My Own Private Vienna
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 several 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.
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?
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?
For one thing, the Freud Museum site provided the name of 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 gazing at 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?
Let the sun shine in
And so I decided to poke around my past, belatedly and a bit reluctantly. I wasn’t sure where the research would lead, or even how far I wanted to follow it. I do know that I didn’t intend to let the shadow of the Holocaust fall on these writings very often. The darkened room of my family history needed the curtains pulled back, not more shrouding in black.