CAMBRIDGE — Over the years, Dr. Joan Wheelis has bumped into John F. Kerry a couple of times at a Cambridge tailor shop they both happen to like. The psychiatrist and the then-US senator from Massachusetts said their pleasantries and went on their way, serendipitous moments that seemed to have little lasting meaning.
Then, one day a few weeks ago, Wheelis was contacted by a stranger in Britain. The stranger e-mailed to say he was Wheelis’s cousin. Then he revealed that their mutual relative was none other than Kerry.
So began a journey of discovery that veered from the magical to the tragic. The connection to Kerry, it turned out, was a set of long-lost mutual cousins: a band of four brothers, three of whom were killed at Nazi concentration camps, and a fourth who survived imprisonment at Dachau.
The details of this lost family connection fill in a missing piece of a puzzle that first took shape 10 years ago, when a Globe reporter researching a profile informed Kerry that he had an Austrian grandfather who changed the family name from Kohn to Kerry and their religion from Jewish to Catholic. At the time, Kerry said he knew nothing about this paternal history, and the family has spent years tracking down more information. Indeed, Kerry’s brother, Cameron, is slated to visit the Czech Republic this week in an effort to learn more about the family’s Jewish roots.
As it turns out, some of the answers may be found in Cambridge, where Wheelis, after getting the startling e-mail, began sorting through more than a thousand letters left by her ancestors, matching names to a newly expanded family tree that now includes the Kerry family.
For Wheelis, whose mother escaped Austria just before World War II, the process of discovery has been fascinating and painful. So little separated the ancestors Hitler killed and those who got away.
“It is a curious sort of twist to suddenly be aware of relatives I had not known about,” she said.
It is, according to those involved, a vivid reminder of how the Holocaust led to so many lost connections in the world, mostly between the anonymous and the unknown, but sometimes involving a man whose name is among the nation’s best known, and whose history is still being written.
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It begins with the family patriarch. Benedict Kohn was a beer maker who lived during the late 19th century in a town called Bennisch in the Austrian Empire, which today is known as Horni Benesov in the Czech Republic. Of the 4,200 residents, Kohn was among the few dozen who were Jewish.
The beer maker’s first wife, Rosa Winter, had a son named Bernhard Kohn. It is from this family that Joan Wheelis descends — a family the Kerrys had known nothing about.
After the beer maker’s first wife died, he married Mathilde Frankel, and they had a son named Fritz Kohn — who would be Kerry’s grandfather.
In time, the half-brothers, Bernhard and Fritz, decided that their Kohn name and their Jewish heritage made it too difficult to advance in the many anti-Semitic quarters of the Austrian Empire.
Bernhard changed the family name to Kaulbach.
But Fritz, according to family lore, dropped a pencil on a European map, where it landed on County Kerry in Ireland, and so he changed his name to Kerry and changed his religion to Catholic. Fritz wrote on an application that he wanted to change his name because “it is so typically Jewish” and he believed “that the name will hinder his career in the military.”
Why the half-brothers chose different new names is unclear. But the fact that they separated into Kaulbach and Kerry clans appears to be a key reason why the descendants of both families didn’t know they had common ancestry.
Fritz Kohn, having changed his name to Frederick Kerry, immigrated to the United States and, for a time, was a successful businessman. His wife, the former Ida Lowe, gave birth in Boston to Richard Kerry, who was John Kerry’s father. But Frederick Kerry’s business dealings went sour, and in 1921, as the Globe reported at the time, he committed suicide in a bathroom of the Copley Plaza Hotel.
John Kerry said his father never talked to him about the family’s paternal Jewish roots. “It is a revelation,” Kerry said in the 2003 interview.
And the Kerrys still knew nothing of the Kaulbach branch in their lineage. That changed earlier this year when a man in Britain named Keith Kinsbrook intensified his search for more information about his family’s roots by contacting a cousin and a genealogist.
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Kinsbrook knew that his father’s last name originally was Kaulbach. But it was only two months ago that a genealogist confirmed that his grandfather, Bruno Kaulbach, was the descendant of Benedict Kohn, the patriarch of the Kerry family. Kinsbrook was astonished that he had lived nearly all of his 68 years without knowing this part of his heritage.
Kinsbrook knew that his grandfather had been imprisoned by the Nazis at Dachau. Bruno survived and was liberated by US Army forces and later testified at a war crimes trial against the Nazis, according to records uncovered in the genealogical search.
But what of Bruno’s three brothers? Kinsbrook learned that they died in concentration camps. One of those brothers was the grandfather of Wheelis. His name was Richard Kaulbach, and here is where the connection between John Kerry and Wheelis came together.
Richard Kaulbach was a doctor, living in Vienna in 1914, when he married a woman named Sophie Fuchs. The next year, their daughter, Ilse, was born. As Nazi anti-Semitism spread, Richard’s family was under siege and by 1938, they made plans to leave for the United States. Only Ilse made it out. She spent four years trying to get permission from US authorities for her parents to join her — terrifying years in which she feared she would never see her parents again.
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On Sept. 3, Kerry, in his role as secretary of state, testified before a House committee about the need to take action against President Bashar Assad of Syria, whose military actions had led to a refugee crisis. Kerry compared the moment to one faced by the United States during World War II, when American authorities severely restricted the number of Jewish immigrants seeking haven in this country. He cited a case in which “a ship off the coast of Florida . . . was sent back filled with Jews who then lost their lives to gas because we didn’t receive them.” Such moments, Kerry said, live in “infamy” in US history.
Kerry didn’t know it when he spoke those words, but it was that restrictive immigration policy during World War II that affected the lives of relatives he didn’t know he had — Richard and Sophie Kaulbach.
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Ilse Kaulbach thought she had finally succeeded in winning US permission for her parents to join her in America. But when Richard and Sophie went in 1941 to a US consulate, an American official balked at accepting Richard, who was in his 40s and had suffered a stroke. The US official, who may have been concerned that Richard could not work, rejected him. Ilse was distraught.
There was one more chance. Richard and Sophie learned that a ship was leaving from Portugal for Cuba. But before they could leave Vienna, the Nazis cut off travel. Soon, they received their deportation orders. They were taken to a place few had heard of, a town called Sobibor, in a rural part of Poland.
The place had another name: Extermination Camp.
More than 250,000 people who were sent to the camp quickly were put to death in gas chambers, including these long-lost Kerry family cousins.
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Ilse did not learn of their fate until later. For years, she did not dwell on the family’s history or religion. “I knew something terrible had happened,” Wheelis said. “There were often these silences and tears.”
It was not until Wheelis was 10 years old that her mother told the story of what happened to the family during the Holocaust. While Wheelis had heard a reference to the family’s Kohn heritage, there was no talk of a connection to the Kerry family until Kinsbrook called her.
The connection he had found to the Kerrys was confirmed be two genealogists, including Felix Gundacker, the Austrian specialist who a decade ago authenticated Kerry’s Jewish ancestry for the Globe. After reviewing records last week at the Globe’s request, Gundacker said he was certain of the connection of the Kerry and Kaulbach families.
Wheelis had had no inkling. She had met John Kerry more than once at the Rizzo Tailor shop in Cambridge, exchanged pleasantries each time, and greatly admired the man who was a US senator when they met and is now the US secretary of state.
Now, fascinated, she pulled out boxes of family mementos. The trove of letters left by her mother, who died in 2012, detailed the struggle that Ilse faced in trying to get her parents out of Vienna. Among the artifacts is a book of photographs of family members, including captions written by Ilse. One photo is of a woman who looks to be in her 60s. Ilse’s caption described her as “a very strict woman who smoked cigars and walked as straight as she was as a person.” There is also a line that, until recently, seemed especially puzzling. It said: “This is my father’s grandmother. Her name was Kerry.”
Even now, it is not clear whether the woman used Kerry as a first or last name. Either way, it was one more puzzle piece.
As Wheelis has pondered these discoveries, she said she has thought about the depths to which her mother — and countless others — were affected by the Holocaust for the rest of their lives.
The fact that so many families were lost or separated by the Holocaust was horrific. What has happened recently, Wheelis said, has been comforting.
“To have somebody write from across the seas, to have somebody say, ‘Are you the granddaughter of Richard Kaulbach?’ It makes the world a little more connected.”
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In the 10 years since the Globe informed the Kerrys of their Jewish ancestry, they have spent considerable time learning more about their roots. The most deeply affected has been John Kerry’s younger brother, Cameron, who married a Jewish woman in 1983 and converted to the faith. He has undertaken research of his own.
At one point, he received records that showed at least two ancestors on his grandmother’s side of the family had perished in concentration camps.
“When I saw those records . . . it was a very moving moment,” Cameron Kerry said. “It brings the Holocaust home.”
Cameron Kerry hopes to bring the story full circle with his visit to the village in the Czech Republic where the family patriarch Benedict Kohn lived. Kerry is doubtful that his ancestors’ home or business are still standing, given the damage wrought by World War II. But he feels drawn to it.
“It’s just to see the place,” Kerry said. “There’s not much left there after the war that would have been there when Benedict Kohn was there. But I intend to put the place in some sort of context.”