Five Genealogy Lessons I Learned From B’nai B’rith (Once I Stopped Sulking)

Five Genealogy Lessons I Learned From B’nai B’rith (Once I Stopped Sulking)

I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members. — Groucho Marx*

As I wrote the other day, two of my top ten family research questions concern the relationship between Sigmund Freud and his butcher, my great uncle. My mother’s claim that her first cousin had been sent to see Dr. Freud suggested to me that there might have been closer family ties than those typical of a tradesman with his customer.

I knew that Freud gave a series of talks to B’nai B’rith, and it occurred to me that Siegmund Kornmehl and his brothers might have been members of that Jewish fraternal organization too.

Following that lead proved illuminating in more ways than I anticipated.

Lesson #1: Don’t Overlook the Obvious

I’m just beginning to dip my toes into genealogical resources beyond what can easily be found on sites like Among those I haven’t yet explored in depth are the vast genealogical archives of the Mormon church, which include many documents relating to Viennese Jewry, and the archives of the Israelitischen Kultusgemeinde Wien (Viennese Jewish Community).

I put “B’nai B’rith” into the search boxes of both sites and found nothing.

Then it struck me, in a real head smacker: B’nai B’rith still exists and is thriving. That’s why the idea of Freud and Siegmund Kornmehl belonging to the group stuck in my mind. They must have archives, right?


Lesson #2: Don’t Make Assumptions about the Past Based on the Present

Not being a joiner of groups in general, and of religious-affiliated groups in particular, I didn’t know all that much about B’nai B’rith. My general impression was that it was big, inclusive organization that did a lot of good things for Jews — not distinguishable for me from the Anti-Defamation League and Hadassah —   and that anyone who paid dues could belong.

The B’nai B’rith website defined it this way:

B’nai B’rith International, the Global Voice of the Jewish Community, is the most widely known Jewish humanitarian, human rights, and advocacy organization. B’nai B’rith works for Jewish unity, security, and continuity and fights anti-Semitism and intolerance around the world.  B’nai B’rith…since 1843.

(B’nai b’rith means “sons of the covenant.” In case you were wondering.)

I couldn’t find any requirements listed for joining the group and  membership dues are not especially high, starting at $85 per year for an individual.

But it wasn’t always so.

Lesson #3. Don’t Take Things Personally…

As I continued to browse the site, I found what I was looking for: a description of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, a repository of historical information about the organization. I usually send inquiries by email but I was feeling both impatient for answers and chatty, so I phoned the archive  and explained what I was looking for and why, i.e., that my great uncle was Freud’s butcher and I wondered whether they might both have belonged to the same fraternal organization.

The woman on the phone cut me off after the word “butcher,” saying that she doubted my relative would have belonged because membership was limited to the elite — doctors, lawyers, artists.

This hurt my feelings. My great uncles weren’t good enough for the B’nai Brith? I tried to explain about the family story, that one of the cousins had been sent to consult with Dr. Freud, but I got a brush off, the Jewish equivalent of “whatever.” So I shut up.

The archivist then explained that the records had recently been moved from Washington DC to Cleveland’s Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives. I asked her if should could give me a contact at their new home and she promptly emailed me the information.

But she also reiterated:

As I noted, the members of all the Austrian lodges, from their inception, when Austria was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were members of an elite and educated class.  Mostly physicians, members included lawyers, architects, writers and playwrights, lawyers, academics, and even a few artists and interior designers.  All European lodges had these standards for membership.

Boy, she was rubbing it in, I thought. I got the message. My great uncles weren’t fit to associate with Freud and all the hoo hah professionals.

But I let it go and thanked her enthusiastically. She had, in fact, given me the information I sought — and provided some context for it.

Lesson #4:… But Consider That Researchers Have Feelings Too

In return for my enthusiastic thank you, I got another email from the archivist, which included a short piece she had written about the early years of B’nai B’rith. It noted that, after World War I, many physicians and other notables were invited to join the four Vienna lodges founded between 1895 and 1920:

Fondly recalling his ‘first audience,’ Sigmund Freud trusted his Vienna Lodge brothers to respectfully consider his revolutionary psychoanalytic theories…. A 1936 winner Nobel Prize winner, Graz physiologist Otto Loewi studied the nervous system…  Women’s auxiliary member Helene Deutsch achieved fame in America as the first analyst to exclusively focus on female patients.

That’s when it struck me. Perhaps the archivist was as protective of B’nai B’rith, the organization to which she had clearly devoted  a great deal of time and energy, as I was of my family. Maybe it was pride in the organization’s past that caused her to inadvertently insult my great uncle.

Lesson #5: Know when to Change Course

As the archivist suggested, I wrote to the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives. The B’nai B’rith materials, recently acquired, had not been fully processed yet but, armed with the specifics I passed along from the B’nai B’rith archivist, a researcher was able to locate the  newsletters from the Vienna lodges.

She replied:

I’ve gone through the boxes suggested by [the B’nai B’rith archivist] and did not come across the Kornmehl name. The monthly newsletters are bound by year and are about 200 pages each, so I was only able to skim the pages rather than perform a thorough search. They are mostly articles and do not contain membership lists. If you believe one of your relatives is definitely mentioned in a newsletter, you could consider hiring a researcher to go through the pages one-by-one.

Spending money on a researcher seems fruitless — which I wouldn’t have known had the B’nai B’rith archivist not been quick to describe the organization’s exclusive membership to me. So she saved me time and money.

Not All Jews with Cigars & Round Glasses Welcome

Another bonus: This whole discussion inspired me to track down the famous Groucho Marx comment on belonging to clubs, which I put at the head of this post. It’s often misquoted. It’s been years, but I remember that, at the end of my first psychotherapy session, the therapist said, “So what I’m hearing is, you wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have you.”

Tell me something I don’t know.

I was also comforted by the notion that Groucho Marx, a mere entertainer, probably wouldn’t have been allowed to be a member of Vienna’s B’nai B’rith lodge either.

*It turns out that the picture is not of Groucho but of Frank Ferrante, Groucho channeler par excellent. Frank is, as it happens, going on tour with his Marx Brothers revue. Click on the link to check on the schedule of his appearances (do it for me; I’ll feel less guilty for my mistake!).

And thanks to my Facebook pal Karen Lifshey-Shapiro for pointing out my misrepresentation of her friend Frank — and for being so nice about it.

21 Responses to Five Genealogy Lessons I Learned From B’nai B’rith (Once I Stopped Sulking)

  1. Philip says:


    I’m getting the feeling you don’t know about If I’m right, you’re about to get blown away. is a volunteer-run web site with over 7 million records from Austria, including many Jewish records. There are many searchable databases – including membership lists of Lodges, including all four B’nai Brith lodges in Vienna. That database includes one S. Freud, but no Kornmehls.

    The other databases on the site, however, include over 100 Kornmehl records – 4 specifically about Si(e)gmund Kornmehl – birth, marriage and cemetery records.

    Many of the records list things like the name of parents.

    Many of the vital records have been microfilmed by the Mormons, and you can get copies of them using the information provided in the indexes.

    As you mention elsewhere that you had other family from Vienna, I suspect there are probably hundreds of records connected to your family on the site.

    You need to join the site in order to search, but it’s a free site.

    I’d love to hear what you discover on the site about your family.

    Philip Trauring
    Philip recently posted..Friends from Antwerp – and is that a famous Yiddish poet?My Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Philip — you’re right. I did not know about that resource and can’t thank you enough for pointing it out to me. It sounds like I’m in for a lot of very productive hours of research — and you will definitely be hearing about what I discover on the site, here and elsewhere!

      Thanks again; this is immensely helpful.

  2. Edie, best of luck with your genealogy research. B’nai B’rith International’s 170 years provides a rich history of Jewish life around the world. Membership was open to all Jews, as it is today, but the composition of each lodge varied then.

    Your family story certainly seems interesting and we would welcome the opportunity to learn more about it. We recently launched a blog for such stories.

    For your readers, they may be interested in this video — — published by the American Jewish Archives, which suggests that B’nai B’rith “attracted membership from every aspect of the community.”

    We’ll continue to look through our records and we’d also suggest that Professor Cornelia Wilheim’s recent book, “The Independent Orders of B’Nai B’Rith and True Sisters: Pioneers of a New Jewish Identity, 1843-1914” may be a good resource for your review — see


    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thank you for your very detailed reply to my post. I very much appreciate your offer to continue to look through your records to help me solve some of my family’s genealogical mysteries. I would be very interested in telling my story on your blog and will email you for details on how to proceed. And I will definitely look into Professor Wilheim’s book.

    • Henry Sommer says:

      Well, fortunately for me, B’nai B’rith in the U.S. allowed butchers to be members. My mother, who had fled Vienna after Krystallnacht and was in London, was able to obtain a list of American B’nai B’rith Members from her father. (I’m guessing he was a member, being a respectable physician and head of a hospital in Vienna.) My mother wrote to random names from that list, begging them to sponsor her and promising she would never be a burden on them. She received a favorable reply from a butcher in Pottstown, PA. and was able to come to the US, where the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society sent her to Minneapolis to work in a factory. As they say, the rest is history, including me.

      We have made some effort to find the descendants of the butcher to thank them, but were unsuccessful in looking for synagogue records in Pottstown. The butcher’s name may have been something like Domm. In any event, I had not thought about contacting B’nai B’rith. Maybe they can help me.

      • Edie Jarolim says:

        What a wonderful story, Henry — and how interesting that one of the new-found family members has a story to tell about B’nai B’rith and butchers (albeit from the other side of your family). Your mother sounds like a very resourceful woman and the Pottstown butcher like a very generous person. I’m glad the U.S. lodges were more inclusive so that you are here to tell this story, and I hope you find the butcher’s descendants to thank them. I fully expect a blog post about it from you if you do!

        In the meantime, I hope you will take me up on my invitation to write about Tarnow, since you know a great deal about the place where the Kornmehl side of the family came from.

        Thanks for this contribution!

  3. Wow! Your post is quite interesting as are the comments. I wish I had something of substance to offer, but alas I do not. However, I do have a question. What is the nature of Mormon interest in Jewish historical records?
    Deborah Flick recently posted..Interview with Alexandra HorowitzMy Profile

  4. Clare says:

    I second the enthusiasm for both the post and the comments. What generous commenters! And I had no idea of the correct quotation from Groucho Marx…far more pithy and grammatical that the ubiquitous misquotation.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      It’s funny, I was trying to imagine Groucho saying both versions — and though the misquotation is more colloquial, in the end I heard his “voice” more in the correct one. And yes, I was more than pleased with the responses.

  5. […] On the one hand, it seems that being a butcher was not a respectable enough profession to allow a Jewish member of the trade into the Vienna lodge of the B’nai B’rith. […]

  6. It’s interesting how going the long way around to the Bnai Brith membership info garnered so much more – simply not finding their names as members could not have told you such a story – the first archivist you spoke with certainly gave away so much more in revealing her elitist attitudes that strike me as so 1930s Austrian! And we know what that got us…it’s that desire for identification with the powerful – quite ripe for analysis I’d say!

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      You’re right on all counts — and it makes me wonder whether I should try more often to do what I have such a hard time doing these days: Picking up the phone instead of sending email!

  7. […] with the butcher snobbery! Apparently Rosen didn’t know that butchers were powerful in Vienna during that era — […]

  8. […] Sigmund Kornmehl might have been in the same fraternal lodge as Freud with immediate denial, noting that only doctors, lawyers, artists, etc. were admitted. And Freud’s Wife, a novel, has the title character expressing disgust over the fact that the […]

  9. […] about my great uncle, who was prosperous enough to own three butcher shops. But as I discussed in Five Genealogy Lessons I Learned from B’nai B’rith (Once I Stopped Sulking) – a post that, by coincidence, compares Freud with Groucho Marx — a  businessmen would […]

  10. […] hypothesis proved to be wrong. I learned that my uncles would not have been accepted into the Vienna B’nai B’rith lodge, which was restricted to professionals like doctors, lawyers and […]

  11. JOyce Arnold says:

    Thanks so much for sharing all this information. I am researching Freud and the B’nai B’rith. I believe his kosher butcher lived on the ground floor at Bergstrasse. His name and some information about him is at the house museum.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Glad it was helpful. Yes, Freud’s butcher — my great uncle — had a shop at 19 Berggasse for 44 years but the kosher butcher shop where Frau Freud bought her husband’s meat was a few stores down.

  12. Marian Merritt says:

    If it lessens the snobbery, my Bernays relatives were not at all happy when Sigmund proposed to marry Marthe; as he was not observant. Eventually they allowed the marriage of course.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I remember reading about that! Freud was not only nonobservant, but actively discourage Martha from keeping kosher (though I am convinced that she bought her meat from my great uncle’s kosher butcher shop, which was two doors down from the nonkosher butcher shop at 19 Berggasse). Thanks very much for writing.

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