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