My Own Private Vienna

Don’t look back.

That could have been my family’s motto. My parents rarely talked about life in Vienna before the Nazis tore their world apart, and my sister and I rarely pressed them. Who cared about relatives we would never meet, the grandparents, aunts and uncles sent to concentration camps? Nor did our parents show any interest in investigating where, exactly, their loved ones had ended up. Perhaps they didn’t want to run the risk of lodging specific, horrific pictures and stories from the Holocaust in their heads.

My sister and I took our cues from them.

But we did get occasional glimpses of a happier past, operas that my father attended, excursions to Salzburg. Among the few stories our mother told: One of her uncles was Sigmund Freud’s butcher. He had two butcher shops, and Frau Freud bought her meat at the kosher one.

I savored this nugget of information. It was a humorous claim to vicarious fame that I could serve up to new friends and acquaintances, something I could say about my background that didn’t involve death camps.

Artistic intervention

In December 2011, one of those new friends did something I had never done: He googled the words “Freud’s butcher.” He was led to Vienna’s Sigmund Freud Museum  and the information that

In the course of an expansion in 2001, the museum acquired the building’s storefront, which once housed Siegmund Kornmehl’s kosher butcher shop. The windows of the storefront allow a new definition of the museum’s entrance area as a place for artistic intervention.

My great uncle’s butcher shop had been on the ground floor of 19 Berggasse, where Freud lived and practiced? It was now an art gallery?

Who knew?

What’s the difference?

I never really doubted that my mother was telling the truth about the Freud connection. What difference did it make if my great uncle’s shop was in the same building or a few blocks away?

A lot.

For one thing, the Freud Museum site identified the butcher on the ground floor, Siegmund Kornmehl. Up until this point, I hadn’t known which of my mother’s uncles sold meat to the Freuds and hadn’t particularly cared. Suddenly my relative had both a name and a place in history. For almost a half century, Siegmund Kornmehl and Sigmund Freud had occupied the same building, one through which some of the most famous people in the 20th century had passed.

Still, it wasn’t the brush with history that most struck me most; I’d already, in my fashion, capitalized on that. It was the realization that there were strangers wandering an art gallery in Vienna who knew more about my family history than I did.

The family portrait

I went to the sepia-toned portrait that has hung in my hallway since my mother died in 1991 — the one in the header of this blog — to figure out which of the eight well-dressed men in the back row was Siegmund Kornmehl. Odd. There were two men with that name. I thought that perhaps my mother, who wrote the names on the back of the picture decades after it was taken, had been confused.

Even odder than the existence of the two Siegmund Kornmehls, however, was the fact that I hadn’t been interested in sorting out the confusion until more than 20 years after my mother’s death. I recognized my grandparents, Herman and Ernestine Rosenbaum (née Kornmehl), on the far left of the picture but that’s where my curiosity had ended—except maybe to muse that the man with the long beard resembled one of the Smith Brothers, of cough drop fame.

In what year was that picture taken? On what occasion?

And what kind of life had they led, these prosperous-looking people? Because anti-Semitism had barred him from universities, Freud gave 27 lectures, including one on the interpretation of dreams, in a B’nai B’rith lodge in Vienna. Perhaps Siegmund Kornmehl wasn’t just the tradesman downstairs but a member of the same Jewish fraternal organization as Freud?

Let the sun shine in

And so I’ve decided to poke around my past, belatedly and a bit reluctantly. I don’t know where the research is going to lead, or even how far I want to follow it. I do know that I don’t intend to let the shadow of the Holocaust fall on these writings very often. The darkened room of my family history needs the curtains pulled back, not more shrouding in black.


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11 Responses to Genealogy

  1. […] Butcher, the PoemPosted on August 13, 2012 by Edie Jarolim As I mentioned in my introduction to the Genealogy section, I’ve trotted out the fact that I am the grand-niece of Sigmund Freud’s butcher for a […]

  2. […] Tradition, Tradition… Unearthing Deeper Jewish Roots, 1Posted on December 27, 2012 by Edie Jarolim Exactly one year ago, on December 27, 2011, I learned that the butcher shop of my great uncle Siegmund Kornmehl was now an art gallery in Vienna’s Freud Museum. This  discovery spurred me to look into the history of my mother’s family. Vienna State Opera […]

  3. […] 1. Wie kann ich mehr über meine Vorfahren herausfinden (Stammbaum, Familienforschung) […]

  4. Sandi Steuer says:

    I was very offended to be asked to leave the site.

    I am still searching for information about my father who’s mother was born Freida Kornmehl and married Michael Steuer. There was also his sister Anna kornmehl and his other sister Paula kormmehl. Paula died in an institution. Anna and her three children, died in Thereisenstadt as I found out recently. Her husband was named Hecht. We do not know anything about the destination of Hecht during the war years or if he also died in the same camp. My father Max Steuer, lived with his grandparents in Tarnow as the father disappeared and his mother died.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I’m not sure what you mean — this is my blog, and I am the moderator on it. If you are talking about the Tarnow portal, that is another thing entirely.

  5. Paul Layne says:

    Hi Edie, it appears we are cousins. I just met your other new cousin Elaine. I connect to Kornmehl on the Schmerling side of things. This is though Tauba/Doba Schmerling. She was my Great Grandmother’s sister. It would be interesting to connect.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Interesting indeed! The Schmerlings in Vienna were the closest to my mother of her many cousins; she didn’t talk about many Viennese relatives but she talked about Mimi and Ditte and Stella Schmerling — all first cousins. Where are you living?

    • Flora Selwyn says:

      Hi Paul, I’ve just been re-reading Edie’s blog. Doba Schmerling was my grandmother. Her son Heinrich was my father. His elder son David (my uncle) was the father of Edie’s (and my) cousins Mimi & Ditte and Stella. I now have the wonderful Tarnow Connection book and am overwhelmed with delight that so many of our Kornmehl family are alive and well when I had honestly thought none had survived. I quite envy my niece Elaine because she met so many of you. My Polish daughter-in-law found the house in Tarnow that belonged to the Kornmehl family. I was very emotional when she and my son took me to see it.

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