Shtetl Snobbery: Unearthing My Jewish Roots, 1

Shtetl Snobbery: Unearthing My Jewish Roots, 1

Exactly one year ago, on December 27, 2011, I learned that the butcher shop of my great uncle Siegmund Kornmehl was now an art gallery in Vienna’s Freud Museum. This  discovery spurred me to look into the history of my mother’s family.

Vienna State Opera

It has been a year filled with surprises. The greatest one, unquestionably, was finding out that I had living relatives all over the world — with more cropping up all the time! And, in a large part thanks to these newfound relatives, I’ve also discovered a Jewish heritage I never knew I had.

Beyond Vienna

In spite of an ambivalence about Austria, stemming from the country’s enthusiastic embrace of Nazism, I am proud that both my parents were born in Vienna. Having roots in one of Europe’s great cultural capitals fits my self-image as a sophisticated native New Yorker.

I inherited both the ambivalence and the big-city pride from my mother. Reduced circumstances in America notwithstanding, my mother always emphasized the fact that she and my father spoke Viennese German, not a dialect from the provinces. Yiddish was rarely heard in our household, only sprinklings of it for color. I wasn’t exposed to more of that Jewish hybrid of high German than any other New York Jew  — or New Yorker, period.

Of course, this type of snobbishness wasn’t exclusive to my family; all ethnic groups have their hierarchies, their excuses to look down on other members of the clan. I’m not sure if my mother was aware that Viennese German was not at the top of the European Jewish linguistic food chain. That honor went to the German spoken in Germany. Thus the family of Martha Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s wife, thought their future son-in-law was a country yokel because he was from Freiburg in Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic). The Bernays family came from Hamburg, Germany, where Martha’s paternal grandfather was the chief rabbi.

Still, having the former capital of the Austr0-Hungarian Empire as an ancestral home is pretty impressive.  If you could make it in Vienna, you could make it anywhere.

Imagine my surprise, then, to learn that many members of my mother’s family moved to Vienna from a shtetl in Poland called Tarnow.  Moreover, Tarnow was in Galicia, the province that was on the wrong side of the Hatfield vs McCoy-like rivalry between eastern European Jews. It was the side considered less intellectual, more religious.

The side that put sugar on their gefilte fish.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll start with Tarnow.

Will the Real Tarnow Please Stand up?

My mother’s handwritten family tree gave only dates of birth and death of her parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents; it didn’t disclose countries of origin. Since she never talked about any other cities or towns —  she didn’t talk all that much about her past, period — I assumed everyone came from Vienna.

As I began doing genealogical research, I discovered that my great grandparents — who weren’t alive during my mother’s lifetime —  were born in Poland. And then I made the virtual acquaintance of Leonard Schneider, a cousin whose award-winning genealogical study traced the Kornmehl family back to 18th century Tarnow, Poland. Now I had another location besides Vienna to put on the family map.

Tarnow’s main square. Funny, it doesn’t look shtetl-ish

My initial conception of Tarnow was based on browsing travel websites, my natural default as a travel writer. It looked like a picturesque medieval market town — dubbed “Pearl of the Renaissance” —  with a ruined Jewish quarter. The tragic history of the town’s Jews was detailed on tourist sites too.  I was charmed and intrigued, as well as saddened.

Then the other day I put on my genealogy hat and looked Tarnow up on There I found the town listed on the ShtetLinks page. My family was from a shtetl? The term — which means “small town” in Yiddish — conjures up “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Yentl,” Marc Chagall’s floating brides, and other schmaltzy images I was brought up to dislike. As Joellyn Zollman puts it in “Shtetl in Jewish History and Memory,”  the shtetl in the popular imagination is a place where  “poor but industrious Jews worked and studied, all the while seemingly accompanied by a klezmer soundtrack.”

The name “Kornmehl” suggests that my family was originally in the grain business. But, in addition to a miller or two, the professions listed on the family tree included “innkeeper,” “property owner,” “midwife,” “baker,” “factory worker,” and “shop keeper.” There was not a fiddler listed among them.

This made me wonder…

What Exactly Was a Shtetl?

In a chapter of a 1999 scholarly book titled “What Exactly Was A Shtetl?,” John Klier argues that it’s impossible to definite a shtetl because it was not a uniform entity. The only constant, he concludes, was that shtetls were home to a lot of Jews and Jewish religious institutions. The exact percentage of Jews in a shtetl’s population  — some said “at least 40%” — and number of religious institutions were never agreed upon by scholars.

Joshua Rothenberg also points out in “Demythologizing the Shtetl” that these towns were as distinct from one another as small towns in America are and bore little resemblance to the romanticized versions.

So calling Tarnow a shtetl isn’t all that revealing. In deference to my mother and her dislike of Yiddish, I’m going back to thinking of it as a medieval market town with a rich Jewish history.

According to the In Your Pocket city guide:

The first mention of Jews in Tarnów dates to 1445 with the mentioning of a certain Kalef, a silk merchant from Lwów (now the city of L’viv in western Ukraine). The first written record of a synagogue can be traced to the 16th century, and in 1667, Stanisław Koniecpolski, who then owned what was still a private city, granted Tarnów’s Jewish population the rights to a place of worship and their own cemetery. Tarnów’s vibrant Jewish community included large numbers of both Orthodox and Hasidic Jews…. Tarnów’s Jews formed a large part of the city’s intellectual and cultural elite, among them several of the most prominent lawyers, doctors, musicians, teachers and entrepreneurs, although the vast majority were generally poor.

That’s not to suggest there isn’t a great deal to be learned from the Tarnow ShtetLinks page of It is a repository of sad facts:  Tarnow had the 4th largest number of Jews in Europe in 1939, 25,000, or nearly 50% of the entire population. Almost all were killed in town or deported to camps to be killed. In 1965, there were 35 Jews in Tarnow, the last of whom died in 1993.

But two bits of cheerier, nondenominational data stand out: Tarnow is the warmest city in Poland and the province is nicknamed “The Banana Belt.”

Maybe geography is destiny. My mother might have eschewed her small town, Yiddish-speaking roots, but she kept the temperature in our apartment turned up really high. And she really loved bananas.

Coming next: The Galitzianers vs the Litvacks.



18 Responses to Shtetl Snobbery: Unearthing My Jewish Roots, 1

  1. jill kornmehl says:

    My mother-in-law was born and raised in Tarnov. She was one of a handful of surviving Jews from the town after the war. The main square pictured above, was called the Rynek. Her father earned a living there and it was a vibrant part of the town on market days when farmers came from all over to sell their wares and buy what they needed. Thanks for highlighting “where it all began” for the Kornmehl family.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      How interesting! How did her father earn a living in the Rynek? I see another guest post from you on the horizon, first-hand impressions from Tarnow by one of the few survivors…

  2. This is really interesting. I was aware that my Austro-Hungarian paternal grandmother (my father’s mother) held herself in high esteem because her family REALLY was in the court of Franz Wilhelm of Austria, which always slightly irked my mother, whose family came from a shtetl west of Warsaw, Poland, and I recently unearthed that town’s name, Raciaz, Poland and identified family names in the Yizkor books in 1939 when the town’s Jews were erased from the earth. I also found interesting, well, disturbing, photos of the men rounded up in the town square, courtesy of the Holocaust museum online archives.
    Anyways, I wouldn’t necessarily want to tarnish the claim to fame of my father’s side of the family by tracing them further back, (and wouldn’t know how to) perhaps to Poland! but it IS tempting….
    Diane J. Schmidt recently posted..Water grab foiled in New Mexico by alert communityMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Ah, just wait until tomorrow then when I discuss the rift between the Lithuanian and Galician Jews… yet another thing that one part of the family might be able to lord over the other part 😉 You should be able to figure out which category your family members fall into by looking at old maps (but be careful — I’ve just spent the last few days straining my eyes trying to figure out the borders).

  3. Lydia Davis says:

    Very interesting post, Edie. Tarnow does look as though it was a very beautiful city, and still has a beautiful old center. I looked up images–its old synagogue was monumental, majestic. Quite unlike, for instance, the small synagogue in Cork, Ireland, that I saw recently, its congregation barely hanging on. Ireland was much more humane with regard to the Jews, with only one progrom (which drove them I think from Limerick to Cork, actually). Following links upon links, I see claims that WWII started in Tarnow–that doesn’t seem to be true, it’s a different Polish city that was the first to be attacked–and that Tarnow was the first place where Jews were made to wear armbands–which might be true?
    I’m also thinking about languages, Edie. Your great-grandparents would have spoken Polish (and Yiddish)? Then they moved to Vienna, learned German, their children grew up speaking…what? all three languages? Your parents presumably grew up speaking German and a little Yiddish and hearing a bit of Polish from their grandparents? Then your mother and father came to America…

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I did see that Tarnow was the first place where Jews were made to wear armbands — but only in Poland, not the rest of Western Europe. As for Ireland being humane, that would be hard to say, no? They had a much smaller Jewish population, so perhaps one pogrom was proportionally equivalent to the number of pogroms in countries with larger numbers of Jews.

      Now the language — well, you’ve anticipated part of my next post. I haven’t traced my father’s side but my mother’s Polish/Yiddish-speaking grandparents were not alive when she was growing up. Her grandmother died the year she was born. I would imagine my grandparents spoke some Yiddish but if they were trying to raise my mother to be a good Viennese girl, they would have tried to keep her from learning the language, just as my parents kept me from learning German (for different reasons).

      • Lydia Davis says:

        About Ireland–yes, it’s complicated, and you’re right that the Jewish population was tiny, but from what I’ve read I think the attitude was much better. For instance, the Limerick pogrom was mainly the work of one Catholic priest, and the Jews that were driven to Cork found a welcome there. One son of that migration (Gerald Goldberg) became Lord Mayor of Cork. Eamon de Valera kept defending the Jews during the war.

        • Edie Jarolim says:

          Oh yes, you’re right, I seem to recall that the Lord Mayor of Cork was Jewish. And then of course there was James Joyce’s famous Jewish character, Bloom. I guess the word “only” in relation to pogrom raised my hackles.

          • Lydia Davis says:

            Yes, on the other hand of course you’re right–there’s no place for the word “only” coupled with “pogrom”…

  4. This brings up a totally side question – but maybe your astute scholarly readers can weigh in – was Joyce anti-Semitic in his depiction of Bloom or was he being ironic/sarcastic/or something? I never quite got to figure that one out.
    Diane J. Schmidt recently posted..Water grab foiled in New Mexico by alert communityMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I don’t think Joyce was being anti-Semitic; Bloom, who was a kind of every man/anti-hero, is at the center of the book. I remember feeling vaguely uncomfortable about the character because I wasn’t entirely sure how Joyce felt about him but in the end decided he had a good deal of sympathy for him.

  5. There is a great joke in Ulysses where Bloom’s in a bar and someone (Paddy?) says, somemthing to the effect that there isn’t any discrimination against Jews in Ireland — because there aren’t any. And then Bloom gets beaten up?
    (Been a long time since I read it.)

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      It’s been a long time for me too but that sounds about right!

    • Lydia Davis says:

      I’ll go and look at the chapter, but from the summaries I’ve scanned, I think it’s not quite as extreme: there was a barroom argument, with Bloom doing a lot of talking and Citizen, the anti-Semite replying–and as things got too heated and Bloom left the pub, the Citizen threw a can after him. There are some fascinating accounts of the history of the Jews in Ireland–fascinating because anti-Semitism can be studied in a small country with a small population of Jews. As so often, nationalism went hand in hand with anti-Semitism. I agree with Edie that Joyce was not being snti-Semitic–Bloom is the main character, an Irishman and yet also an outsider, a Jew.

  6. […] this week, I discussed my surprise in learning that my mother’s family home, the town of Tarnow, was defined as a shtetl on a Jewish genealogy site. I hadn’t previously traced my ancestry beyond sophisticated […]

  7. […] sophisticated Viennese heritage, so I was surprised to learn that her roots were in Tarnow, Poland, considered a shtetl. I was also confused about how our family eluded the linguistic and religious preferences that might […]

  8. Lea says:

    My father and his family were from Tarnow. Dad and one brother survived after spending 5 years in
    concentration camps, work camps, the Tarnow ghetto and other places. When I was a small child, he took me to a few meetings in New York City of the Tarnower Society–all Survivors from Tarnow, which had the nickname of “The Town of Tailors” because that was a main source of employment for many Jews there. My father was Moishe Berger and his brother was Lazar Berger.

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