Freudian Psychology

Did Freud Eat Kosher Without Knowing It?

A talk at Vienna's Freud Museum on Oct. 4 explores this and other meaty topics

Posted Sep 20, 2018

I won't deny it: Being the great niece of Sigmund Freud's butcher is a rather modest claim to fame. The discovery of this link to the father of psychoanalysis nevertheless changed my life—and gave me a unique perspective on Freud's.

Edie Jarolim
My mother, Rita Rosenbaum, 1938 Vienna
Source: Edie Jarolim

Both my parents fled Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1939, though not together. They met in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach, in an English-language class for refugees. My mother liked to say that my father fell in love with her for her Viennese accent. She sounded like home.

Unfortunately, they had much more in common than their birth city. They both came to America on their own because the Nazis had confiscated most of their families' money.  Paul Jarolim and Rita Rosenbaum were tasked with finding jobs and raise enough for boat passage to America for the family members left behind – in my mother's case, both her parents, in my father's, his mother, his sister, and one brother. They managed to scrape together the money, but weren't able to send it because the borders had closed.

A (Shop) Window on the Past

Given the loss of everything familiar she once knew, all the people she was closest to, it's not surprising that my mother rarely talked about the past. I didn't want to press her—not least because I didn't want to conjure all those graphic, horrific images of the Holocaust. Because we never met any close family members or even heard much about them, my sister and I assumed most relatives on both sides had been killed in concentration camps.

When my mother did talk about Vienna, it was with bitterness. The Austrians were more enthusiastic Nazis than the Germans, she often said, their claim of occupation a cover for deep anti-semitism.  When Kurt Waldheim, Austria's ambassador to France and Canada and Secretary General of the United Nations, was elected president of Austria in 1986, my mother railed against the ascendence of "that old Nazi." She felt vindicated when Waldheim's SS past, including a suspicion of war crimes, was revealed. She particularly disliked the popularity of the "Sound of Music," which showed the Von Trapp family as sympathetic victims--without making it clear that those Nazis victimizing them were Austrian too. 

But my mother had a pressed edelweiss among the meager possessions she brought with her when she fled Vienna. And with all her silences and anger, there was one story from happier times she was fond of recalling: that one of her uncles had been Sigmund Freud's butcher.

I didn't find that anecdote particularly meaningful when I was a child, but when I got older I discovered that it was useful. People I met casually would ask about my background. When I revealed that both parents were from Vienna, they would wax rhapsodic about Strauss waltzes and Mozart and Schoenbrunn and the city's imperial beauty. It wouldn't have been very polite to tell them what my family really thought of Vienna.

"My great uncle sold meat to Sigmund Freud" was an amusing tidbit I could offer up whenever new acquaintances asked about my heritage. The story was a social lubricant and a buttress, a way to divert the conversation and prevent me from being rude.

That all changed in late 2011, when one of the new acquaintances I told the butcher shop story to decided to Google it—something I'd never thought to do.

Sigmund Freud Museum, Vienna, used with permission
"A View from the Outside" by Joseph Kosuth
Source: Sigmund Freud Museum, Vienna, used with permission

Surprise! He found a photograph of a butcher shop on the website of Vienna's Sigmund Freud Museum. The space had been transformed into the museum's contemporary art gallery in 2002, For the first exhibition, conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth superimposed a quote from Freud's Psychopathology of Everyday Life on a picture of Siegmund Kornmehl's shop by Edmund Engelman, a photographer who was commissioned to take pictures of Freud's flat and offices two weeks before Freud was forced to leave Vienna in June 1938.

I was astounded. My mother's memory was not only confirmed but given historic heft.  A member of my family and Sigmund Freud shared a famous address, Berggasse 19. 

But how connected were they, I wondered? How long had the butcher shop been at that address before 1938?

What the Research Revealed

It helps to have even a tenuous connection to a famous person when you are doing historical research. The comprehensive biography of Freud by Peter Gay doesn't say much about Freud's domestic life, but I learned from Katja Behling's Martha Freud: A Biography that Freud's wife was less than thrilled by their move from their home near Vienna's famous Ring boulevard to a new apartment on Berggasse 19– it was too dark and too small for a family with two children and a third on the way. By the time Martha saw the place, it was too late for her to veto it. Her husband had already signed the lease.

I couldn't find any references to Freud's downstairs neighbor, however, until I came across Mrs. Freud: A Novel by Nicolle Rosen, a French psychoanalyst. It's written in first person as an imagined correspondence between Martha Freud in her old age and a fictional American biographer.

The author puts these words into Martha's mouth:

I liked our first home in Vienna, an affordable apartment in a nice looking modern building near the Ring....Berggasse was not too far from the Ring, but the area was considerably less elegant than our former neighborhood and the new construction was rather ordinary. What irked me especially was the butcher shop, which stood right next to our entrance. And to add insult to injury, the butcher’s sign, which was cheek-by-jowl with my husband’s, also bore the name Sigmund! Unbelievable as it may be, the butcher and Sigmund shared the same first name! We had to grin and bear it. But as with everything in life, we finally got used to it. Just as well, because we went on living at that address for nearly 47 years.

I was irritated by the snobbery – and don't believe that Freud would have shared it – and thought the premise ridiculous. Sigmund was not an uncommon name. Since much of Rosen's description was consistent with what I read in Katja Behling's biography of Martha Freud, however, I had no reason to disbelieve the basic facts.

Again, I was blown away. Sharing an address for 47 years meant more than a nodding acquaintance with the Freud family. Siegmund Kornmehl's longtime customers and Sigmund Freud's longtime analysands would surely have interacted. Freud's dog, Yofi, doubtless begged bones from the butcher.

Freud's milieu was also my family's.

A Blog is Born

But I'm getting ahead of myself. When I started my research, I didn't know very much about Freud, and certainly not that he had a dog or that its name was Yofi.

Having avoided Holocaust-related subjects for most of my life, I now wanted to know more.

This posed a problem. By 2011, my mother had been dead for almost 20 years. But I had a clue: a picture of eight stylishly dressed couples that my mother had identified on a yellowing piece of paper tucked into the back of the ornate frame that my sister and I had gotten for her as a gift.  It enabled me to identify three Kornmehl brothers and five Kornmehl sisters (one of whom was my grandmother), but that's about all I knew.

Edie Jarolim
The Kornmehl family with Siegmund, Freud's Butcher, circled
Source: Edie Jarolim

That group portrait and that faded piece of paper were the starting points of what eventually became my Freud's Butcher blog. It turned out that Kornmehl was a rather uncommon name. I began hearing from relatives all over the world who were doing their own Google searches. From thinking that everyone on my mother's side  had been killed, I went to realizing that I had far-flung family throughout the world. 

And, oh, the things I learned from my research,  from painful details about the Holocaust (many confirming my mother's claims about Austria's enthusiasm for Hitler) to fascinating facts about Jewish food. Who knew that the question of whether noodle kugel should be sweet or savory could cause so much dissension?

Among the personal discoveries were the facts that Siegmund Kornmehl had three butcher shops--the one in Freud's building was not kosher, but one two doors down was--and that several other family members were also butchers. The Kornmehls had a veritable meat monopoly in Vienna. 

From Blog to Talk

Some six years later, the genealogical journey spurred by the picture on the Freud Museum's website will culminate in a talk at that museum--one that will be attended by several members of my extended family. On October 4, some 80 years after my mother's family was forced to leave Vienna, I will be honoring the memory of the eight brothers and sisters whose lives were ripped apart by the Anschluss--and of course discussing the upstairs neighbor of one of them.

Which brings me to the question of Sigmund's unwitting kashrut. 

Although Freud was culturally Jewish, he renounced all religious practices in his home, including keeping kosher. Indeed, he believed that observing Jewish dietary laws might be detrimental to one's health.  In a letter he wrote to Martha when they were engaged, Freud attributed some minor health complaints she'd  made to her consumption of kosher food. 

Martha Bernays was the granddaughter of the chief rabbi of Hamburg and grew up in an Orthodox household. She doubtless would have rejected her fiancé’s suggestions to change her diet while she was living at home. It's also documented that after Freud died, Martha went back to lighting Shabbos candles. Martha nevertheless deferred to Freud’s dictates against religious observances while they were married.

Or did she?

Die Stimme online archives
Ad for Siegmund Kornmehl butcher shops, 1930
Source: Die Stimme online archives

Katja Behling wrote that Martha took care to do the daily shopping herself, often with her sister Minna, “to be certain that everything was both fresh and economical.” I don't think it's a stretch to suggest there might have been another reason for the personalized shopping excursions: Perhaps the two sisters didn’t trust members of the household staff, who would have been loyal to their employer, not to tell the kosher-averse Herr Professor where they bought their beef. According to my mother, Frau Freud bought meat from my great uncle’s kosher butcher shop. That would have been easy enough:  Berggasse 15 was just two stores down from No. 19 (where they might have purchased their pork).

That's pure speculation of course – as is much else in the narratives I've patched together about a way of life destroyed by the Nazis. But, having confirmed the broad outline of my mother's story about her uncle's butcher shop, I have no reason to doubt that particular detail. 

The slide show and talk "Freud's Butcher: A Jewish Family Return to 19 Berggasse," will be held at the Sigmund Freud Museum on October 4 at 7pm. Click here to register.

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