A Reboot, A Rabbi & A Reunion

brothers David and Heinrich Schmerling, 1906

Heinrich Schmerling and his brother David, my great uncle, 1906

…walk into a bar.

Just kidding. But that title cried out for it.

The Reboot

I had a wake up call recently, thanks in part to a comment by guest poster and Viktor Frankl biographer Anna Redsand. Who are all these people you’re writing about? she asked. You need a scorecard — or at least a family tree — to keep them straight.

Only she put it far more diplomatically.

The Kornmehl family tree is an ever-expanding work in progress, one that would be impossible to post in any meaningful way. More to the point, my original goal, to weave the stories of the eight brothers and sisters in my mother’s family into a narrative of their lives in Vienna, got lost in a series of posts about the more far-flung members of the Kornmehl family.

Introducing David and Mizzi Schmerling and their children, the family of the eight siblings with whom my mother was the closest, was my first step in a new/original direction.

The Rabbi

Erwin, age 3, with mother Lily and father Heinrich Schmerling

Erwin, age 3, with mother Lilly and father Heinrich Schmerling

The second step was contacting the rabbi again.

Let me backtrack to April 2012, when I was newly embarking on this family search. In hopes of finding a few of the names I knew, I googled “Kornmehl” and “Schmerling.” The top result was the text of a rabbi’s eulogy of Erwin Schmerling. I learned that:

Erwin was the eldest of two children born to Lilly and Heinrich Schmerling on July 28, 1929, in Vienna, Austria. The story goes that several generations earlier, when the family lived in the Pale of Settlement, east of the Austria-­‐Hungarian Empire, the family name was Kornmall. But then the Mayor of Vienna made it possible for Jews, living under terrible oppression, to resettle in Vienna. And in gratitude, several Jewish families changed their name to Schmerling in honor of the Viennese Mayor who saved them. Several generations after this story, Heinrich, along with his brothers, made their living in the jewelry and diamond business.

We all had to be related, I thought — but how? I then googled the rabbi — that seems sacrilegious or at least highly irregular, doesn’t it? — and came up with an email address. I asked if he could pass along a query to the family.

And then I waited. And waited.

That’s what you get for googling a rabbi, I figured. And pretty much forgot about my attempted contact.

Which brings us to last week. Writing about the Schmerling family spurred me to try again. I re-sent my original email and asked what, if anything, the response had been.

The Reunion

Erwin, Lily, TK, Flora, Zurich 1948

Erwin, Lilly, Heinrich, Flora, Zurich 1948

This time I heard back, first from the rabbi, and then from the Schmerling family — in spades. Apparently my initial query had been sent to an incorrect email address.

Here is who I heard from, starting with the people mentioned in Erwin Schmerling’s eulogy:

Erwin’s wife, Esther

Erwin’s daughter, Elaine.

Erwin’s sister, Flora

I was also contacted by:

Erwin’s great niece, Rita

How are they related to me?

David Schmerling, who married my great aunt Mitzi Kornmehl, was the brother of Heinrich Schmerling, father of the eulogized Erwin. David Schmerling was not only from a family that was originally named Kornmehl, but Mitzi was his first cousin. So I am doubly related to him (as I am to the other Siegmund Kornmehl, the brother-in-law with the beard who owned the Cafe Viktoria).

Rita is the daughter of my mother’s first cousin, Herma.

I know, you’re confused again. So am I, a bit. But I’m learning many, many things — including how much there is still left to learn. Some of these revelations are cheering, including the fact  that Flora’s son, Alan, married a young woman from Tarnow, the family’s ancestral home. She not only took a picture of the original house where the family lived, but can translate documents from Polish.

There are also harrowing stories, including family members who hid in an attic in the Netherlands — shades of Anne Frank. Erwin’s story, linked to above and here again, is pretty dramatic too.

More ties to tailors and butchers emerged too but, sadly, no link to the Schmerling kosher chocolatiers.

It’ll take me a while to sort it all out and create a coherent narrative — or a few dozen. But I’m back on track.

In the meantime enjoy some pictures of Erwin, whose eulogy inspired this reunion, courtesy of Erwin’s daughter, Elaine, and his sister, Flora.

Erwin Schmerling, Cambridge graduation, 1950

Erwin Schmerling, Cambridge graduation, 1950

7 Responses to A Reboot, A Rabbi & A Reunion

  1. Anna Redsand says:

    Thanks for the nice, unexpected mention. I didn’t really think you could do a meaningful scorecard or tree on the blog. I was thinking more of when you turn it into a book, which I hope you do. This morning, however, it occurred to me that you might be able to add something like an index page to the blog, which could be as complicated or as simple as you wanted. I’m probably going way overboard here, as I am in the midst of what looks like a major reorganization of about 100 pages of memoir. An organizing frenzy that I don’t mean to inflict on you or anyone else.
    Anna Redsand recently posted..Move #65My Profile

  2. Anna Redsand says:

    Ah, well, now especially, never mind my comment above. I just went to my original comment to see what you had replied and see that you have this well in hand. I don’t get notices about replies and often forget to check back, especially as you are very good about replying.
    Anna Redsand recently posted..Move #65My Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Well, I almost deleted both comments, Anna, but then I would be commentless again, and who likes a bare post?

      If I seemed like I had things well in hand, that must have been deceptive! And I appreciate all inspiration to organizing, frenzied or otherwise.

      Thanks, as always, for the conversation.

  3. Elaine Schmerling says:

    How funny seeing my family’s story on the www! Sorry about mistakes in my father’s eulogy. Since this is now being read by many I will put some corrections here (and am trying to correct the eulogy from they synagogue’s website too-at the time didn’t think it mattered): 1) Yes the family was Kornmehl, the spelling in the eulogy is wrong; 2) Heinrich and brothers immediately embarked in the diamond/jewelry business (not several generations later), 3) he was fortunate NOT to have gone to Buchenwald, but to a holding camp, and the story is, a family member bribed the Nazi’s with diamonds, and he was smuggled to Palestine, where he stayed for 10 years, 5) I think “Lily” is the correct spelling, that is how my letters to my grandmother always were.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      First of all — welcome! What a treat it has been to be connected with yet another group of relatives I didn’t know I had.

      And thank you for making the corrections to the eulogy. At some point I will tell the story in a separate blog post. For now, I will change the spellings of Lilly to Lily.

      I hope you’ll come here often to contribute. These public conversations often take fascinating directions.

  4. What a triumph that you heard back from the rabbi and the Schmerling family, at last! That is one serious tribute, to change your surname in gratitude to the Mayor who enabled Jews to resettle in Vienna. But now you have found a wealth of new relatives.

    Erwin is a beautiful child and a beautiful man, both.

    I know exactly what you mean about a family tree “that would be impossible to post in any meaningful way.” I’ve been trying to print out mine through descendant charts on Ancestry, which pick up more people than ancestor charts. The outline descendant charts are those with the big indentations and the abbreviated information. Even so, you need several to suggest the whole picture. Back to the drawing table!
    Mariann Regan recently posted..Surprised by ConnectionsMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      There is indeed a lesson in persistence here! As for the tribute to the mayor, that’s a bit less clear cut. I am going to write about that next.

      I have been reading about your own adventures in genealogy and have been planning to comment on them on your site. I wondered about your absence on Twitter and here, so it was exciting to learn what you’ve been up to. Congratulations!

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