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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

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