In Memory of a Twice-Lost Cousin, Gigi Michaels

In Memory of a Twice-Lost Cousin, Gigi Michaels

Once upon a time — a little more than a year ago — I believed I had far more friends than I had family members.

My parents are both long gone, and I thought my sister and my nieces were my only blood relatives. No paternal or maternal cousins were on my radar. I regretted that a bit, but never thought much about it. I figured that’s how it is when you’re from a family that was decimated by the Holocaust.

Then — forgive me if you’re tired of this story — in December 2011, one of my friends discovered that the butcher shop of one of my mother’s uncles, Siegmund Kornmehl, had become an art gallery in Vienna’s Sigmund Freud Museum.

No Place Called HomeA few months later, another friend discovered that a book about the Holocaust had just been published; a review of it alluded to the Kornmehl family in Vienna. It was titled No Place Called Home, and the author was Gigi Michaels. Perhaps she was a relative?

Have I mentioned that my friends are not only plentiful but, often, helpful?

First contact

I tracked down Gigi’s email address and contacted her to see if this was just a coincidence. Maybe Kornmehl was a common name? I attached the family photo that’s on the header of this blog. She emailed back the next day, March 25, 2012.

Hello new cousin,

I was so excited with your e-mail.  It does sound like we are related. My mother’s maiden name was Kornmehl.  My grandfather Rudolph had his butcher store at 41 Seidengasse in Vienna.  I, too, have the photo of my grandparents seated with the brothers and sister in two rows after a family function.

She suggested that I phone her, and we had a nice conversation, about half an hour long. I told her what I knew about our family.  I disabused her of the notion, for example, that my grandmother had been her grandfather’s twin; the birth dates don’t bear that out and my mother would have mentioned that startling fact.

Gigi's grandparents, Rudolf and Molly Kornmehl

Gigi’s grandparents, Rudolf and Molly Kornmehl

Gigi told me, in turn, that she and her mother, aunt, and grandfather had all lived in Queens for a good part of the time that I lived with my family in Brooklyn. How was it that we not only had never met, but that I knew nothing about her — and vice versa?

She now lived on Long Island, and the fact that I had just come back from a visit to Manhattan was a source of disappointment for both of us. Had we known of each other’s existence, we could have gotten together.

Never mind. We had established contact. There was plenty of time. She was a little more than 70, which as we know is the new 50.

She sent me the picture of her family’s butcher shop that you see left of the title of this post. I ordered her book.

The rest of the family discovers Gigi and I discover the rest of the family

My friends are not the only ones who knew how to use Google.

In June 2012 I got the following email from Gigi:

Hi Edie,
I’ve been getting correspondence from Kornmehl family members living in Australia. Unbelievable.  I wrote them about you and the picture you sent me.  Apparently we have a very large family.

We’ll keep in touch.
Best,
Gigi

It was attached to an email forwarded from Jim Kornmehl, a relative in Australia. More than a dozen members of the Kornmehl family were copied.

Hi Gigi,
My daughter, Sophie, found details of your book and asked how you were related to us. I had never heard of you but found a YouTube clip of you – doing a book release – which showed you as being close to an identical twin of my sister Anita!

We have some Kornmehl knowledge – based on a book to which we all contributed some years back – and would be happy to share it. We live in Australia (altho you can see other Kornmehls CCed in Holland and the US) but would still love to hear from you – even if it’s only to laugh at the similarity in photos.

Regards,

Scrolling down, I also found an email from Rob in Amsterdam:

Dear Gigi,

Welcome to our family!… My grandfather David Kornmehl was born in Tarnov in Poland and we know that part of the family (there were many Kornmehls in Tarnov, it was a big Jewish family) went to Vienna and another part to Holland and Israel. There was another butcher in Vienna, Siegmund Kornmehl, in the same building where Siegmund Freud lived… We know 2 Kornmehl families in Israel from Vienna,  bertschi = Baruch and Victor (Avigdor). They passed away, but their children are living in Israel and the USA. All Kornmehls in the world are relatives.

Within four months I went from finding one cousin in Long Island to discovering dozens all over the world. Gigi wasn’t “mine” any more but that was okay, in the face of all the family I had gained.

Many Emails Ensue & A Blog Is Born

There was a flurry of correspondence. Leonard Schneider, who created the family history book to which Jim from Australia alluded, added the “new” Vienna branch to the family tree he had created.

My sister met Gigi in New York, but it was with a group for lunch; she didn’t gain much, if any, additional insight into our family.  For all genealogical intents and purposes, Gigi receded into the background. I didn’t really think much about it. I was busy trying to process all this new information and incorporate it into the family history blog about the Kornmehl family I was working to introduce.

On August 1, 2012, Freud’s Butcher was born. I sent links to all the family members on the email list. Gigi didn’t respond; neither did a lot of other family members. Only one responded negatively.

I wasn’t insulted not to hear from Gigi.  I thought she might have been overwhelmed by all the correspondence, by the new technology. Lots of people don’t get the blog concept and I’m fine with that. The enthusiastic response from some family members as well as from childhood friends who knew my family more than compensated.

Besides, I hadn’t taken the time to tell Gigi how much I enjoyed her book. It didn’t mention my grandparents or parents, but it shed a great deal of light on the life of our family in Vienna. I alluded to it on the family history section of this blog, but only in the context of wondering why our families weren’t closer in America.

Since she didn’t read my blog, she wasn’t even aware of that reference. No matter. I was planning to write more about the book and then send the link to her.

A Disproportionate Response

Last week one of the family members forwarded an email from Gigi’s husband, Lee:

Sorry to inform you (please tell all cousins) that Gigi has passed away after a long bout with cancer yesterday…Love to all

The news felt like a punch in the gut.

I’m going to New York again in March. I was planning to try to meet Gigi, to finally talk with her about the family. Why hadn’t I known how sick she was?

Easy: Because she hadn’t told anyone.

Still, I hadn’t really known her, so I put it out of my mind. That is, until a few mornings later, when I found myself weeping copiously.

I’m not much of a weeper, so I was a bit surprised.

Oops, I Did It Again

Then I realized:  I had been given a second chance to find out more about my family and I blew it. It was like losing my parents all over, only now, with all the genealogical research I was doing, I knew better than to let those opportunities pass.

Of course that’s irrational.  Gigi didn’t know my family any more than I knew hers. We had discussed this odd fact during our phone conversation. And because she was ill, she was unlikely to have been able to conjure up further insights and memories.

But of course painful emotions don’t lend themselves to rationality.

Now that I’m calmer and thinking more clearly, I do have one genuine regret: That I didn’t tell Gigi what a good story teller she was and how her book added greatly to the body of knowledge about our family. I had begun picking it apart for accuracy, becoming more of a genealogist than a cousin — or even a friend and fellow author.

Rules to live by: Never forget to be generous, especially to writers, who are by nature insecure. Double that for Jewish writers.

So, belatedly, in case there is a Jewish afterlife (which no one is sure about) and in case people can read blogs in it and discover they suddenly want to: I’m sorry I never really knew you, Gigi, but I thank you for the gift of your family history, which is also mine.

 

 

25 Responses to In Memory of a Twice-Lost Cousin, Gigi Michaels

  1. I suspect that Gigi was as thrilled as you were to discover each other and the extended family. No doubt it was a special gift for someone dealing with cancer.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I’m sure she was, Debbie. She wrote the book for her immediate family — doubtless because she knew she was sick — so it must have been doubly gratifying to learnshe was giving a gift to so many other family members.

  2. Jill says:

    As a fellow relative, I mirror your feelings about Gigi. I believe that her book was truly her story and find it remarkable that she managed to write it down. She has left it as a legacy for the rest of her family. She knew that she had just a bit of time left. Discovering new family or finding out that she did not know the full history of her family was probably painful given the story she told in her book.

    In the end, she has touched our lives more than she will ever know. And she serves as an inspiration to fully document the history of our family so it too will serve as a legacy for its members.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I think it was probably bittersweet for Gigi, knowing that she didn’t have time to get to know all her relatives but at the same time knowing she had left all of us a gift, that she had reached a larger audience for her book than she ever could have anticipated. Thanks for weighing in.

  3. Clare says:

    I read this post at the closing of the Inaugural Address just now, and I therefore feel more teary than usual. Reading your words to live by, delivered with your usual poignancy and humor, pushed me over the edge to weeping. You are gifted, and your contact with Gigi was a gift to her. No doubt about it.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      That was an inspiring address, wasn’t it? I’m glad I could ride on its coattails. Thank you for so quickly responding to my words to live by! They also (even more so) serve who provide emotional support, not just research.

  4. That is indeed a touching story that is a warning to all of us. You can’t say “thank you” too often. By the way, have you told her husband how important Gigi was to you? He’d appreciate that, I’m sure.
    Vera Marie Badertscher recently posted..Father and Daughter TravelMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I haven’t contacted Lee yet — but I thought about sending this story to him. We never communicated but I think this might be appropriate, no?

  5. Leonard Schneider says:

    I too am devastated to hear of Gigi’s death. I had no idea she was even ill and I also regret terribly that I did not have time to get to know her. Thankfully I have her book so now will never forget her as she has opened a special place in my heart.
    Thanks also to you for all your efforts learning about our family. With Jim, Jill and all the other Kornmehl family you will learn a lot more.

    Leonard Schneider. London England

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      You’re very welcome. It’s been my pleasure. Between all of us, a picture of a rather remarkable family — if I say so myself! — is starting to emerge.

  6. David C. Farmer says:

    Having just lost to cancer both a dear theatre friend (on 12/24/12) and my older sister (on 1/8/13), Edie, your blog moved me greatly. Well done, as always, my friend.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I’m sorry for your losses, David. What a year of ups and downs for you! I’m glad the post moved you, but regret the circumstances.

  7. Jodi Warshauer says:

    I was unaware of your blog until yesterday but I am so glad I have discovered it. Gigi Michaels is my mother and reading your tribute to her moved me beyond tears. Being an only child and going through the struggles that she did gave her such a profound appreciation for family and having discovered and connected with you and the other cousins around the globe brought her such a tremendous amount of joy. I know she would have loved this website and would want those family ties to continue to grow. On behalf of my family, my dad Lee and my brother and his family – thank you again for this beautiful homage to my sweet mom, Gigi.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Jodi, thank you so much for this. I in turn am moved by your comment that making the connection with the family brought your mother joy, and that she would have liked this site. Please do keep in touch — and if you don’t, I will! Third time’s a charm? I’m not going to lose this opportunity to connect with your mother again through you.

    • Terri Folger (Niemczyk) says:

      I had the pleasure of having your mother as my teacher in Farmingdale High School. I graduated in 1991. It is too much to write here but your mother changed my life forever and I would love to speak to you and/or your father. I just recently saw of her passing and I cannot stop thinking about her.
      Please send me an email and let me know if I can contact you. I really would like to tell you how your mom has changed my life.

      • Edie Jarolim says:

        Terri, I will pass your message along to Jodi in case she hasn’t kept up with this post.

        • Terri Folger says:

          Thank you I appreciate that. I would like to say so much more about Mrs. Michaels (GIGI) but hopefully will express my admiration for her to her family. Thank you again.

  8. I am very touched by your column and am thinking about how little attention I gave to a long-lost cousin who had put together a huge genealogy and reached out, and mostly only responded with ‘look at what I’ve done.’ What children we all are! It’s okay, and I remind myself there is a time and place for these things in a person’s life – .

    There is also something about family therapy that has shown that you are affected by what is happening to your relatives even at a distance – which I think can be overwhelming if you are sensitive to these signals without realizing it.
    < My own psychic makeup (neurosis) I have lately realized I have already spent too much time looking back instead of forward, so a cognitive therapy approach that focuses on what I want to do today is much healthier for me than a Freudian one about why I am doing it!!!
    Diane J. Schmidt recently posted..Fragments: Architecture of the Holocaust: An Artist’s Journey – KoenigMy Profile

  9. […] I wrote a post in memory of a twice-lost cousin, Gigi Michaels. It drew a lovely response from Gigi’s daughter, Jodi Warshauer, who hadn’t known about […]

  10. Sharon says:

    Hi Edie…just reading these comments and am touched by your cousin Gigi’s journey….the connections you’ve made thru your blog are incredible….
    Keep it going!
    Hoping to see you soon….sharon

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I know — no one could be more amazed than I am by this all! Thanks for coming by. And yes, hoping to see you soon.

  11. Elaine Schmerling says:

    Hello Kornmehl family! I am fairly new to this all – being the new Schmerling connection (my grandfather Heinrich was brother to David Schmerling, one of 3 sons of Elias Kornmehl, on the I hope to-be-corrected branch 12 of the family tree!) I am re-reading this website and am thoroughly enjoying it – and laughing a lot – laughter is always good for the soul! Thank you Edie! I am most touched by the comments about Gigi, I don’t think I had read this part before. I want Jodi and brother Robert to know that I have ordered your mother’s book! Since my father & his family left Vienna in ’38, I can’t wait to read about what Vienna was like when they were younger. And FYI I live in Wilmington DE/SE PA, very close to NY! My son Jordan was also born in 1997, like Robert’s son Zacchary! We should all have a US family reunion some time.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Elaine, welcome — thanks for coming by. I am glad you are enjoying the blog and I know you will find Gigi’s book fascinating.

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