by Katherine Fennelly 

I grew up in a completely secular household in the United States. My parents neither held religious beliefs nor attended services of any kind.  My father proclaimed himself an agnostic and my mother an atheist.

Imagine my surprise when a subscription to 23andMe revealed that—on my mother’s side of the family—I am 98.4% Ashkenazi. Unfortunately, my mother passed away before I read this report.  However, years earlier I had asked her about an offhand comment from one of my cousins on the West Coast that our family was Jewish. She was visibly perturbed and said firmly, “I’m not Jewish; I’m an atheist”, as if the two were mutually exclusive. It was clear that she didn’t want to discuss the matter further.

Three years earlier I had received an email from a researcher in Vienna who told me he was writing a book in which my grandfather, Francis Kalnay figured prominently as a Hungarian spy working for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in WWII.  I knew that my grandfather was an acclaimed children’s book author, but I had no idea he had been a spy.  These two family mysteries set me on a path to learn more about my grandfather’s life and our ancestry.

I began by interviewing living members of our family.  They included my American cousins in California who knew my grandfather when he moved there late in his life, and Argentinian relatives who knew him when he joined his older brothers in Buenos Aires in the 1920s.  I also obtained his declassified files from the CIA (successor to the OSS) and spent three days in College Park, Maryland at the headquarters of the National Archives and Records Administration. At NARA I sifted through hundreds of declassified memos and reports describing my grandfather’s work as head of the Survey of Foreign Experts and later as a high-level spy with the X-2 counterintelligence division.  As Survey head Kalnay interviewed newly arrived passengers from Nazi-occupied countries in order to gather information about conditions, assets and transportation systems there.  The interviews were also used as a source of potential recruits to work as spies for the Allies.

 Photograph of Francis Kalnay in OSS uniform c.1943 (Source: personal family photograph)


I joined dozens of Facebook groups specializing in Hungarian and Central European history and genealogy, Jewish genealogy, World War I and World War II history, and espionage in order to read postings on topics of interest and pose questions to members.

Useful sources of genealogical and historical information on my family came from JewishGen, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) database and consultants, and History Hub, an online site where one can pose genealogical questions to volunteer citizen archivists and professional archivists at NARA.  As the granddaughter of a member of the Office of Strategic Services I was able to join the OSS Society and to query other members about details of the lives of OSS agents.

My professional familiarity with academic and public libraries and research institutes proved to be very helpful. Libraries are an excellent source of free access to genealogical databases and to librarians who can facilitate searches. Furthermore I was able to correspond with specialists in a number of fields with which I was not familiar. One example is WWII military history; another is onomastics—the study of changes in proper names. A Hungarian specialist in that field helped me identify and search a database to identify formal changes in the surnames of my grandparents and great-grandparents.

From the USHMM database and consultants I learned that my great aunt and her son were murdered by Hungarian Fascists at the end of the war. Borbala Kalnay Noti, was beaten to death at Arrow Cross headquarters in Budapest on December 2, 1944. She is shown in an earlier photograph below.                                                   

Photograph of my great aunt, Borbala Kalnay Noti c.1933

(Source: personal family photograph)

Four months later her son, Denes Noti was shot at a forced labor camp in Balf, just three weeks before the Soviets liberated the camp. The following photograph showing forced laborers laying rails in the dead of winter.


              Hungarian Labor Service conscripts laying rails.

Source:  Hungary Before the German Occupation, USHMM Archives
Permission to reproduce the photo granted by USHMM


One question that haunted me was how much my grandfather knew of the plight of his family members in Hungary during the war years when he was head of X-2 Balkans, an OSS intelligence office responsible for top secret information about  Central Europe and the Balkans. To answer this I corresponded with consultants at the USHMM and did ProQuest newspaper searches to see what newspapers were writing about the Holocaust. I learned that, while the fate of individual relatives may not have been immediately available to my grandfather, he clearly had access to detailed information about the massacres of Jews in what Nazi leaders called the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem”.

The revelation of our hidden Jewish ancestry and my grandfather’s top secret work for the US government led me to write about another topic–family secrets, why they are held, and their impact on family members and their descendants. In the book I also describe my grandfather’s life after the war, as a children’s book author, gourmand and designer of houses in Valle de Bravo, Mexico.


Family Declassified: Uncovering My Grandfather’s Journey from Spy to Children’s Book Author was published by Sunbury Press in August, 2023. Interested readers can find more information on the book, order information and some photographs on my website:

    Cover by Sean Villafranca and Darleen Sedjro




Katherine Fennelly is an emeritus professor of public policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs of the University of Minnesota with a Ph.D. from Columbia University, where she was on the faculty in the School of Public Health early in her career.  She is known for the breadth and quality of her social science research and for numerous academic publications.  In her book Family Declassified Fennelly applies her expertise to an investigation of the life of her maternal grandfather, a Jewish Hungarian immigrant who arrived in the US over one hundred years ago and became the head of an elite espionage unit for the Allied Forces and an award-winning children’s book author.