Remembering “Cousin Bob”

I had hoped to post this on the occasion of Bob’s 101st birthday. I’m a few days late, I don’t think he would mind.

When your ancestors “tell” you to look for something, you do it! Such was the case with my first cousin, twice removed, Kurt Mendl. I was on the search in the files of our “family museum” for my mother’s naturalization certificate. It wasn’t in her binder where it should have been. I found it in a binder of papers that I moved from another binder (and forgotten about!) to make room for a different project.

Not only did I find many papers related to my mother, I found a sheaf of letters written to my mother in the 1980s from “Cousin Bob.” In the letters, Bob shared some family history and information about his childhood, previously unknown to me.

Bob had no children, and I haven’t found an obituary for him. His is a story that should be told; a life full of loss and sadness is a life that deserves to be remembered.

Bob and our Aunt Vally – in my mother’s kitchen – 1977

On April 9, 1921, the former Renee Berger gave birth to a son, Kurt Mendl. Renee married Adolf Mendl in Vienna, in 1919. The couple made a life together, living in the same city as her sister, Rosa. Rosa married Sigmund Lichtenthal in 1899, while Renee was still living in their homeland, Budapest, Hungary.

The small family had their struggles, but were managing on Adolf’s salary as a businessman. In a letter written to my mother, Bob (who had changed his name by then) shared details of his childhood.

I was barely five years old [1924] when one evening my parents came home from the coffeehouse. They seemed to have enjoyed themselves. They went to bed, and the next morning, my father was due at work at 9 a.m. It was 11 a.m. He didn’t stir. The doctor was called. My father had suffered a massive stroke during the night, and for the next five years, he never recovered. What hell my mother and I went through. He died when I was 11 [1930]. It left deep, permanent scars on me. It also left us penniless as the hospital bills took all the savings. No insurance—all we had left was the nice apartment from better days. My mother rented out a room, and I remember she had trouble with a tenant who would not pay rent and for 9 months he lived there for free. There was no pension and no income. Sometimes we had no money and the utility company turned off the gas. Sometimes she went and borrowed a little food from the local grocery store on the promise to pay next week. That was my childhood.

As I read his letter, written 31 years ago, I remembered the man I met only twice. He was a stocky man, with hazel eyes and a fair complexion. His head was bald, save for a horseshoe-shaped area of sparse gray hair. He seemed to be a very sad, lonely man. A human example of the cliché, “Money doesn’t buy happiness.” Bob had quite a bit of money and traveled often. I did not know he had endured such struggles as a young boy. As I continued reading, his life did not get any easier.

My Aunt Rosa—once in a while—threw a few shillings to my mother (my mother used to say, “She does it like you throw a bone to a dog.”) And, of course, her husband, Sigmund, didn’t know about it or he would never have allowed it.

Sigmund was my great-grandfather, my mother’s paternal grandfather. My heart ached as I realized the image I portrayed in my recent writing about my great-grandfather was kind compared to the way Bob felt about him. Bob referred to a comment my mother made about having a poor relationship with her Aunt Vally, the sister of her father, Paul.

Doris, you mention your bad relationship with Vally—and you ask WHY? I don’t know. Both Vally and Paul were a product of Sigmund, a sort of brutal, ruthless Godfather type, who had a huge inferiority complex, and the only thing that interested him was business, probably what we call now a “work-a-holic” and he hated everyone who was not of his opinion. He trained his wife and his family not to love, but to hate.

In 1938, Austria was annexed to Germany and within a short time, it became obvious Vienna was not a safe place for a young Jewish man. At 18 years of age still using his birth name, Kurt emigrated to England. The circumstances under which he left are not clear, but one can imagine the grief his mother must have experienced, sending her only child away, hoping to save his life.

Upon his arrival in England in 1939, Kurt changed his name to Robert Kenneth Cunningham. He supported himself working as a cook at the Oatlands Park Hotel in Weybridge, Surrey, Walton-On-Thames where he also lived. Three months after his arrival, war broke out.

By 1945, he joined the British Army, serving with the HQ squadron, 4th Br. Armoured Brigade, B.O.A.R. He naturalized as a British citizen in 1947.

Bob was undoubtedly worried about mother, trapped in Nazi Vienna, with no one to assist her.

I remember well how Sigmund and Rosa treated my poor mother… who was quite helpless and could not defend herself. They could have easily given her a little job. They had a number of stores and many employees. Sigmund would never allow any kind of family relationship to grow up between us. I am sorry to tell you this, Doris, but Sigmund was, in my view, an evil person or sick, or both, and he forced his family into the same lifestyle.

During this time, Bob corresponded regularly with his mother through the Red Cross until 1942, when all communication ceased. There is no information about Bob for the next three years. We can assume the events of the war occupied him. One can also assume he was desperately hoping his mother was safe and he would reunite with her after the war.

In 1945, he wrote to a fellow soldier stationed in Vienna, and asked him to go to his mother’s home address (Vienna 1 Rotentrumstrasse 21/6a). A caretaker told the soldier she had been sent to Poland in 1943 and they heard no more from her.

Upon receiving the devastating news, Bob began searching for her. He sent requests to various agencies, including the Red Cross. On September 11, 1946, the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) Tracing Bureau in Vienna notified Bob his beloved mother had been deported to the Jewish Ghetto in Minsk, Poland three years earlier, on May 20, 1942. There was no other news of her status. Knowing that, by that time, the Nazis instituted the “Final Solution” to the Jewish “problem” (mass murder) Bob had to accept the fact his mother was no longer alive.

Family was very important to Bob. His immediate family gone, Bob retained an Austrian lawyer hoping he could locate an older stepbrother in the United States, who, despite having Bob’s address in England, never contacted him. He was unsuccessful.

Around 1946, a friend of Bob’s named Richard, who lived in New York, offered to contact Paul Lichtenthal, Bob’s cousin. Bob asked him not to, but Richard located Paul’s phone number and called him. The conversation did not go well.

Richard told Bob that Paul had said many bad things about him. Richard asked Paul how he knew so much about him if he hadn’t seen him in so many years, to which Paul had no answer. Despite knowing exactly how to contact his cousin, Paul chose not. Even more hurtful to Bob, he later discovered Paul’s daughter, Doris, did not know Bob even existed until 1954, when Doris asked her father to make a family tree.

Paul told his daughter, “You have a cousin, Kurt Mendl, somewhere.”

On October 13, 1948, Bob married a German woman named Margaret Landesmann. The couple found their way to the United States, entering through the border crossing at Blaine, Washington, on October 2, 1953. I do not know why they entered from that point. Perhaps they spent time in Canada and then emigrated to the United States.

By 1958, the year in which Bob became a naturalized citizen of the United States, the couple had moved to San Francisco. Bob was working as a stenographer.

My recollection was that he worked in the travel industry, perhaps the Cunard Steamship Company. The only evidence I have to support that memory is Bob traveled often. Perhaps a connection in the travel industry made that more accessible to him.

Whatever he did to support himself, it must have paid well. Bob was successful at work, but not in relationships. After 14 years, his marriage dissolved in 1962. Bob never recovered from the breakup of his marriage. In his 1990 letter, he wrote:

Although at work I was quite successful, I never succeeded in this country with any personal relationships and I live a very isolated life.

In 1973, Bob submitted a Page of Testimony to Yad Vashem to honor his mother’s memory. He may not have learned the truth of her last days. On the headstone of his father’s grave in Vienna, Bob had the following (in German) inscribed below his mother’s name: Lost Her Life in Poland 1942. Just six days after being deported, Renee died at Maly Trostinec, a Nazi deathcamp, about 7 miles southeast of Minsk. The actual date of her death is May 26, 1942.

That same year, despite the “bad blood” between his family and the Lichtenthals, Bob decided to “make friends” with his cousin, Vally. It was his hope, since they were both getting on in years, that he might finally have a relationship with at least one family member. She apparently felt the same.

Aunt Vally herself, in her old age, admitted to me what it a pity it was—opportunities for family get-together never happened—all was great pity.

In 1980, Bob had a serious car accident. Besides the anxiety and depression he was already suffering from, Bob experienced debilitating physical pain from arthritis and spinal disease.

His ailments slowed him down, yet he still continued to travel. In 1990, he went to Hawaii for eight days and planned to visit England for 2-3 weeks. Perhaps these trips provided some relief from his loneliness.

Bob worked part time at a local daycare center, 5 days a week for two-and-a-half hours per day. He spent his remaining time alone, going swimming twice a week (for his back), and watching a little TV. Over the years, he frequently commented on his emotional state.

These things have left their mark on me.

“It’s been for me, a long and stressful life…”

“But I am so very alone in life that every disappointment is a crushing blow. I should not be living alone. It is very unhealthy for a man such as me.“

“The aloneness of my life is getting me down seriously and it is hard for me to get through the day.”

In 1993, Bob composed his will. He left most of his estate to four local charities (20% each) and an additional 20% to me, his cousin twice removed. He left nothing to my mother. His decision really bothered me. Was he so hurt by my mother’s family he refused to leave her anything? If so, then why leave me an inheritance? He had to know I would share the money with her, a widow with serious health concerns and of precarious financial status.

We will never know. Bob died on Dec. 18, 1997 in San Francisco, California.

Had I known his life story, would I have made more of an effort to stay in touch? The lessons here are obvious—stay connected. One never knows what another is struggling with. A few kinds words go a long way.

All I can do now is share his story. May he be remembered.

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