Had it been in the theater of war, it would have amounted to a surprise attack. After all, it’s not every day that a celebrated general comes to a yeshiva that educates Russian Jewish youth deep in the heart of Brooklyn. And it’s rarer still when that general drops a bomb, so to speak.
The junior high students of the Be’er Hagolah Institutes didn’t know what hit them.
"My grandfather and grandmother came from Russia: and they were Jews," said Wesley Kanne Clark, the handsome, graying 55-year-old commander-in-chief of the U.S. European Command. "I am the oldest son, of the oldest son, of the oldest son, of the oldest son: at least five generations, and they were all rabbis" from Minsk.
It was the first time that the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe for NATO (the man who led NATO forces against Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic) had publicly discussed his Jewish heritage and the discovery of the long-kept family secret of his father’s Jewish background.
"I feel a tremendous amount in common with you," Clark told the students, some of whom arrived in America from Russia only a few months ago with no knowledge of Judaism.
Clark told the students he was "thrilled" to discover his Jewish roots and has since reconnected with many relatives of his late father, Benjamin Kanne, a Chicago city attorney and Democratic politician who once was boss to the late Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Clark said his grandfather, Jacob Nemerovsky, fled Minsk in the late 1890s during a pogrom.
And there was more.
During an interview with The Jewish Week, the general revealed that he is descended from the Jewish priestly class, the kohens.
"Grandma Kanne, my grandmother, told her daughters, ‘don’t ever forget you are from this line,’ " said Clark, who was raised in Little Rock, Ark., as a Southern Baptist but as an adult converted to Roman Catholicism.
Clark was in New York this week to brief UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke on the continuing strife in Kosovo, and to receive the second Hero of Freedom Award given by Be’er Hagolah (the first recipient was Mayor Rudolph Giuliani) at a dinner co-sponsored by the school and Re’uth, a social services organization in Israel.
The award, a silver replica of a mezuzah, recognizes Clark for his "outstanding leadership of NATO during an extraordinary challenging period in it history."
"General Clark led troops representing 19 nations to victory in NATO’s first and only war," the plaque reads. "He halted a systematic campaign of killing and ethnic cleansing by Serbia in Kosovo.
With all these accomplishments, award givers said they were chagrined that Clark had not received the same public acclaim as Generals Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf. They also pointed to the extraordinarily difficult political position Clark was put in: directed to fight a war without ground troops, the policy of the Clinton administration.
"No one understands … the incredible inhibitions placed on Wes Clark’s capacity to prosecute the war in Kosovo," said Thomas Schick, a Be’er Hagolah board member and executive vice president of American Express.
Indeed, experts say it was Clark’s forceful arguments against the Clinton policy that led to his early replacement as NATO commander, which takes effect in May.
Clark demurs when asked about the level of acclaim he has received. "I wouldn’t want to make any comparisons," he said, sitting on the end of a sofa in his office hotel room at the Waldorf-Astoria.
The general provided a brief update on the ethnic conflict in Kosovo between the Albanians and Serbs.
"We knew the feelings were very, very raw, that the political situation was not resolved by the war," he said. "The time is not right yet to engage in political dialogue with the Serbian government, and the ultimate goal is the democratization of Serbia."
Commenting on comparisons made during the war between the Serbian plan for ethnic cleansing and Hitler’s systematic plan to murder Jews during the Holocaust, Clark said his own Jewish background was not a factor in carrying out his mission.
"My heritage didn’t really have anything to do with this," Clark said, adding that he didn’t want to come forward with the details of his Jewish heritage while the war was on. "I was executing the policy of the United States government and other governments in NATO."
Clark said there would have been "unimaginable human consequences" had NATO not acted.
"We interrupted and rolled back a campaign which killed several thousand (how many we don’t know) and would have resulted in the forced expulsion of a million or more Albanians. It’s clear that a well-thought-out campaign plan of ethnic cleansing was being implemented before the onset of NATO bombing," he said.
Clark added that because of his in-depth knowledge of Milosevic’s plan, "there’s probably been no commander in the 20th century who’s had such an intimate acquaintance with his adversary."
Clark’s acquaintance with his own Jewish roots dates back to about 1967, when he was a married 23-year-old Rhodes scholar at Oxford. That’s when he was first contacted by members of his father’s family, and welcomed the new twist in his life.
After his father died in Chicago from a heart attack, 5-year-old Wes Clark’s mother, Veneta Kanne, who was not Jewish, took him back to her native Little Rock. There he was raised by his mother and stepfather, Victor Clark, who adopted him.
The Jewish side of the family respected the mother’s new life and stayed away, even while quietly keeping tabs on little Wes through letters with his mother.
But after contact was made in the late 1960s with a phone call from a cousin, relationships grew stronger. "He’s visited my mother several times in the past two years to find out what he could about his father and grandfather," said Barry Kanne, the general’s first cousin. "She is the oldest living relative and the repository of the family history."
Clark said his grandfather, Nemerovsky, found safety in Switzerland and obtained a false passport under the family name of Kanne, which he used to immigrate to the United States.
"I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know all my first cousins," Clark told The Jewish Week. "My father was the oldest of seven: he had five sisters and a brother. He was the last to get married, so I’m one of the youngest of all of my first cousins."
When my grandfather came he brought his fiancee and his youngest brother, and the fiancee brought her younger sister. A year later a third brother joined them and a half sister, so we know at least four in that generation." All of the last generation are buried in Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago.
Clark said that growing up in Little Rock, he always felt a kinship toward the Jewish community. "It’s such a wonderful cultural heritage. I’m tremendously proud of my family: the courage it took for my grandparents to leave their homes and leave their families and come to the United States and to meet the fine people in this Kanne family," he said.
As for his future plans, Clark said he will be looking for a job in the private sector when his tour ends. He ruled out politics: at least for now. "I hope always to be able to continue public service at some point," he said.
Back at Be’er Hagolah, Clark stopped in on second- and third-graders in their classrooms after the junior high assembly. Dressed in his uniform, adorned with multicolored medals and the four stars that mark his rank, Clark showed a genuine interest in the several young girls who had just arrived from Russia.
Squeezing into one of the small chairs, Clark asked in Russian, "How are you?"
The general said he was impressed with the work the school was doing, saying it evoked the history of his own grandparents coming to America.