I’ve been feeling a bit discombobulated lately.
When I first starting researching my family, I was startled to discover that I had a great uncle and cousin living in Queens whom I had never met, even though we lived a subway ride away in Brooklyn.
Recently, another family has come into my consciousness, one-time Manhattanites as closely related to my mother as the Queens contingent but from whom my mother kept almost equally distant, psychologically speaking.
And no, I can’t blame this behavior on borough-centrism — the reluctance to leave one’s borough, or even neighborhood — though that’s a real thing. My mother didn’t mind venturing beyond Brooklyn.
In the midst of spinning elaborate theories about why we never socialized with these relatives, paranoid hypotheses related to class, financial status and failures to help during the war, it suddenly struck me: Maybe our families just weren’t that into each other in Vienna.
Schmoozing with the Schmerlings
Think about it. In a family with eight brothers and sisters and assorted in-laws and children, some are bound to be closer to each other than others. And I have a lot of evidence that my mother’s family, the Rosenbaums, had been very friendly with one other family: The Schmerlings, David and Mizzi and their children, Stella, the oldest, and the twins Mimi (Hermoine), and Ditte (Edith).
To a lesser extent — but still an important one — the family must also have been close to Siegmund Kornmehl, Freud’s butcher. But I’ll get to that later.
Here’s proof of the Schmerling-Rosenbaum bond.
Exhibit 1. The pictures
I don’t have many pictures of my mother’s family, but among the few that I have there are two that include my mother’s cousin Stella Schmerling. Consider the one with the dog, above. The fact that the girls were wearing matching outfits suggests a closeness — at the least, one imposed by their families, if not an organic one. My mother was an only child, and Stella had two younger twin sisters. It made sense that they would have gravitated towards each other.
Exhibit 2. The Stories
One of the few things my mother told me about her family is that her cousin Stella was sent to see Sigmund Freud in the hope that her limp was psychosomatic (it wasn’t). Maybe the stories about other family members were less interesting, so they didn’t stick in my mind, but I kind of doubt it.
Exhibit 3. The In-Person Endorsements
The only time I visited Vienna, a stop on a college trip abroad with a friend, my mother told me to look up her cousin Stella and her aunt Mizzi, who went back there after the war (I’m not sure in what year).
Visiting my mother’s family was a bit of a mixed bag. I couldn’t communicate very well with either my great aunt or my cousin because they spoke no English. Stella — whose limp I witnessed first hand — and her mother both seemed reserved but nice.
Then there was the occasion of the get together with my mother’s family and my father’s, captured in the somewhat grim looking picture above. My friend Andrea and I were staying with my father’s brother, Fritz — the only one on his side who survived the war — and we had one get together with Stella and Mizzi, in part for translation purposes. Now that they’re all dead, I can reveal that my uncle Fritz told me that my mother’s relatives were boring.
In turn, when I got back to the U.S., my mother told me that my uncle Fritz wrote more enthusiastically to my father about my vivacious friend Andrea than he wrote about me. Even if this was true, it wasn’t very nice of my mother to tell me.
But I digress.
Perhaps I blazed the trail, showing my parents that a return to Europe was possible. A few months later, they visited Vienna for the first time since the war.
Exhibit 4: The In-Person Visit
When I lived in London for a year (1988-89), my mother asked me to look up her cousins Mimi (who was now called Herma) and Ditte, who was still Ditte, which, as I mentioned above, is short for Edith. It’s a good thing she didn’t decide to call herself Edie, because it would have been confusing when we got together.
(Incidentally, I was named for my father’s sister, not anyone in my mother’s family, so the confluence of Ediths — in all our various aliases — is purely coincidental.)
So when I lived in London I got together with Herma and Ditte several times though, in retrospect, not often enough — and not productively enough. It was a miserable year. I hated my publishing job, which required me to work ridiculously long hours at low pay. Instead of listening and learning about my mother’s family, I doubtless complained a lot.
Or maybe I got a lot of information from them and forget it in my self-pity haze. Either way, it’s fled from my brain. I don’t have pictures either.
When my mother visited me in London that year, we got together with her cousins. There they were, three tiny woman — not one over five feet — in their 70s who hadn’t seen each other since they were young in Vienna. In the bittersweetness of the occasion, the sweetness won. The cousins were all in good health and trim, and life had brought them many happy things along with the tragedies. Perhaps they had talked about their losses in letters they exchanged over the years, or maybe they didn’t want to discuss painful things in front of me (that would have been par for the course). In any case, I recall a subdued celebration.
Although my mother was clearly pleased to see her cousins, she was more eager to spend time with me alone. They only got together a single time.
I don’t know if they corresponded after that, but my mother was diagnosed with liver cancer less than two years later and died in 1991. She never saw her cousins again. I’m glad, in retrospect, that I provided the excuse for a reunion in time.
Coming soon: More Schmerling family background, and the search for a possible connection to the Schmerling Swiss kosher chocolatiers.