I named my blog for Siegmund Kornmehl because he had the luck to open one of his three butcher shops in the same building where Sigmund Freud lived and practiced, but I actually know a bit more about Siegmund’s brother Rudolph. Like Siegmund, he owned and operated three butcher shops in Vienna. There were other butchers in the family, but I’ll leave them for later.
One of My Family History’s Many Mysteries
It would be reasonable to assume that I know about my great uncle Rudolph first-hand because he and his family lived in Queens while our family lived in Brooklyn, but reason doesn’t play a role in many of our family interactions. In fact, I never met Rudolph, his wife Molly, or their daughters and granddaughter — or even knew they existed. But that’s a topic for another post. And perhaps a few years of psychoanalysis.
No, I am familiar with the details of this great uncle’s life because his granddaughter, Gigi Michaels — whose existence I learned of, finally, last year — wrote a family history/memoir, No Place Called Home. I’ve blogged about finding — and losing — my cousin Gigi. Today I want to focus on one aspect of her book’s contents, the light they shed on the family profession: Meat selling.
Of course the butcher shops didn’t exist in a vacuum. In this first post in my promised Month of (Mostly) Meat, the details that I culled about Rudolph Kornmehl’s family business also trace the trajectory of Jewish life in Vienna.
A Family Business
Rudolph and his wife, Molly, lived near their main store at 41 Seiden Gasse. They enjoyed the Viennese good life — a house in the country where the skied in the winter, opera, cafe culture — but it was earned:
They worked hard managing the three butcher stores they owned…. Three times a week Rudolph got up at four in the morning to make it to the meat market where he often argued for the best prices and freshest meat. He knew that his customers were true to him because he carried the finest quality meats. His family had been in the business for generations and he understood his customers.
Both husband and wife were, literally, hands on in the shops. One day their daughter, Margaret, came home from school and was surprised to find her mother there:
“What happened?” Margaret cried. “Why is your hand all bandaged up?”
“It’s nothing. I went to the hospital today because I caught my finger in the meat slicing machine. I lost half of this finger but when it heals I will be all right.”
But Margaret was upset. She gave up university to go to vocational school so she could work in her parents’ business, at least temporarily.
Margaret attended the Vienna Business School three days a week and helped in the store on the other days. She loved people and her customers soon became her friends. She knew everyone by name and often had their regular order filled when they came in. Business increased because of her… she maintained the books for all the stores even while she was learning accounting.
Margaret was pursued by — and was briefly married to — a handsome gold-digger, who asked Rudolph if he could manage one of the three butcher shops when he asked him for his daughter’s hand. I’ve wondered about the role of butchers in Viennese society. This story tells me that managing a butcher shop was clearly not beneath the dignity of a vain young man. (It also tells me that divorce — well, actually annulment — was not unheard of in the Kornmehl family, something I never would have guessed by mother’s reaction to the news of the demise of my marriage. But I digress)
Hard Times — And Anti-Semitism — Come to Vienna
By 1934, economic problems were growing in Europe. The Kornmehl butcher shops were still doing well, but the Jews in the poor sections were suffering.
Rudolph… had begun to donate all left-over meats and cold cuts every Friday morning to the Central Synagogue for their members. Even though the rabbi know that the Kornmehl Butcher Shops did not carry strictly kosher meats, he accepted gratefully the charity that was offered.”
I’ve written before about the enthusiasm with which the Viennese greeted the Nazi troops who arrived on March 14, 1938, the day of the Anschluss. This is a first-hand account of being near the action — as well as the reason (partially justified) that Rudolph thought he would be safe.
Rudolph’s butcher store on Seiden Gasse was a short distance from the marchers. He could hear the commotion from inside the shop. He was glad that business was slow that day as he didn’t want to face some of his customers. Most didn’t care that he was Jewish. His store with the large sign “Rudolph Kornmehl Fleischhauer” also had signs announcing “Nur prima Schwein” (only the finest pork). His customers were Christians who enjoyed his outstanding quality meats. Rudolph was an extremely charismatic man and everyone liked him.
Even after Kristallnacht (Nov. 9-10, 1938), Rudolph wasn’t convinced his business was done. His butcher shop had been untouched in the orgy of glass smashing and Rudolph insisted on opening it the next day. He and his daughter, Margaret, hadn’t been in the store for more than a few hours when three storm troopers marched in:
“Are you not a Jew” they asked, looking at the yellow star.
“Yes,” Rudolph replied. He knew two of the men. Sometimes they came in with their wives to buy meat.”What can I do for you?”
“What can you do for me? You are nothing but dirt, Jew, and your daughter is a whore. You have no right to own a store. What you can do for me is give me your keys and follow me outside. We will take you where we put all the swines.”
Rudolph appealed to the two men that were his customers, saying that he needed to tell his wife what was going on, and promising to return with her. Soon after, one of the S.S. men that had been in the store turned up at the door.
“I came to warn you that you must leave this house at once… I remember the favor you did for me a few years ago. I was out of work and you allowed my wife to buy meat from you on credit. You said, “Don’t worry, when you find a job you can pay me what you owe me.” I never forgot how you helped us and now I want to help you. Give me the keys to the store and the apartment and I will take you to a safe place.”
He does… to a basement apartment with 40 other people already hiding.
Rudolph finally realizes they have to leave Vienna and makes plans to go to Shanghai but it is difficult.
He had worked all of his life to give his family a fine home. His butcher stores were well known in Vienna because his family had been in the business for generations. His brothers with their flourishing wholesale business wouldn’t leave. They supplied meats to the finest restaurants in the city. Plus, they weren’t young anymore. They shouldn’t have to start over again in a strange place.