I often feel deficient in the genealogy department. When it comes to tracing documents, I have been spoiled by help from others, by getting gifts of fish, as the old saying goes, rather than fishing lessons.
But I recently discovered that I’ve learned quite a bit about my mother’s family in the past year — which was, after all, what I set out to do. So forgive a little hubris today; I’m feeling pretty darned proud of myself.
The Family Photo
I wrote last week about having newly made the acquaintance of the Schmerling family, the relatives who were closest to my mother in Vienna. Flora Schmerling Selwyn, the niece of my great uncle, David Schmerling, sent me several wonderful family photographs, including the one above. She wondered if I could identify the people in it.
Flora said she recognized the man in the mustache as her father, Heinrich Schmerling, and she thought she recognized her twin cousins, Edith (Ditte) and Hermine (Herma) Schmerling. There were also a couple of names on the back of the picture that were not familiar to Flora: Alfons and Egon. Otherwise, she was drawing a blank.
Who IS That Bearded Man?
By now I had spent so many days staring at the family photograph at the top right of this blog, and I had made so many jokes about how the only bearded man in the picture looked like one of the Smith Brothers, of cough drop fame, that his image had taken up permanent residence in my head. There was no question that the bearded man in Flora’s photo was the Other Siegmund Kornmehl (OSK) — not the butcher, who gave the blog its name and was also named Siegmund Kornmehl, but the man who owned the Cafe Victoria. I could also recognize OSK’s wife, Anna Kornmehl — yes, my great aunt married someone with the same name as her brother — from the Vienna Kornmehl family portrait as the one sitting in front him.
I knew by now that Anna and Siegmund had four children, two of whom were Alfons and Egon — the names on the back of Flora’s picture! The other two were Hetty and Grete.
And once I realized that David Schmerling and his brother, Heinrich, looked quite a bit alike — Flora and I had commented on that — it all fell into place. The man in the picture was David, not Heinrich, and this was a picture of sisters Anna Kornmehl and Mitzi Kornmehl Schmerling and their families.
Of Rent Control and the Upper West Side
But although I had seen pictures of the Schmerling children — and had even met all three of them — I didn’t know what Anna and OSK’s children looked like.
So I took the opportunity to introduce myself via email to another newfound relative, Henry Sternberg, Hetty’s son. (I wrote about him a bit as the cousin of Curt Allina, of Pez head fame.)
He was very pleased to hear from me and emailed back:
[To] the right of my grandmother (in the photo) is my mother, Hetty. My uncle Egon is on the left in the back row while my uncle Alfons is the one on the right in the back row. I never knew Grete but assume that she is the one next to gma Anna and between my two uncles. By the way, of my family group in the photo, Egon and my mother were the only persons to have made it to the US…. My mother, who lived in NYC on West End Ave, died in 1990 at the age of 82. Interestingly, my daughter now lives with her husband and two children in the very same apartment where my parents lived and where I grew up. [Note: Siegmund died of non-Nazi related causes in Vienna but Alfons, Grete and Anna were sent to Theresienstadt; Grete and Alfons are documented as having died in Auschwitz].
I visited that apartment with my mother when I was a young adult, though I remember very little of the family; we hadn’t spent much, if any, time with them when I was growing up. My good friend Martha lived (still does! oh, rent control!) down the block and I used to spend an obligatory ten minutes with the virtual strangers that my mother was related to before leaving to see Martha.
But I digress.
My Year of Living Britishly
I had all the details pinned down now except for one: I didn’t know which of the Schmerling twins was which.
I wrote to Rita, Herma’s daughter, who set me straight. She also noted that I had messed up the direction of the picture’s labeling. I had identified the participants in a clockwise direction, when, as Rita put it, the names I had attached were “anti-clockwise.”
That was no surprise. I have directional dyslexia. I have to look at my hands to figure out left and right, and people who know me know never to follow me when I seem to know where I am going. I have never lost my New Yorker’s stride, and walk with great assurance — almost always in the wrong direction.
So more surprising than the mislabeling was that it took me a few minutes to remember the word we use in the U.S. for anti-clockwise: counter-clockwise.
Flora lives in Scotland; her children live in London, as do Herma (who is 95) and her daughter, Rita. I told my newfound relatives that I had spent a year in London working for Rough Guides but I didn’t explain what my job was: Translating the travel guides from British to American English for distribution in the U.S. market.
I think we are communicating pretty well, in spite of the language barriers. And in spite of what I perceived to be my deficiencies in genealogical research.