Czech Town's Mayor Welcomes Kerry

American presidential politics don't normally cause much of a stir in this far-flung corner of the Czech Republic (search). But revelations that John Kerry's grandfather was born here have mesmerized the mountain town.

Suddenly, Horni Benesov's 2,400 people can't get enough of the Democratic front-runner's quest for the White House or his Czech ancestor, an ethnic German Jew who fled rising anti-Semitism for America's shores at the turn of the last century.

If the Massachusetts senator clinches his party's nomination, Mayor Josef Klech is ready to offer Kerry a more obscure post - honorary citizen of this former mining town in the northeastern Czech Republic's Jeseniky mountains.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed for him," Klech said.

Word of Kerry's Czech connection first surfaced last year, when an Austrian genealogist hired by The Boston Globe discovered that the candidate's paternal grandfather, Frederick A. Kerry, was born in Horni Benesov as Fritz Kohn (search) in 1873.

The news reportedly astonished Kerry, a Catholic, and it sent a thrill through the town 175 miles east of Prague, whose history dates to 1253. Two townsfolk thought the tale so fantastic, they accused the mayor of making it up.

"We were taken by surprise," Klech said. "Who could expect that?"

Today, there's nothing left to suggest Jews ever lived here: no synagogue, no traces of Jewish tombstones.

Fritz Kohn, a son of Benedikt Kohn and his wife, Mathilde, once worked in the local brewery. Czech government archives reveal that Fritz Kohn changed his name to Frederick Kerry on March 17, 1902, and emigrated to the United States three years later.

Tomas Jelinek, the leader of Prague's Jewish community, said many Jews left for the United States at the time to seek a better life and to escape anti-Semitism.

Kerry first settled in Chicago before moving to Boston, where his wife, Ida, gave birth to John Kerry's father, Richard, in 1915. Frederick Kerry, apparently despondent over mounting debts, shot himself in the head in Boston's Copley Plaza Hotel (search) in 1921 and died.

The Kohn family house is gone, and the remains of the brewery are now a public sauna. But the people of Horni Benesov are closely following Kerry's progress.

"We are grateful for him," said Eva Bambuskova, 55, a music teacher. "All this is good for our town."

At the end of the 19th century, Horni Benesov was a lively mining town and textile industry center in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its mines yielded gold and silver, then later zinc and lead as the precious metals petered out.

The town's 5,000 citizens, mostly ethnic Germans, knew the town by its German name, Bennisch.

Shortly after World War II, about 3 million ethnic Germans were expelled from then-Czechoslovakia and had their property confiscated. They were considered enemies of the Czechs and Slovaks because many had supported Adolf Hitler (search) and the wartime Nazi occupation of the Czech lands.

Their exodus, and the arrival of Czech newcomers, meant there was virtually no information about Horni Benesov and its past. All that survived was a book of the town's photographs from 1937, which contains a picture of Kerry's grandfather's house.

The last mine closed in 1992, and joblessness here is 16 percent. Klech, the mayor, hopes his town could become a gateway for tourists to nearby ski resorts - and that perhaps a Kerry connection could help.

"We'll certainly invite him," he said. "But of course it's up to him to decide whether he wants to see a place where his ancestors used to live."

Bambuskova, the music teacher, said she'll be happy to have him as an honorary citizen.

"Why not? He's got his roots here, and we should let other people know about it," she said.

"His case shows that someone whose family came from a small town like this can have a chance to become president."