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.
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.
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 Austro-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.
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 JewishGen.org. 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 JewishGen.org. 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.