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NBC: Czech town roots for Kerry

The residents of the Czech town of Horni Benesov are rooting for Democrat John Kerry in the U.S. presidential election. NBC's Jim Maceda explains why.
/ Source: NBC News

Four-thousand miles from Boston, Sen. John Kerry’s nomination was also cause to celebrate. Every one of Horni Benesov's 2,000 Czech inhabitants supports the man from Massachusetts.


“I can be proud of this — John Kerry comes from Horni Benesov,” says social worker Jana Shenkerijikova.

It was a 100-year-old secret, first uncovered by the Boston Globe in a story that stunned Kerry himself. His grandfather, Fredrick, was in fact named Fritz Kohn. In 1902, Kohn changed his name to the Irish-sounding Kerry and converted from Judaism to Catholicism, taking his family first to Vienna, then, in 1905, to America.

Historians say that was a common route for Jews fleeing growing anti-Semitism.

Faded memories of Kerry family
“I think the only reason was his hope for a better life,” says David Stecher of the JewishCommunity of Prague.

Today, memories of the Kerry family have faded in Horni Benesov.  Some relatives who stayed behind, like Kerry's great-uncle, Otto, perished in the Nazi death camps.  The Kerry family house was destroyed after World War II.

The mayor Horni Benesov, Josef Klech, says his town can't get too excited yet about its long-lost favorite son.

“People here have too many problems just making ends meet,” he says.

The former communist mining town has hit hard times. Factories are closed and unemployment is above 20 percent.

Jumping on Kerry's coattails
Many people in John Kerry's ancestral town hope a Kerry presidency would put the town back on the map — and not even the world map. They say they'd be happy getting recognition, and some sorely needed investment, from their own Czech government.

Jarmila Shindler lives next to the site of the old Kerry house. Kerry told Czech TV he would visit and she hopes he will keep his promise.

“If he can bring some good to the town, all the better,” Shindler says.

But first, he must win. The local betting shop has Kerry and President Bush in a dead heat. So this week there was good cheer, but serious plans — like a John Kerry street sign — are on hold until November.