The Sweet in the Bittersweet Schmerling Story

The Sweet in the Bittersweet Schmerling Story

This is Day 20 of the Family History Writing Challenge, wherein I continue the story of the Schmerlings, who returned to Vienna after the war. I realize I’ve spent more time with other members of my mother’s family than I’ve spent with Adolf and Bertha Schweizer, the ostensible subjects of this challenge, but a bigger picture is beginning to come into focus. 

I also play a small role in this story, so I would hate to leave it out. 

Carp in the Bathtub 

I mentioned yesterday how difficult it was for the Schmerlings to get possession of  Seigmund and Helene Kornmehl’s properties, even though Helene adopted her niece, Stella, for that purpose. I might have left you yesterday with the impression that life for the Schmerlings after the war was nothing but grim. That’s far from the truth. My cousin wrote:

I remember my grandparents very well, we were very close.  My parents took me to Israel when I was three years old and we stayed with them for several months in their Tel Aviv flat. I went to kindergarten and remember coming home to find the bath full of live carp – that’s how they bought fish in those days. Refrigerators were rare and expensive so my grandmother killed the fish when they wanted to eat them.  

There are some tall fish tales in the Schmerling family. This one about the carp is delightful–and completely credible. Apparently keeping carp in the bathtub was not unusual. There’s even a children’s book devoted to the concept.

David Schmerling’s story was sad, no question: He had a stroke while living in Palestine, which is one of the reasons he moved back to Vienna. He died three days after the family finally got hold of the apartment on Währingerstrasse 97.

But the other stories were far sweeter. My cousin also wrote: 

After my grandfather died, my mother and her sister sent ticket money to my Omi (grandmother) and she would come to London every year and stay about three months each time. She came regularly until she really couldn’t but that was well into her 80s.  She was nearly 90 when she died.  I went several times including a journey in 1971 to show my first baby to my grandmother, who passed away later that year. She was delighted. I suppose it was amazing for her to have lived through all that and still be blessed with a great-grandchild!

Also in 1971…

I too went to Vienna in 1971 and visited Währingerstrasse 97, though I would never have recalled the address. And my memories are less fond.

Someday I will tell the entire story of my first visit to Vienna. It involved being screamed at in German by a matron in a woman’s bathroom when I was changing into the dress that you see in the picture, below (I’m sitting on the left).  I’d been bumming around Europe with my college friend Andrea, but my father had warned me that I should dress nicely when I went to visit his brother.

Being screamed at in a bathroom was emblematic of my sense of Vienna in 1971.

My Uncle Fritz, who spoke English, took me and Andrea to visit my cousin Stella and great aunt Mizzi, who didn’t. The visit was a bit strained, though pleasant enough. I remember the rooms in the apartment being small and dark — as were those in my uncle’s house. 

Visiting Vienna in 1971. Clockwise: Me, my cousin Stella Kornmehl-Lowinger, my uncle Fritz Jarolim, my friend Andrea, my great aunt Mitzi Schmerling

The sadder fact: All these people were strangers to me. It was a duty visit to a city I’d learn to hate from my parents, to see relatives I’d only vaguely heard about.

But I’m getting back to the bitterness. And this isn’t really my story. I’ll leave you with a final sweet quote from my cousin, who summed up her feelings about her aunt and grandparents thusly:

They were gentle and wonderful people. I have no negative memories – just lots of good ones.  My Omi taught me lots of cooking skills and Aunty Stelly also loved to cook and had done a patisserie course before the war – she was great and taught me how to make amazing cakes, home made apple strudel and all kinds of stuff I avoid making nowadays – but I enjoyed all that for many years, especially when my children were young.

3 Responses to The Sweet in the Bittersweet Schmerling Story

  1. Julie McDowell says:

    So interesting. Thank you.

  2. Anne Thynne says:

    Fascinating story! Thanks for sharing.

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