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Book Reviews


“Family Declassified takes the reader on a remarkable journey of discovery that is part memoir, part biography, and part history of generations of a 20th-century Hungarian Jewish family. In an era when family secrets dominate best-selling books, few can compete with the unpacking of the secrets in the life of Francis (Ferko) Kalnay, the author’s grandfather. Kalnay, repeatedly re-invented himself from his late teens on in Europe, the United States, Argentina, and Mexico. He erased his Jewishness, and abandoned wives, lovers, and children and his economic responsibility to them. At the same time, his engaging personality, his mastery of multiple languages, and his brilliance afforded him a career in the OSS, a remarkable feat for a Hungarian who ultimately was assigned top-secret responsibilities. That secret work contributed to the Allied victory in the war. His postwar life, likely in response to the horrors of war, was devoted to art, architecture (despite having no formal training), a brilliant career in hospitality in Mexico, and fame in children’s literature.
Francis Kalnay’s lives, secrets, and substantial successes in all that he did, are recounted by Kathy Fennelly against the tragedy of Hungarian Jews during the Shoah, and the heartbreaking deaths of Ferko’s mother and sister. Hungarian Nazi brutality in Budapest is made concrete and personal as that story unfolds in their lives.
Fennelly is herself an important actor in Family Declassified. She takes the reader with her on her excavation of this complex and compelling family history. With her, we learn about a nudist colony of artists and writers that her grandfather created with one of the most prolific illustrators for the New Yorker in the 1930s. We learn through the declassified documents that she discovered what Ferko did for the OSS. We learn of family deaths through records of those who were killed in the Shoah, though she never knew if her mother or grandfather, or other relatives knew what happened to them. Finally, she asks the questions that readers will ask; why did Ferko and other family members make the choices they made; what cost was paid by them and other generations, and what does it mean to future generations to learn these stories?"

Riv-Ellen Prell, Ph.D., anthropologist and Jewish Studies scholar; author of Fighting to Become Americans: Jews, Gender and the Anxiety of Assimilation

“Millions of readers enjoy books that explore, and often resolve, family secrets. Like the best of the genre, Family Declassified – Katherine Fennelly's quest to understand her talented but difficult and mysterious grandfather -- does much more than introduce us to the memories and puzzles of an individual family. It also brilliantly conveys to readers the excitement, hard work, persistence and collaborative ethos of historical research.”


Donna R. Gabaccia, Ph.D., immigration history scholar; author of Foreign Relations: American Immigration in Global Perspective

“Family Declassified is a multifaceted family history that focuses on the life and work of the author’s grandfather, Francis Kalnay, who came to this country from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire in April 1919. Kalnay was an accomplished writer, linguist, and a man of great intellect who exuded “old-world charm.” His many talents served him well when, at the onset of World War II, he joined and quickly rose to the upper echelons of General “Wild Bill” Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services. However, after the dissolution of the OSS, Kalnay abruptly severed all ties to the shadowy world of espionage, moving first to California and subsequently to Mexico. He offered no explanation for his actions, thus ensuring that mystery and intrigue would continue to surround one of Donovan’s most inscrutable spies. The author has conducted extensive research that makes use of previously unexamined documents on the OSS.” 


Kirk Ford, Jr., Ph.D., Military Historian; author of The OSS and the Yugoslav Resistance, 1943-1945

"Fascinating! This compelling page-turner about a compromised character and shapeshifting survivor tells a story much like those of my Jewish family members. Self-invention was essential to their lives. Truth or fiction was secondary to success.” 


Lori Gladstone, Theater producer and Jewish mother

"Katherine Fennelly’s book, Family Declassified, is a masterpiece. It tracks her grandfather Francis Kalnay’s service as lead organizer of US espionage in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations during the crucial final years of World War II. It’s also a memoir of his childhood, a Jew living in Budapest, whose family suffered horrendous persecution, even murder, by Christian Hungarians, forcing thousands to leave for the US. She explores his first heady years in New  York, his gravitation to left-wing causes and free love, and his marriages. After the war, Kalnay retreated to California and then Mexico, where he grew vegetables, flowers, and shrubs, spending his final years in a cottage near Carmel, California.  A marvelous and instructive biography.” 


Ann Markusen, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, University of Minnesota; Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, 1995-2002

"I just finished reading Family Declassified and I enjoyed it from beginning to end. What an amazing personality Ferko had, and he made such an impact on so many levels. And the data sources and photos…wow! The book has something for everyone. Readers who are especially interested in Ferko’s role in history will find lots to learn and to keep them engaged. WWII is still such a fascinating topic, especially with Fennelly’s focus on intelligence agencies and espionage. Readers drawn to family relationships and to all other non-historical aspects – his multiple jobs and careers, his writings, the Russian mystic’s influence, etc. will have much to enjoy.” 


Silvia Blitzer Golombek , Ph.D., Former Adjunct Faculty, Johns Hopkins University Carey School

Katherine Fennelly did not discover that her family was Jewish until she was in her 30s. That revelation went from surprise to distress as the author researched the hidden history of her grandfather, Francis Kalnay, described in Family Declassified: Uncovering My Grandfather’s Journey from Spy to Children’s Book Author (2023).
Kalnay was known to his family as an award-winning children’s writer, a charming raconteur, superb chef, successful architect, and inveterate womanizer who abandoned his wife and children. What he successfully concealed from his family and most of the world was that he was a high-level spy for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and—in a more familiar tale—that he was Jewish. As his descendant, Fennelly was granted access to 400,000 pages of unpublished OSS reports, personal memos and letters. Drawing on her academic training as a social scientist and her story-telling ability, Fennelly uses these documents to weave a wonderful hybrid of family story, World War II history, and spy adventure.
Kalnay’s story begins with him leaving Hungary in 1919 and embedding himself in the expatriate Hungarian community of Bohemian socialists in New York. His knowledge of six languages landed him a government job with the Foreign Language Information Service and, with the outbreak of World War II, Kalnay was tasked with interviewing European refugees arriving in New York. The OSS used this information to develop networks of spies, and Kalnay’s work grew commensurately: He went from debriefing refugees to training resistance forces in sabotage of enemy targets. He recruited and headed a secret group known as the Kay (for Kalnay) Project which sent teams behind enemy lines to target factories, bridges, and supply dumps in addition to rescuing downed Allied airmen. Kalnay was one of the few foreign-born Americans that had access to decoded German Enigma messages. His work was described by his superiors as “brilliant” and his contacts as “the best in the country.”
Yet after the war, Kalnay fell into total silence. None of this was known to anyone in the family until Fennelly discovered the records that resulted in the publication of Family Declassified. And especially obscured was the family’s Jewish heritage. When he was a year old, his mother was institutionalized and erased from the family story. Kalnay listed his Catholic step-mother on official documents and never acknowledged his Jewish mother’s existence. Fennelly addresses this repressed history by taking us to Hungary in World War II, where close to 75% of the Jewish population was murdered. The extent of her grandfather’s deception is brought home to Fennelly when she realizes that he must have known, but never revealed, that his sister and nephew were murdered by the fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross. By following the threads of her family story, Fennelly personalizes a lesser-known massacre during the Holocaust that scholars at the Holocaust Memorial Museum say “even the Germans were surprised by.”

Francis Kalnay signed an oath to “forever keep secret” information obtained in the service of the OSS. Yet no oath prevented him from acknowledging his Jewish roots, and the few family members who discovered this fact were similarly reluctant to have this truth revealed. Shortly before his death at age 93, Francis Kalnay lowered his voice into a whisper to reveal the family name was not Kalnay after all, but Klein. Family Declassified takes you through the amazing life that ended with this truth.

– Alice Radosh (JC Council):  “Shabbat Reading List”, Jewish Currents, Jan. 12, 2024

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