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A Tale of Three Dictators: The Farber Family, Revisited

A Tale of Three Dictators: The Farber Family, Revisited

Since I first started exploring the roots of my mother’s family here, lo these many years ago, my sense of who I am and where I came from has shifted.  So too has my view of the Jewish diaspora. Forced from Europe by the Nazis, members of the Kornmehl family fled to Curaçao, Singapore, Australia, and Brazil, as well as to more common destinations like Palestine/Israel and the U.S. 

Interesting, yes, but most of my far flung kin have remained abstract to me — until recently, when I heard from a cousin in Spain. 

Hitler, Franco, Trujillo… the tale she shared was one of survival from the terrors of three dictators. And also a love story. 

From Vienna to Brazil 

Jill Leibman did a wonderful job telling the story of one of my grandmother’s eight brothers and sisters. Her tireless research is detailed in the slide show she created, called Finding the Farbers.

To summarize: Reisel (Resi) Kornmehl married Leopold (Leib) Farber in Vienna in 1903. They had two children, Hermoine (Herma) Farber, born 1905, and Ernst, born 1903. Herma married a Czech man named Ludvik Alt. Ernst married…well, I’ll get to that in the next section. 

Reisel’s parents were named Kornmehl, not Kormohl–one of many variations on legal documents

Leib was a butcher, like his father-in-law and three of his brothers-in-law. 

Leib and Resi fled from Vienna to France in late 1939. They lived in Paris until early 1940, when they received permission to move to Brazil. They were met by their daughter Herma and son-in-law Ludvik Alt; the couple must have paved the way for them to get to this South American refuge that was popular with both Nazis and Jews, or at least inspired them to go.

They all lived in Rio de Janeiro, where Ludvik and Herma were part owners in a company called Decal Lumax, Ltd. which manufactured labels. Leib, who listed himself on his entry application as a butcher, practiced his trade there.

Leib’s profession is circled here: “Açouguiero” means butcher

In the Dominican Republic

Why Ernst Farber decided to strike out on his own to the Dominican Republic rather than live with the rest of his family in Brazil is hard to say, but some time between 1940 and 1945 he settled in Ciudad Trujillo, now Santo Domingo. There he went into the family business: He was the administrator of a matadero, a slaughterhouse.

Am I the only one who finds a colorized postcard of an industrial slaughterhouse a bit odd?

In Santo Domingo, he met Maria de la Concepción Menéndez, who was born in Spain in 1912; she was nine years his junior. 

Ernst applied for visas for the couple to visit his parents in Brazil several times. In 1956, they asked for, and were granted, permanent residence.

All this was gleaned from documents gathered by Jill, but it turned out there was more to the story–and a story behind the story.

From the Dominican Republic to Spain

Early in 2017, I was contacted by Cristina Menéndez of Seville, Spain; I’m not sure who was the most startled by her discovery of a mutual relative — Cristina, I, or Cristina’s mother.  I have cobbled together a narrative from our correspondence over several months. Cristina also sent two color pictures, taken in the 1960s, with captions that identify only the two subjects of this story, her aunt and uncle. I respect the family’s desire for privacy.

She wrote:

I found Freud’s Butcher because I was looking for information about my father’s family. My father’s sister, Mª de la Concepción (in my family we always called her aunt Marujina), fled from the Spanish Civil war to the Dominican Republic. There she met Uncle Ernesto. Marujina de Farber, as she was always known after her marriage, was a teacher of “declamacíon” (scroll down to section II, pt. 1 of this link) and “maestra” to Maricusa Ornes, founder of the children’s theater in the Dominican Republic (see pp. 16-17).

Marujina de Farber and Maricusa Ornes, Mexico, 1951. By Hnas. Weiner. Copyright

When I showed the site Freud’s Butcher to my mother, she was amazed. All she said was, “So that’s why he knew so much about meat.” She knew that he had had a good position in the DR as manager of the slaughterhouse, but not that he came from a family of butchers, or that he had a profound knowledge of the subject.

Within a few years after they married, Aunt Marujina and Uncle Ernesto left for Brazil on a tourist visa, with the excuse that Uncle Ernesto’s mother was gravely ill. In reality, the Trujillo dictatorship had become dangerous for them. They left everything behind. They lived for a while in Brazil and Mexico until they came to Spain, around 1964. Uncle Ernesto died in 1976.

My aunt was Catholic, but did not practice. My uncle was not a religious Jew either. They did not have any children, but they had a wonderful marriage; they were very much in love and happy until the end of their days. 

Ernesto Farber with his wife, nieces and nephews and other family members in Spain. Ernesto is in the dark shirt, on the left side of the photo; Marijuna de Farber is in the white top in the center

My mother remembers that Uncle Ernesto was very patient, family-oriented, and organized. He always exuded great warmth and had a fine sense of humor. He liked classical music and also the horse races. He sometimes took us on Sundays to the races at the Sevilla track, where he encouraged us to make small bets; he also bought us pastries/cakes. He was very loving, friendly and sensitive. We loved him very much. I remember perfectly his smell, he was always clean and it must have been from his aftershave, it smelled really nice. We also remembered his hands, poor thing, he had arthritis. He taught us a recipe for foie gras. He said it was only for female family members. We still use this recipe, especially at Christmas.

I asked about the other members of the family, especially Ernest’s sister Herma.

My mother met Herma (Uncle Ernesto called her Mushi or something like that). As far as she remembers, Herma only came once, without her husband, and then returned to Brazil.  They didn’t have any children either.

More silence

The escape stories are harrowing, but what remains untold is haunting too. My parents’ stories — especially on my father’s side — were also filled with silence. 

Cristina says:

In the 60s, when Uncle Ernesto and Aunt Marujina arrived in Spain, we were still under the dictatorship of Franco and no one spoke about the old days of the Republic, nor about the Civil War or the Second World War, especially in front of the children; even among the adults they did not speak of it. It was so horrible that they learned to live in the present and nothing more. They could think what they wanted, but to speak … they spoke little or nothing of the matter. The only thing we knew was that Uncle Ernesto was an Austrian Jew who had fled Europe because of the Nazis. No one asked questions. We didn’t ask our  parents about the Spanish Civil War, either. We learned that the subject was taboo. And it was like this for all the families. Later, over the years, after democracy arrived, my mother did talk about it, but my father never did.

My uncle (right) and my aunt with a French friend, visiting my grandmother’s grave in France.

A Final note

Cristina’s English is very good; my Spanish…not so much. There’s more to this story than I was able to discern, especially the parts about Marijuna de Farber and Maricusa Ornes in Mexico; another picture of them is at the top of this page and you can read about them in the links that Cristina provided. It’s all rather unlikely, the idea of a gentle administrator of a slaughterhouse from Austria finding love in Latin America with a beautiful young teacher of the theater from Spain. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Thanks to my friend Jane Onstott, a writer and artist living in Mexico today, who helped with the translation. 

Crowdfunding Freud: Help Give Vienna’s Most Famous Jew His Due

Crowdfunding Freud: Help Give Vienna’s Most Famous Jew His Due

In his introduction to Berggasse 19, a compilation of photographs that Edmund Engelman took of Sigmund Freud’s home and office just before the father of psychoanalysis fled Nazi-occupied Vienna, biographer Peter Gay detailed Freud’s symbolic absence from Austria’s capital after World War II. Noting the lack of tourist brochures,  street names, and statues celebrating FreudContinue Reading »

Why a Historically Oriented Genealogist Took a DNA Test

Why a Historically Oriented Genealogist Took a DNA Test

Those who pursue genealogy do so for a variety of reasons. To find a particular relative. To determine whether they’re descended from royalty. To occupy time that might otherwise be devoted to earning a living.   Me, I was interested in learning about my mother’s family, the sixteen men and women in the picture topping thisContinue Reading »

The Jewish Museum Vienna: A Personal Look

The Jewish Museum Vienna: A Personal Look

I know, you can’t go home again, especially if home is a country your family was forced to flee. I was under no illusion that a lilting Strauss waltz would be the soundtrack to my visit to Vienna, where both my parents were born. Still, I’d traveled to the city earlier this summer to seeContinue Reading »

Return to Vienna

Return to Vienna

There’s so much to report about my recent trip to Vienna, hosted by the Jewish Welcome Service, and so little time to do it right now as I prepare to leave for a book tour. But I won’t bury the lede. I’m thinking very seriously of returning to Vienna next year for a much longer timeContinue Reading »

Opening Up to Elijah: A Passover Story

Opening Up to Elijah: A Passover Story

Call me a seder skeptic. I’m fond of the Passover story, its message of exile and redemption. I especially like the ritual of saving a place at the table and a glass of wine for the prophet Elijah. Like Santa Claus, he is required to visit millions of homes in a single night. Opening the door for him to comeContinue Reading »

Grief, Food, & Nudity: A Story About My Mother & My New Book

Grief, Food, & Nudity: A Story About My Mother & My New Book

Not long after my father died, I went to Martinique with my mother. I remember three things about that trip.  My mother’s grief. The profiteroles. And the topless beach. Grief, food, and nudity My mother was in a raw stage of mourning, subject to fits of literal wailing. But no one in my family was everContinue Reading »

Of Chutzpah, Kickstarter, and Keeping a Low Profile

Of Chutzpah, Kickstarter, and Keeping a Low Profile

When I was growing up, my mother always implied that my sister and I should keep a low profile. We were supposed to excel in school, sure, but not to stand out because otherwise “they” would find us, even though we grew up in America, even though “they” found everyone they wanted to find inContinue Reading »

A New Journey

A New Journey

Dear Freud’s Butcherites Friends of Freud’s Butcher, As you may have noticed — at least I hope so — I haven’t been around much lately. The short version of the reason: I’m not a very good multitasker. For many years, I’ve had a travel memoir on my back burner. And I finally decided to finish itContinue Reading »

Of Genealogies and Possibilities: A New Year’s Musing

Of Genealogies and Possibilities: A New Year’s Musing

Happy 2015. It’s that time of year when all the possibilities seem to open up. January 1 is an arbitrary date, of course, but who doesn’t want to believe in fresh starts, in learning from our experiences, even if those experiences sometimes seem arbitrary too? I ended last year on a sad note, with the accidental death of aContinue Reading »