the eldest son Bernhard, his wife, Hermine, and their three sons -- Bruno, Alfred, and Richard -- remained in the family house in Bennisch after 1880. The records also indicate Bernhard took over his father's job as master at the local brewery.

Jiri Stibor, chief archivist for the Opava region, where Horni Benesov's records are kept, said the records seemed to indicate that both Otto and Fritz, and perhaps other members of the family, moved out of Horni Benesov, possibly to Vienna, around that time.

In 1887, Otto, the youngest of Benedict's children, changed his name to Kerry and converted to Roman Catholicism. In 1901, Fritz did the same thing.

The family members who remained in Horni Benesov also appeared to be renouncing their Judaism. Bernhard's sons Bruno and Alfred both had their names removed from the town's Jewish records, in 1904 and 1914, respectively, indicating that they had left the faith.

Moreover, in 1911, Bernhard Kohn's youngest son, Richard, changed his last name to Keri -- although it is unclear why he chose a different spelling.

"Richard had to be corresponding with Fritz or Otto at this time," said Stibor, the archivist.

At the time when Richard Kohn changed his name to Keri, Fritz Kohn -- now Fredrick Kerry -- and his wife, Ida, were already in the United States, where in 1915, John Kerry's father, Richard, was born.

In the early 20th century, as the Kohn family was reinventing itself on both sides of the Atlantic, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was crumbling under the weight of the nationalism that would eventually lead to World War I.

After the war, the empire broke up and Bennisch -- now known by the Czech name Horni Benesov -- found itself inside the newly formed country of Czechoslovakia. The town continued to be populated mostly by ethnic Germans, and most of the Jews in the area moved to cities.

During World War II and the 1939-1945 Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, most of the remaining Jews in the area were either killed in the Holocaust or immigrated. After the war, the Czechoslovak government ordered the deportation of 2.9 million Germans, stripping them of their citizenship and seizing their property in retaliation for their support for the Third Reich.

With the expulsion of the Germans, the Czechs and Slovaks moved in, and after the 1948 communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, the area, which had been agricultural, industrialized rapidly.

In 1989, the Velvet Revolution ended communism. Four years later, the so-called Velvet Divorce split Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Since then, Horni Benesov has suffered severe hardship as factories and mills have struggled. Unemployment is at 17 percent, public services are faltering, and the facades on many buildings are crumbling.

Locals warily hope that Kerry's rise, and Horni Benesov's new status, might translate into investment, tourism, perhaps renewal.

"The city might wake up," said Jana Branisova, 30, a clerk in a local supermarket. "Some good things might happen here."

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