I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members. — Groucho Marx*
As I wrote the other day, two of my top ten family research questions concern the relationship between Sigmund Freud and his butcher, my great uncle. My mother’s claim that her first cousin had been sent to see Dr. Freud suggested to me that there might have been closer family ties than those typical of a tradesman with his customer.
I knew that Freud gave a series of talks to B’nai B’rith, and it occurred to me that Siegmund Kornmehl and his brothers might have been members of that Jewish fraternal organization too.
Following that lead proved illuminating in more ways than I anticipated.
Lesson #1: Don’t Overlook the Obvious
I’m just beginning to dip my toes into genealogical resources beyond what can easily be found on sites like Ancestry.com. Among those I haven’t yet explored in depth are the vast genealogical archives of the Mormon church, which include many documents relating to Viennese Jewry, and the archives of the Israelitischen Kultusgemeinde Wien (Viennese Jewish Community).
I put “B’nai B’rith” into the search boxes of both sites and found nothing.
Then it struck me, in a real head smacker: B’nai B’rith still exists and is thriving. That’s why the idea of Freud and Siegmund Kornmehl belonging to the group stuck in my mind. They must have archives, right?
Lesson #2: Don’t Make Assumptions about the Past Based on the Present
Not being a joiner of groups in general, and of religious-affiliated groups in particular, I didn’t know all that much about B’nai B’rith. My general impression was that it was big, inclusive organization that did a lot of good things for Jews — not distinguishable for me from the Anti-Defamation League and Hadassah — and that anyone who paid dues could belong.
The B’nai B’rith website defined it this way:
B’nai B’rith International, the Global Voice of the Jewish Community, is the most widely known Jewish humanitarian, human rights, and advocacy organization. B’nai B’rith works for Jewish unity, security, and continuity and fights anti-Semitism and intolerance around the world. B’nai B’rith…since 1843.
(B’nai b’rith means “sons of the covenant.” In case you were wondering.)
I couldn’t find any requirements listed for joining the group and membership dues are not especially high, starting at $85 per year for an individual.
But it wasn’t always so.
Lesson #3. Don’t Take Things Personally…
As I continued to browse the site, I found what I was looking for: a description of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, a repository of historical information about the organization. I usually send inquiries by email but I was feeling both impatient for answers and chatty, so I phoned the archive and explained what I was looking for and why, i.e., that my great uncle was Freud’s butcher and I wondered whether they might both have belonged to the same fraternal organization.
The woman on the phone cut me off after the word “butcher,” saying that she doubted my relative would have belonged because membership was limited to the elite — doctors, lawyers, artists.
This hurt my feelings. My great uncles weren’t good enough for the B’nai Brith? I tried to explain about the family story, that one of the cousins had been sent to consult with Dr. Freud, but I got a brush off, the Jewish equivalent of “whatever.” So I shut up.
The archivist then explained that the records had recently been moved from Washington DC to Cleveland’s Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives. I asked her if should could give me a contact at their new home and she promptly emailed me the information.
But she also reiterated:
As I noted, the members of all the Austrian lodges, from their inception, when Austria was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were members of an elite and educated class. Mostly physicians, members included lawyers, architects, writers and playwrights, lawyers, academics, and even a few artists and interior designers. All European lodges had these standards for membership.
Boy, she was rubbing it in, I thought. I got the message. My great uncles weren’t fit to associate with Freud and all the hoo hah professionals.
But I let it go and thanked her enthusiastically. She had, in fact, given me the information I sought — and provided some context for it.
Lesson #4:… But Consider That Researchers Have Feelings Too
In return for my enthusiastic thank you, I got another email from the archivist, which included a short piece she had written about the early years of B’nai B’rith. It noted that, after World War I, many physicians and other notables were invited to join the four Vienna lodges founded between 1895 and 1920:
Fondly recalling his ‘first audience,’ Sigmund Freud trusted his Vienna Lodge brothers to respectfully consider his revolutionary psychoanalytic theories…. A 1936 winner Nobel Prize winner, Graz physiologist Otto Loewi studied the nervous system… Women’s auxiliary member Helene Deutsch achieved fame in America as the first analyst to exclusively focus on female patients.
That’s when it struck me. Perhaps the archivist was as protective of B’nai B’rith, the organization to which she had clearly devoted a great deal of time and energy, as I was of my family. Maybe it was pride in the organization’s past that caused her to inadvertently insult my great uncle.
Lesson #5: Know when to Change Course
As the archivist suggested, I wrote to the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives. The B’nai B’rith materials, recently acquired, had not been fully processed yet but, armed with the specifics I passed along from the B’nai B’rith archivist, a researcher was able to locate the newsletters from the Vienna lodges.
I’ve gone through the boxes suggested by [the B'nai B'rith archivist] and did not come across the Kornmehl name. The monthly newsletters are bound by year and are about 200 pages each, so I was only able to skim the pages rather than perform a thorough search. They are mostly articles and do not contain membership lists. If you believe one of your relatives is definitely mentioned in a newsletter, you could consider hiring a researcher to go through the pages one-by-one.
Spending money on a researcher seems fruitless — which I wouldn’t have known had the B’nai B’rith archivist not been quick to describe the organization’s exclusive membership to me. So she saved me time and money.
Not All Jews with Cigars & Round Glasses Welcome
Another bonus: This whole discussion inspired me to track down the famous Groucho Marx comment on belonging to clubs, which I put at the head of this post. It’s often misquoted. It’s been years, but I remember that, at the end of my first psychotherapy session, the therapist said, “So what I’m hearing is, you wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have you.”
Tell me something I don’t know.
I was also comforted by the notion that Groucho Marx, a mere entertainer, probably wouldn’t have been allowed to be a member of Vienna’s B’nai B’rith lodge either.
*It turns out that the picture is not of Groucho but of Frank Ferrante, Groucho channeler par excellent. Frank is, as it happens, going on tour with his Marx Brothers revue. Click on the link to check on the schedule of his appearances (do it for me; I’ll feel less guilty for my mistake!).
And thanks to my Facebook pal Karen Lifshey-Shapiro for pointing out my misrepresentation of her friend Frank — and for being so nice about it.