The Mystery of the Schmerling Name — Solved!

I won’t try to claim that name changes pose a greater challenge to Jewish family historians than those of other groups — although I’m convinced they do. I just don’t have a sufficient basis for comparison to prove it.

Edith and Hermine Schmerling, my mother's first cousins, age 1 1/2

Edith and Hermine Schmerling, my mother’s twin first cousins, age 1 1/2

Unique Genealogical Circumstances

I can, however, assert that those searching for Eastern European Jewish ancestors will face some unique challenges. Citing only two with direct impact on my family history:

  •  In 1787, a law passed in the Austro-Hungarian Empire required Jews to register a permanent family surnames, and required that the surname be German. The one my family chose was Kornmehl, which, typically, described a profession, grain processing and trading.
  • The Jews who moved to Palestine during World War II often wanted — and were strongly encouraged to — change their names from Teutonic to Hebraic ones. Thus Kornmehl morphed into Carmel, Koren — two brothers adopted different surnames, yet! — and Kornel when some family members left Europe for the Middle East; I wrote about it in Genealogy Gehenna: The Hebraization of Jewish Surnames.

I recently encountered a reason for a family name change that was new to me.

The family claim

I wrote last week about making the acquaintance of the branch of the Kornmehl family who were the closest to my mother, relatives of her uncle David Schmerling and Aunt Mizzi (Kornmehl) Schmerling, and their offspring, Stella, Hermine, and Edith.

According to the family story told by David Schmerling’s niece, Flora, about her father, Heinrich:

Slowly he built up a reputation of honest dealing of which he was tremendously proud… He was also very proud to be a Schmerling, the name of an Austrian Prime Minister who had befriended the Jews in an earlier age and whose name the Jews had adopted in his honor

A version of this story was told at the eulogy that I cited in the earlier piece, only in that case the name-conferring Schmerling was cited as a mayor of Vienna rather than an Austrian prime minister. That eulogy has some inaccuracies, however — and, in any case, there is no Viennese mayor with the name of Schmerling.

“Personally I Am Not In Sympathy with the Jews.”

Anton Von Schmerling -- source of the Schmerling name?

Anton Von Schmerling — source of the Schmerling name?

I searched for a Schmerling in the Austrian government.

The only one I came up with was Anton von Schmerling, the interior minister of the Austrian Empire from 1860 to 1865. The Wikipedia entry devoted to my family’s supposed namesake didn’t yield any information about his role vis a vis the Jews, however, and the politics of the day were too complex for me to sort out.

So I tried the search terms “Anton von Schmerling” and “Jews.” This time I got an entry in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia —  with a match under the term “Anti-Semitism.” The relevant portion reads:

The defeat of Austria in 1866 and its financial condition, which bordered on bankruptcy, had brought the German-Liberal element to the front…. What might be called Anti-Semitism came from the ranks of those who were opposed to the principle of religious liberty and political equality, or could be heard among those who, while liberal in principle, drew the line of distinction in the social life. Thus Anton von Schmerling, a former minister-president in the Austrian House of Lords (1880), urged the necessity of instruction in German in schools in order to overcome the advantageous position of the Jewish soldiers in the regiments of Galicia, who, owing to their knowledge of the German language, had better chances of promotion to the position of non-commissioned officers; he added, “Personally, I am not in sympathy with the Jews.” [italics mine]

I was perplexed.

I turned to an expert on Jewish names, Philip Trauring, blogger at  Blood and Frogs and Lexigenealogy. Was it common for Jews to adopt the names of public figures, I wondered, and noted that the only one whose name seemed to match my family’s story was an antisemite.

Trauring said it was rare for Jews to take on the names of public figures, but wrote:

I can’t speak to the specific case, but it’s entirely possible the family wanted to change their name to something less Jewish sounding and picked a name of a prominent person, whether or not he was good to the Jews. It’s also possible the official did something nice for this specific family, or even that they did it to spite the official if he did something they didn’t like (and found it amusing to have Jews with his last name). Of course all of that is supposition.

But then I realized that the historical time frame did not make Anton von Schmerling a likely source of the family name: The first Schmerling to turn up on the family tree has a birth date of 1850, which predates the prime of Anton von Schmerling’s political career (1860-1865).

Back to the drawing board.

Mother Knows Best

I mentioned earlier that in 1787, the Jews of the Austro-Hungrarian empire were required to take German surnames. Philip Trauring wrote on the topic in Religious Marriages, Civil Marriages and Surnames from Mothers:

… many Jews had little use for their assigned surnames in the 19th century. Thus, even though they had assigned surnames which the government used to assess taxes, conscript men into the army, etc., in terms of everyday usage Jews really didn’t care about their surnames. In addition, civil marriage was largely ignored by many Jews, as it generally was expensive. Jews tended to have religious marriages and only got civilly married if they or their children for some reason needed it….

So what happened if your parents did not have a civil marriage? In some cases it meant you would need to take your mother’s maiden name as your surname. That’s because even if your father was listed on your birth certificate, he was not legally married to your mother, and thus you needed to take on your mother’s last name for legal purposes.

So one of the Kornmehl offspring likely took on the name of his mother, rather than that of his father.

But that still leaves open the question: What type of name is Schmerling and how did the first Jewish Schmerling come to adopt it? It doesn’t refer to a profession as, say, Kornmehl does. I could find no meaning for the name listed.

A Town in Germany

I told the story of the Kornmehls and Anton von Schmerling to a friend who pointed out that the term “von” is equivalent of “from” and would be a geographical reference. So I searched for Schmerling as a place name.


Schmerling, Germany

Schmerling, Germany; click on photo to enlarge

There is a Schmerling, Germany, as it turns out. I can tell you what the weather will be like there tomorrow and what time Muslims should pray there — but still draw a blank when it comes to the question of why it should be of significance to the Kornmehl family. The town is not far from the border of the Netherlands, where one of David Schmerling’s brothers and his family hid out during the war. But that’s clutching at straws.

The question remains: Where did the family name Schmerling come from? Stay tuned…

Note: The picture at the top of the post has no direct bearing on the story. But it was sent to me by cousin Rita over the weekend and I couldn’t resist using it. Who wouldn’t want to search for information about a family that dresses their children in such adorable outfits?

Update: Mystery solved! Leonard Schneider, keeper of the vast Kornmehl family tree, wrote in an email:

When Jews took Germanic names in 1787  they had a whole list to choose from. Included in the list were animals, fish and birds. Schmerling is a Loach fish and was probably on the name list. It does not mean the Schmerlings were fishermen but on the other had they could have had a fish connection.

I had never heard of a loach fish, so I looked it up. From the Encyclopedia Britannica:

loach any of the small, generally elongated freshwater fishes of the family Cobitidae. More than 200 species are known; most are native to central and southern Asia, but three are found in Europe and one in northern Africa. A typical loach has very small scales and three to six pairs of whiskerlike barbels around its mouth. In some species, such as the spined loach (Cobitis taenia) of Eurasia, there is also a short, movable spine near each eye.

Here is a picture of a clown loach.

Clown loach

I’ve seen those pretty fish in many aquariums.

Who knew?

32 Responses to The Mystery of the Schmerling Name — Solved!

  1. Edie, I understand the frustration trying to find family when names changed so frequently, but question the assumption that is a particular problem for Jewish genealogists. Having recently done research on a Navajo family, I know that they had the problem of immigrants–non-native census takers and school personnel had a tendency to mis-hear, either intentionally or ignorantly, what a person called himself, and either make up a name more to their liking, or write down something that was not related. EG. the artist I wrote about was named Quincy Tahoma. The Tahoma part probably comes from the fact that his adopted father told the school personell the clan name, when they asked for a name. Five years later the school was still dithering about how to spell Tahoma–which is only a rough approximation of the Navajo word. And ‘Quincy?’ Apparently a teacher thought that was a nice name, so they stuck it on him.
    The American Indians are just one example of a people who might rival the name-change problems that beset Jews.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I did preface this with the statement that I didn’t have the proper context to make a real assessment, and my statement was a bit tongue in cheek.

      That said, the problems that you describe with Navajos are typical of other genealogical problems — misheard names, writing down other names, etc. That happens with every ethnic group, when the people in power don’t have sympathy for them, e.g., the Irish vs. the English — and it often happens without malice, e.g. bored Ellis Island clerks, etc. The two examples I gave do not occur in other ethnic groups; perhaps the equivalent in Navajo history might be The Long Walk — if all the names were required to be changed. Maybe that did happen. But then was there a movement en masse by the Navajo to change there own names, as there was in the 2nd example I cited regarding the Hebraicization of names? I’m happy to be convinced, but so far, you haven’t provided any evidence that there were issues particular to Navajos that provide similar variations.

  2. Edie,

    In my experience most family stories have some kernel of truth in them, even if small. While the loach fish might indeed be the origin of the Schmerling name, didn’t you start out with a story that the name was changed at some point from Kornmehl? If the name was assigned as Kornmehl in 1787 (actually this law was administered later in Galicia) then it could not also be assigned as Schmerling, unless two relatives received different last names.

    I actually have a family story about that – that two brothers were given different surnames by an antisemitic Austrian bureaucrat who thought he was funny – naming two brothers Traurig (Sad) and Lustig (Happy). So perhaps two family members received two different names, but didn’t this start out as a name change story?
    Philip Trauring recently posted..The Ring of TrustMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Philip, thanks for coming by. I think I was wrong that the family name was changed from Kornmehl to Schmerling (yet another family story gone awry). I believe one family member married a Schmerling, and then took the name of the mother rather than the father for the reasons you explain in your article.

      Your family naming story by an antisemite is a hoot, though you seem to have transcended your “sad” Traurig fate. I don’t know about the rest of your family, but you seem like a pretty cheery person. What’s the Lustig branch of the family like?

      • I’ve never been able to make a connection between the two families, but the cousin who told the story claimed in a letter written several decades ago that he knew of some of the Lustigs, which included owners of the famous NYC restaurant chain Longchamps. Longchamps it turns out was indeed founded by one Henry Lustig, who was the brother-in-law of the infamous Arnold Rothstein ( Another Lustig I found, had a common name in my family (Abraham Joseph), was from the same town as my family (Kanczuga), and listed Longchamps as a business address in a WWII draft card. Still, no direct connection.

        As for transcending fate, my family changed their name to Trauring some time between 1862 and 1882. I guess we make our own fate.
        Philip Trauring recently posted..The Ring of TrustMy Profile

        • Edie Jarolim says:

          Ah, yes, the name Lustig sounded family — and I remember Longchamps well. If you do make that connection, you’ll have a colorful branch.

          So you mean the story about the antisemitic bureaucrat handing down your family’s names wasn’t true? Shocking~

        • Do you have the letter where he named the possible Lustig relatives? My mom is a direct descendant to the Longchamps Lustig family.

          • Edie Jarolim says:

            I will pass this along to Philip Trauring.

          • The letter simply gives the information I posted above. The only link I’ve discovered is the Abraham Joseph Lustig being from the same town as my family, and the letter. Oddly, although I’ve gone through the vital records for Kanczuga, and I cannot find any Lustigs listed. If you or someone else in your family has a family tree, I’d love to compare notes. If the story is true, then I suspect that the Abraham Joseph Traurig in my tree (born 1799) was either the brother or the father of the Lustig brother mentioned in the letter. Please be in touch via my web site so we can compare what we know about our families.
            Philip Trauring recently posted..What DPI should I scan my photos, and in what format do I save them?My Profile

  3. I like detective stories, and I loved this one. It’s mind-blowing, though not actually surprising, that a 1787 law required Jewish people to register German surnames. A clear power play, because naming someone can be a basic method of controlling them (I recall Southerners naming their slaves with a single name, chosen by the master). So it had to be a German name, and animals-fish-birds were on the list. That is both noir and hilarious–what absurdity, for the Germans to select a group of acceptable names.

    But the loach is a good choice! Appealing and distinctive. Many years ago I had an aquarium, and I well remember the clown loach.

    You are a very persistent and impressive de-coder. You didn’t stop until you got the answer.
    Mariann Regan recently posted..Surprised by ConnectionsMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      It’s rare that answers come so quickly, but in this case it was a true collaborate effort. I had help in the way the problem was framed from an expert in the subject of Jewish names and the final information on this particular family name provided by a relative who is even more of an expert on the family. It was very exciting!

      So you give me more credit than I deserve — I did stop — but I do appreciate the compliment.

  4. Edie: I didn’t try to say that the circumstances were the same–or similar–or different for that matter. I just said that their historians faced similiar problems. Since American Indians weren’t looked upon as real people (like African American slaves) their names didn’t really matter to the people in charge. Where the real damage occurred was in the names applied to whole tribes by the Spaniards and later Europeans. Many of those European names were gross slurs and have recently been discarded by indigenous people reclaiming their own language and names. But you would say that is a whole different kettle of loach, and you would be right.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I agree — and I thought of another thing that makes American Indian genealogy more complicated: the distinct languages — Navajo being a prime example; I don’t have to tell you about the Code Talkers, but other might not be aware that the complexities of the language led to Navajo being used as a code during World War II. And then there are some American Indian languages that were not written, or where the writing was lost… The suffering and genocide in both groups were awful. I just meant to suggest that there were other Jewish circumstances that were different — including a lot of people voluntarily taking different names when they moved to Palestine, sometimes within the same family!

      At the risk of stereotyping, I will say that we Jews love to argue — Talmudically and otherwise — so I appreciate your willingness to engage in this discussion.

  5. Doron Shmerling says:

    Folks – lustig is fun, and traurig is sad. Trauring, though, is just a wedding ring.
    Schmerling is also interesting because it documents what Jews did – migrating eastwards, and eventually refilling middle European Jewry by migrating backwards to the West, from Russia and Eastern Europe. All Schmerlings I know came from the East, Mogilew or Warsaw, and many still carry names such as Szmerling or Shmerling.
    And Schmerling, by the way, is a mushroom (Suillus granulatus). My mother had a dictionary from 1933, where it said: edible (peel skin).

  6. Judith Schmerling Weiss says:

    I was told the name was taken from Baron Von Schmerling who founded the Vienna opera and was kind to the Jews. My grandfather was from Vitebsk, Belarus. His family owned a soda pop factory. He fled to the United States through Canada to Greenbay, Wisconsin to avoid lifelong consciption in the army. He owned a junk business in Milwaukee.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thanks for coming by! Are you related to any of the Schmerling/Kornmehl family in Vienna??

    • Masha Yosilevsky-Shmerling says:

      Judith, I’m also a part of Shmerling family from Vitebsk (actually my parents are still leaving there). Unfortunately, my grandfather passed away after the Holocaust and didn’t succeed to pass any family information to my father. All I know that his parents were killed in the ghetto of Vitebsk. It would be great if you could share any information about Shmerling family from Vitebsk. Happy Passover to you and your family.

      • Edie Jarolim says:

        Masha, thank you so much for writing. I don’t know anything about the Shmerling/Schmerling branch in Vitebsk myself but will ask if any of the other family members might be familiar with the history of the Shmerlings in that town. Happy Passover to you and your family too!

    • Susan F. Schmerling says:

      I am a Schmerling by marriage (the sister-in-law of Judith Schmerling Weiss) who did what research I could on the name in the 1960’s, as part of a course requirement in my field of linguistics. I discovered the “mushroom” meaning as part of this project and was in fact told by several Austrians then that it was a prized yellow and egg-shaped mushroom (and many years later I was informed that numerous mushrooms from the area have names ending in -ling). I also discovered the word “schmerling” in two different listings in Jacob and Wilheml Grimm’s monumental Deutsches Wörterbuch (German Dictionary) ( the entry for “loach” and that for “falcon.” In both listings, “schmerling” was listed as a dialect variant for what was “schmerler” in standard German. A falcon is perhaps considered more lofty a creature than a loach, and it seems to me that this is at least as likely an origin for the name as a loach.

      In the meantime I have encountered numerous Germans who have been convinced that the name must have had a quite different origin. There is a German noun “Schmerbauch” meaning “paunch,” which is a compound of “Schmer,” a dialect form meaning “grease,” and “Bauch,” meaning “belly”; these Germans have all been certain that the surname must have come from something we could render into English as “greaseling.” This would make for a less noble origin for Schmerling as a surname, but it strikes me as no less plausible.

      I would advise anyone hoping to trace these various meanings for “schmerling” further than I did in my simple course assignment would be well advised to consult the Grimms’ dictionary, which, as the Wikipedia article I have cited indicates, includes a wealth of information on each entry.

  7. catalina schmerling says:

    I am too a schmerling and my father came to Buenos aires- argentina from viena during the big crisis 1929. the rest of the family lived in holland and my aunt stella schmerling mentioned the kornmehl family as cousins.
    I am 73 years old -lawyer and I ll be hapy to get some comment from other schmerlings

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      That’s so interesting — thanks for writing! I haven’t been doing much on this blog lately but will send your comment around to the Schmerling relatives with whom I am in touch. There was definitely a Dutch contingent. I will copy you on the email and, I hope, you’ll hear back soon.

  8. Judith Schmerling Weiss says:

    I got my DNA checked by I am 91% -93% European Jewish, 0%_7% Italy/Greece and 0%_4%- Scandanavian. Anyone else did this?

  9. Toni Tallarido Sherazi says:

    I’m so glad I came across this page! A history buff, I’ve long been extremely curious about my family history which runs on one side (at least a couple generations back)to Russian/German Jews and the other to Southern Italian Catholics. So, a few days ago I decided to join The research is very fun and enlightening, but oh so frustrating! I am writing because my maternal great-grandmother, Rochiel/Rocha (Rose in the US), is a Schmerling from Latvia. The family is from Riga-or at least my great-grandmother lived there when she married Mordechai Lifsin or Lifsing (Lipson in the US) a shoe factory owner in the city. I believe through the research that her family is from Piltene which had a prevailing German population. Apparently, the first Jews arrived in Piltene in 1571 under the protection of the Duke of Magnuss, the brother of the Duke of Denmark who ruled Latvia. However, I am not sure if it’s because they emigrated from Germany or somewhere else, since from 1200-1561 Latvia was German conquered territory before being passing through the hands of Denmark, Poland, and eventually Russia (in 1795). I’m also entirely unaware at this point of when they emigrated. I was astounded at the hearty population of German Jews in Latvia. It was so large that the very first school for Jewish children opened in Latvia (1850) was actually a German language school. I have found and am researching the records there and have seen many Schmerlings. Rose’s father was a retired solider and there are numerous Schmerlings listed. I’m currently using JewishGen and Latvia SIG for my research. I figured it wouldn’t be easy, but I had no idea how difficult genealogy research could be, so it was an absolute pleasure to come across this website! You gave me some new ideas that may help me down the road. Thanks so much, from a part-Schmerling who’s going to go with falcon over loach fish, mushroom, or greasling! 😉

    ***I forgot to give reference points: Rose Schmerling was born in 1883. Her husband, Mordechai, died in Riga (we don’t yet know why but we think it was in WWI perhaps). A few years later Rose and her 6 children emigrated to the US and wound up settling in New Jersey where her brother Benjamin Schmerling had already emigrated earlier. They emigrated in 1921 from Bremen on a ship called the George Washington. Recent info suggests Rose’s father, Abraham Isroil Schmerling, was born in Piltene or Tukkums, Latvia in 1837. Unfortunately, both of my grandfathers passed away before my birth/early childhood and both of my grandmothers didn’t know/remember much at all of their ancestry. So I’m starting out with pretty much just a few names gleamed on either side of my family. Your site and research are so inspiring!!!

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thanks so much for coming by and commenting! Here’s a full welcome to the Schmerling/Kornmehl family, however closely or distantly you are related to us. I appreciate your nice words about this site. It’s not active these days but I’ll get back to it…eventually.

      • Marina Smerling says:

        I just want to say hi as a fellow Jewish Latvian Schmerling descendant. My great-great-grandmother was from Riga, and my great-grandparents married there and then emigrated to the United States in the 1890s. I I imagine we may be distant cousins!

        • Edie Jarolim says:

          So nice to hear from a Schmerling relative, no matter how distant we might be! The Schmerlings were my mother’s favorite cousins; she was very close with Stella, Mimi & Ditte. And of course there’s the chocolate. We were all from Tarnow, in Poland.

    • Marc Halman says:

      I never knew my grandfather, Irwin Schmerling, who emigrated to the US from Riga. Very interesting to see this post. My mother, the only child of Irwin was Rose which makes me wonder if she was named after a grandmother.

  10. Avi Bruenn says:

    July 2, 2017 at 8:52 am

    The origin of most or all the jewish Shmerlings is Belarus.
    At least the Shmerling family in Israel, that arrived in year
    1820 from the “staedtel” Sklov to Hebron.

    The (german)name is Schmerling = suillus granulatus,a moshroom that you can find at all the pine woods even in Belarus.

    The germen aristocratic family from Cleve / Germany (as you
    have already mentioned, on the border to Holland), received
    the “von” title from Joseph I of Austria in 1707 (3 brothers;
    Anton Albert, Joseph & Leopold Schmerling).
    As they have been served in his army, it is not known if they
    have had a land next to the (Belarus)Russian border, or have had any commercial business with the jews.

    In any case the textile trader Shimon Shmerling came already in 1817 to Eretz-Israel to find a place for all the Chabadniks there. After he have pointed out Hebron as the right place, he was sent by the Lubawitz Rabbi back to settled there.
    As he arrived with his wife Sara, his youngest son Moshe and
    his fresh married wife Chana Dvora, they have had already
    Austrian citizenship…(?!).

    Probably Shimon Schmerling got older children, or at least few brothers that moved to other places in Belarus few years later (Minsk, Mogilev, Orsha, Lyady, Liozna and Vitebsk.

    Also the Szmerling of Smolensk (Russia today), could arrive from one on those places, as it is not so far from Lydy & Liozna. Even the Shmerling from Wilna comes from Vitebsk.
    It can be that later family members moved also to Poland on
    the one side (Lodz, Kalisz, Warsaw) and Russia (Moscow) on
    the other side…

    Avi Bruenn (married to Zipora Schmerling)

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Sorry it took me so long to approve this comment! I was out of town and didn’t get the notification for it. This is fascinating, and I will call it to the attention of my Schmerling family members — who came from Tarnow, Poland, rather than Lodz, Kalisz, or Warsaw.

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