His Family's Refugee Past Is Said to Inspire NATO's Commander
By ELIZABETH BECKER - May 3, 1999
WASHINGTON -- The American general who is leading NATO's military operation to stop Serbian troops from killing and expelling Albanians from Kosovo discovered as an adult that he is the grandson of a Russian Jew who fled his country to escape the pogroms there a century ago.
Gen. Wesley Kanne Clark was raised as a Protestant in Little Rock, Ark., where he was brought up by his mother and stepfather, Victor Clark. He was ignorant of his ancestry, which disappeared from his life with the death of his father, Benjamin Jacob Kanne when Wesley was 5 years old. He learned of his ethnic background when he was in his 20's and embraced the discovery, according to several family members.
Since President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia began the forced exodus of Albanians from Kosovo, many have drawn parallels with the expulsion of Jews from Russia and the Nazi mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust in Europe.
General Clark has not discussed his heritage with many people, sharing his belated discovery of his biological father's family and background with only a few close friends and his immediate family. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
But in interviews, some of his relatives and friends say that General Clark was inspired by the story of his grandfather's persecution and escape from his native land, and that his determination to defeat Milosevic is fed in part by his empathy for the victims of Serbian ethnic purges.
After he was married, while studying at Oxford from 1966 to 1968, Wesley Clark was contacted by his father's relatives and gradually became aware of who his father and grandparents were. Soon after, he met some of the members of his lost family. He then slowly became part of the Kanne family, beginning with the initial phone call from a cousin in the late 1960's and culminating with an invitation to his first cousin Barry Kanne to spend a quiet New Year dinner with him in Belgium this year.
General Clark also has become fluent in the Russian language and in the past three years has delved into the family history.
"He's visited my mother several times in the past two years to find out what he could about his father and grandfather -- she is the oldest living relative and the repository of the family history," said Barry Kanne, the general's first cousin and the son of Benjamin Kanne's only brother.
In the late 1890's, Jacob Nemerovsky, the general's grandfather, fled Russia in fear for his life during one of the episodic pogroms against Jews. According to the family, Nemerovsky found safety in Switzerland where he obtained a false passport under the family name of Kanne, which he used to immigrate to the United States.
"Wes and I talked about his family once on a military plane to Bosnia," said Richard C. Holbrooke, the negotiator of the Dayton peace plan. "I told him how my wife discovered she was Jewish in her 30's and he said, 'That's funny, I have a sort of similar story.'" (Another Clinton Administration official, Madeleine K. Albright, learned only after she was nominated as Secretary of State that her grandparents had died in concentration camps during the Holocaust.)
The Kanne family say they believe that General Clark has, in the Balkans crisis, called on discipline and motivation that reminds them of his father. Gen. John Shalikashvili, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a confidant of General Clark's, says that the general has been under "unbelievable stress" as the Kosovo air campaign has expanded.
"Clark has an infinite capacity for hard work and stress," General Shalikashvili said. "That's a characteristic of his -- he devotes all of his energies to get the job done and done right."
These were also characteristics of his father B. J. Kanne, who in a grainy 1927 newspaper photograph bears a remarkable resemblance to the man commanding the biggest European conflict since World War II. His father had made the news for resigning from his position as assistant prosecuting attorney in Chicago that year in order to "devote his entire time" to run for election as alderman of the Fourth Ward.
"He was very active in politics in Chicago, and a University of Chicago graduate," said Harriet Salk, an older cousin of General Clark who lives in a suburb outside the city. "And what a tall, good-looking guy."
She remembers that handsome uncle from the family gatherings every Friday night -- the beginning of Sabbath -- and again on Sunday evening at the home of Grandmother Kanne, the widow of Jacob. The family is not sure, but they believe she, too, fled Russia, coming to America with Jacob.
The general's father, who served as a Navy ensign during World War I, practiced law in Chicago's corporation counsel for 20 years and had joined a private firm with his brother Louis when he died suddenly of a heart atttack at the age of 51. He left behind his widow, Veneta Kanne, and a lone son, Wesley.
At the funeral, Mrs. Salk said, "the constituents were lined up for blocks to pay their respects to Wesley's father."
Soon afterwards, the young Wesley Clark moved with his mother to her hometown of Little Rock, far away from the close knit Chicago family of his hard-driving, ambitious father.
His mother remarried Victor Clark, who adopted Wesley and gave him his name, and thereafter the Kanne family learned of the accomplishments of B. J.'s son from a distance. Florence Ellis, one of the five sisters of B. J. Kanne, kept up a private correspondence with Veneta Kanne Clark, and passed on the letters about Wesley to the rest of the Kanne family.
As Wesley K. Clark graduated first in his high school class, then first in his class at West Point, the family heaped praise on Veneta for raising him so well and also avoided any direct contact with Wesley out of respect for Veneta's new life, according to cousin Barry Kanne.
Then when Wesley Clark was attending Oxford as a Rhodes scholar one of the cousins, Molly Friedman from Cleveland, was visiting England and called Wesley at the university. At that point General Clark didn't even know why he had the unusual middle name of Kanne, much less who his real father or grandfather were, according to the relatives.
After receiving a master's degree, General Clark left Oxford to fight in Vietnam, where he commanded a mechanized infantry company, was wounded four times and received the Silver Star and Purple Heart awards.
He also converted to Roman Catholicism in Vietnam, abandoning the Southern Baptist faith of his mother.
Over the next decade, General Clark had few contacts with the Kanne family as he climbed up the military ranks and began to build his strong political network, beginning with his appointment as a White House Fellow immediately after the Vietnam War.
In the 1990's, however, Barry Kanne's daughter April introduced herself to General Clark's son, Wesley, Jr., when they were both studying at Georgetown University.
"I looked him up and he had already heard a lot of the stories at that point," said April Kanne Donnellan. "After that I spent a couple of Christmases at General Clark's home at Fort McNair."
Through their children's contacts, General Clark finally met Barry Kanne, his first cousin and the only other direct male descendant of Jacob Nemorovsky.
It was this contact about five years ago that led General Clark to embark on a more thorough search into his father's family.
"He knew a moderate amount about the family when I met him," said Barry Kanne. "He was trying to fill in the gaps so I pointed him towards Mom and he's visited her several times."
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