Rewriting My Childhood: A Tale of Mystery Relatives

Rewriting My Childhood: A Tale of Mystery Relatives

It boggles the mind, how little I knew about my family until I started writing this blog.

My mother was an only child and, as far as I knew, everyone in her immediate family had died in Europe. I had one living uncle on my father’s side, but he returned to Vienna after the war and I didn’t meet him until I was 19.

In effect, I grew up without relatives — at least not the kind my friends had. The ones with houses you went to for seders, the ones who had children you played with.

The kind you knew you were related to — and how you were related.

Rena Weiss, one of my mystery relatives

Rena Weiss, one of my mystery relatives

Some Fuzzy Recollections

But I do remember a few people whose connection to us seemed vaguely family-ish. My mother used to take me and my sister to visit people in Brighton Beach named Neugasser and Weiss. I don’t have a clear picture of who the Neugasser name was attached to, but I know the Weisses had a daughter named Rena — I even found a picture of her. Rena was closer to my sister’s age, i.e., some five years older than I am, which could explain why she doesn’t stand out in my mind.  I doubt the “big girls” would have welcomed my company.

Then there were the Sternbergs.  I don’t recall knowing them when I was a kid, but years later, when my mother had moved to Atlanta and I had made my own, less dramatic move, from Brooklyn to to a tiny Manhattan studio, she would take time out of a visit with me to see  people named Otto and Hetty Sternberg. I knew they were somehow related and that Otto was a doctor. My friend Martha lived a block away from them on the Upper West Side — still does, though I don’t imagine the Sternbergs are with us any longer — so I would hang out with her while my mother saw her relatives, however she was related to them. I’m sure I met the Sternbergs, but my mother didn’t encourage me to linger– that’s a bit strange isn’t it?  — so they made less of an impression on me than their spacious apartment, which I coveted.

OSK: The Other Siegmund Kornmehl

OSK and Anna Kornmehl

OSK and Anna Kornmehl

Now I know who the Neugassers, Weisses, and Sternbergs were.

They are all part of the family of the Other Siegmund Kornmehl (OSK), the brother-in-law who has the same name as Freud’s Butcher (I won’t call him FB, lest he be confused with Facebook).

The one in the family picture with the beard who looks like one of the Smith Brothers of cough drop fame.

The one who was the owner of the Cafe Victoria (pictured next to this post’s title).

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The story begins with Aron Juda Kornmehl, born in Tarnow, Poland, in 1852. In 1876, Aron married Rivka (Regina) Spiegel (b. 1848 — an older woman!). They had three children, Siegmund (b. 1875), Helena (b. 1887), and Mina (b. 1894).

Siegmund and his family

In 1899, Siegmund married Anna (Chana Jente) Kornmehl, born 1877, my great aunt. She was a distant cousin of his his first cousin — which explains why they were both named Kornmehl.  Siegmund died in 1938, of non-Nazi-related causes of unknown causes. Anna died in Theresienstadt on September 1, 1943.

Anna and Siegmund had four children: Alfons (b. 1899), Margit (Greta, b. 1913), Egon (b. 1901) and Henriette (Hetty, b. 1908), all born in Vienna.

Two of them, sadly, were eliminated from this story early on: Alfons and Margit Kornmehl were sent with their mother, Anna, to Theresienstadt in 1942, and were transferred to Auschwitz, where they died.

The other two fared better.

Egon married Gitta/Gisella Szabo, who was born in Yugoslavia, and moved with her to England in 1939; there Egon worked as a coffee house manager — experience acquired, no doubt, from working in his father’s business, the Cafe Victoria. In 1942 the couple immigrated to New York and lived in Brooklyn with Egon’s aunt Helena (see below). By June 1945, Egon and Gisella had moved to Manhattan.

Henriette, aka Hetty, married Dr. Otto Sternberg in Vienna in 1930. That clears up the mystery of one family member I vaguely remember: Hetty was my mother’s first cousin.

Incidentally, my mother was also named Henriette (pronounced Hen-ree-ET-uh, not the French way, On-ree-ET), but she was called Rita. Yet another first cousin in the family was Henriette Schmerling, known as Herma or Mimi. Three first cousins named Henriette, all with different nicknames — to avoid confusion?

I have already written about the three women in the family named Ernestine, with various spellings.

Perhaps Lexigenealogy, the new blog by the creator of Blood and Frogs, might have an opinion on that.

Helena and her family

Helena married a tailor named Isaac Neugasser, born in 1883 in Poland. They had two children in Vienna, Martha (b. 1913) and Walter (b. 1920). Isaac Neugasser immigrated to the U.S. in 1923; he was joined, six years later, by  Helena, Martha and Walter. Initially they lived in the Bronx, but they later moved to Brooklyn, where Martha Neugasser married Aaron Weiss in 1935. They had two children, Marvin and Rena.

So there’s Rena identified. She was the granddaughter of my great uncle’s sister.

Mina and her family

Mina’s family doesn’t figure in my childhood recollections, but it was one of them who inspired all the research detailed here.

Mina Kornmehl married Ervin Allina, who was originally from Czechoslovakia, in 1917. They moved from Vienna to Prague to be near Ervin’s family.

Ervin and Mina had four children: Gertrude (b. 1918), Hans (Jan, b. 1919), Curtis (Curt, b. 1922) and Erika (b. 1924). Ervin left his family in Prague and went to America. After it became clear that her husband wasn’t planning to return to Prague, Mina moved with her children to Vienna to be closer to her brother Siegmund and his family.

Only Curt survived the war. He eventually made it to America, where he re-encountered his father and his aunt Helena Kornmehl Neugasser; for a while, he lived in Brooklyn.  It is his fascinating story that I’ll be telling in a future post (or two).

Why some, and not others?

I am left with some answers — and many more questions. Egon Kornmehl was another of my mother’s first cousins and he also lived in New York. Why did I never hear of him? (His trail grows cold after 1945; maybe he moved before I was born?) Ditto Curt Allina, who had the same relationship to my mother as Rena Weiss.

I learned earlier that my mother’s uncle Rudolph Kornmehl and his daughter Paula lived in Queens when I was growing up.  Why didn’t I ever meet them?

I have some theories. But they are for another post too.

8 Responses to Rewriting My Childhood: A Tale of Mystery Relatives

  1. Ah, a family mystery. You’ve made me curious about why some family were known to you and others not.

    Of course I was raised in a family affected by abuse, suicide, and other bringers of bad feeling. It never occurred to me that people would spend time with their family just because they were family.

    Hopefully your family separations are caused by petty dislikes instead of scandals. 🙂
    Pamela | Something Wagging This Way Comes recently posted..What is BlogPaws Like for a Dog?My Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      It’s true, Pamela, and an excellent point: there are many reasons why a sense of family is often something seen on TV but not experienced personally. Without giving too much away — I want you to come back and read the story, after all — I don’t think any scandals or petty dislikes were involved but, rather, a sense of shame.

  2. Edie,

    Thanks for the plug for my new blog. I would say in my experience it’s certainly not uncommon to see the same name among first cousins, usually due to a shared grandparent or great-grandparent that died shortly before they were born. If they were all first cousins, then do you know who their shared grandmother and two shared great-grandmothers were? What were their names? When did they die? Even if the names don’t seem to match, the names could be derived from a Hebrew or Yiddish name – in this case likely from the name Yetta or something similar.

    A good resource for figuring out what a name might be derived from is the GNDBs (http://www.jewishgen.org/databases/givennames/search.htm) on JewishGen. For Henriette, for example, it has the info here:

    http://data.jewishgen.org/wconnect/wc.dll?jg~jgsearch~model1~GNDB_AUST~HENRIETTA~GT~!1!!2!!3!~0~USRECORD566

    GNDBs (Given Name DataBases) has a lot of great information. Unfortunately, the GNDBs is not so simple to use. Many times you’ll need to search multiple times, in multiple directions (you can search European-to-Foreign or Foreign-to-European), before you find what you’re looking for.

    One of the features of the name dictionary I’m hoping to compile will be a way to figure out how names may have changed at various times and in various places. This kind of information in Israel is a bit easier to compile, but I’m working on an interesting database that will help figure out names changes that occurred when Jews moved to the US as well. As I make progress on that database, I’ll probably be writing about it on Lexigenealogy.

    As an aside, since I only think about food when reading your blog, I noticed that one of your Henriettas had the surname Schmerling. Any connection to Schmerling AG, the Swiss kosher food company? My food-connected cousins distribute Schmerling products in the US, which is how I know about them.

    All the best,

    Philip
    Philip Trauring recently posted..Digitizing print books for research and corpus integrationMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Congratulations on your new blog! I was hoping you would come by and provide this type of excellent information.

      I must not have had enough coffee when I was writing that section of the post and forgot to check the given name of my great grandmother which was Chaya Henriette. So it makes sense for all three cousins to be named after her, since she died before they were born. But you bring up a point I wouldn’t have thought of: The connection between Yetta and Henriette. There is a Yetta in this family story too.

      I’m curious: At one point you were going to do another post on Jewish surnames to follow up a post summarizing several previous ones on the topic. Is that what inspired your new blog, i.e., realizing you had a lot of material? Also — I’m a bit confused. Are you discussing surnames on the new blog too, or did you switch to given names?

      As for Schmerling foods — I’m so glad you asked! That’s one of my next projects, to find out if the Swiss Schmerlings who created the kosher chocolates (and other foods) were related to my family. I don’t know if you recall but one of my relatives, Rabbi Nuchim Kornmehl, blessed Barton’s kosher chocolates, the company created by his brother-in-law. I would be very excited to find more chocolate in my family. In fact, I need to buy the book about the Jewish chocolate trail by Rabbi Deborah Prinz and see if there are any Schmerling references.

      • The initial goal of Lexigenealogy is to document the creation of a dictionary of Jewish Given Names. That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in surnames, but it’s not part of my research for the dictionary.

        Speaking of Barton’s I seem to recall I had a cousin who worked at Bartons at one point. I don’t remember who it was off hand, but it’s funny how things connect. And what better way to connect than through chocolate?

        By the way, as my new blog is running on WordPress, and I was reminded of the cool CommentLuv feature on your blog, I’ve just added it to Lexigenealogy.
        Philip Trauring recently posted..Digitizing print books for research and corpus integrationMy Profile

        • Edie Jarolim says:

          Thanks for clarifying.

          There must be two degrees of separation when it comes to European Jewish families. And, you’re right, chocolate is a great bond.

          CommentLuv is awesome, an automatic reward to bloggers for putting comments on your blog. It’s one plug in I wouldn’t be without.

  3. Jill Kornmehl says:

    Nice to have all of the pieces come together after all of these years. Interesting that your mother felt a connection to some relatives and not others. There are so many Kornmehl family mysteries, but it is nice to have a few solved.

    There is definitely more to come and I hope your readers love it as much as I do!

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      It was indeed nice — thanks to your research! And I can’t imagine others won’t enjoy the next installment…

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