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The Dichter Family Business and Department Stores in German-Speaking Europe
Industrialization and the Rise of the Department Store
While most commonly associated with technological innovation, the Industrial Revolution also gave rise to the modern department store. The advent of steam powered boats and railroads, in combination with coal-fired factories producing iron and steel, fundamentally changed the European economy and society, resulting in a massive population shift from agricultural communities into urban areas. These changes began in Great Britain where rapidly expanding cities created new bases of customers for those selling textiles and other consumer goods. British retailers soon grew small mom-and-pop shops selling lace, buttons, linens and men's haberdashery into much larger stores selling a mixture of merchandise in one place. By the mid-19th century, these department stores had grown to be "palaces of consumption,” the most famous including Harrods in London, Au Bon Marché in Paris, and Macy’s in New York.
Germany and Austria also experienced a retail evolution, as “mom-and-pop-shops" grew into large retail business enterprises. Oscar Tietz provides a compelling example of this family-oriented pattern of growth. The youngest of five children, Tietz trained as a retail apprenticeship with his Uncle Chaskel in Prenzlau and after completing his training in 1879, joined his older brother Leonhard and uncle Hermann in their small haberdashery store in Stralsund. He and Leonhard eventually parted ways, and Oscar found work at a furniture and carpet store in Berlin, where he earned a large salary. In 1882, with financial support from his uncle Hermann, he opened his own button, linen, and wool business in Gera, a small city of just 35,000. Then Oscar initiated joint purchases of all of his relatives' separate companies, including his uncle Julius' stores in Nuremberg, Plauen and Greiz and his uncle Markus' stores in Bamberg, Chemnitz and Schweinfurt. By purchasing goods together, each store could get their products at a discount, enabling them to sell more goods at lower prices and increase profitability.
Oscar Tietz, his brothers, and uncles had chosen careers in retailing because of the limited professional options available to Jews in the Austro-Hungarian empire, where they had been excluded from craft guilds and lacked ready access to capital. Similarly, they chose to establish their stores in smaller, more obscure cities like Gera, Stralsund, Plauen, and Griez where there was less competition and cheaper rent, and therefore less required founding capital. But after a decade of success, available cash had expanded as had the number of manufacturers supplying merchandise, enabling the Tietz family to construct department stores in major German-speaking cities. Uncle Hermann Tietz founded a store in Munich in 1889 in the vicinity of the train station, offering a wider variety of goods, including shoes, toys, porcelain, furniture, and carpets. Success in Munich fueled additional large stores in the major cities of Berlin, Karlsruhe, Stuttgart, Strassburg, and Hamburg. Oscar's older brother Leonhard Tietz also opened a store in Cologne in 1891 and Berlin in 1905. From a small haberdashery shop, Oscar helped to grow his family business into one of the largest retail enterprises in Germany.
Jews and Department Stores in Vienna
Having accorded Jews full and equal rights as citizens under the law by the 1867 Constitution, Austria's Jewish population grew rapidly in the late 19th century, rising from around 40,000 in 1870 to 150,000 by the turn of the century to over 190,000 by 1910. The overwhelming majority of Jewish people settled in Vienna, which became a thriving cultural capital, renowned for its Jewish psychologists, composers, authors and philosophers, such as Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
By the early 20th century, Vienna's Jewish population was concentrated primarily in three districts: the Second District of Leopoldstadt, located between the Danube and the Danube Canal where the Viennese Jewish Community (Israelitische Kultusgemeinde) was established in the 17th century (34% of the population); the Ninth District of Alsergrund, where Sigmund Freud and other middle-class Jewish professionals made their homes (21% of the population); and the First District, known as the "Innere stadt" (inner city), home to Vienna's wealthiest Jews, along with imperial palaces and famous historical sites (20% of the population). As this geographical dispersal suggests, Viennese Jews varied considerably in terms of income, but owed to a variety of historical factors, were highly concentrated in certain sectors of Vienna's economy. According to historian Josef Fraenkel, Jewish proprietors controlled the trade in scrap-metal, wine, and shoes and owned the majority of the city's furniture stores, advertising firms, self-service restaurants, and banks.
Jewish proprietors also played prominent roles in the trade of textiles in Vienna, and accordingly, established many of the largest, most fashionable department stores in the city's First District. The career of Abraham (Alfred) Hirsch Gerngross provides an example of the strong connection between the world of textiles and Viennese department stores. Gerngross learned the textile trade in Fürth, Germany, and along with his brother, opened his own textile store in 1879. The store was located on Mariahilfer Strasse, along the Emperor’s daily route from the summer palace (Schönbrunn) to the winter residence (Hofburg), and specialized in silk and wool fashions that appealed to high-income clientele. The business was vertically integrated, selling textile products manufactured in three tailor shops Gerngross also owned. By 1907, ten of the twenty-four department stores in Vienna were located on the street serving the city's fashionable elite.
Other Jewish-owned department stores were located near the "Judenplatz" (Jewish square), in the oldest part of the city center where the first synagogue had been erected in the 13th century (it was later destroyed). Among the largest was that of Jacob Rothenberger, once himself a tailor, who hired architects Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer, designers of the Vienna Opera House, to design his second location across from St. Stephens Cathedral.With an elaborate, ornamented façade and interior, the store was described as being, "more reminiscent of an elegant palace than a retail store," and sold high-end merchandise like men’s travel and hunting outfits, fur coats, and tuxedos. At the time of his death in 1899, Rothenberger employed 300 as well as 600 independent tailors making goods for his stores, and his sons later opened branches in Paris and London.But not all Jewish-owned department stores were located in the city center nor did they all sell luxury goods to an upscale clientele. These included Julius Krupnik, Ignaz Wodicka and Leopold Dichter, who's store in the Sixteenth District of Ottakring was where Walter Arlen spent his early years.
The Dichter Department Store
Walter Arlen’s grandparents Leopold and Regine Dichter founded a department store in the Ottakring section of Vienna in 1890. The Dichters timed their grand opening to coincide with Emperor Franz Joseph I’s incorporation of the village of Ottakring as part of the 16th District in Vienna’s western side, opening their store at that time and location in the hopes they would profit from the area’s growth. By 1910 new industries added 70,000 blue-collar workers to the former village, and Ottakring became heavily populated by working class people, although only a few of whom were Jews. These lower-income residents had some expendable cash for replacing or upgrading the everyday necessities, but not the luxuries of Persian carpets, fur coats, or silk clothes. The Dichter Department Store found success by adapting the strategies that created “palaces of consumption” to serve a middle and working class clientele.
Like other department stores, the Dichter Store offered a wide array of merchandise but rather than offer luxury items, the Dichter Store specialized in cooking utensils, rubber goods, toys, and leather goods. These items were often displayed on the exterior of the building, clearly signaling to consumers what was available in the store.
The Dichters also boosted their profits by employing family members. Leopold and Regine’s firstborn son Isidor, worked in the men’s department, their eldest daughter Mina, Walter’s mother, ran her own department for women’s leather bags, Charlotte served as head cashier, Esther supervised the toy department, Margarete worked in ladies’ apparel, and their youngest daughter, Rosl, was responsible for keeping an eye on all the cash in the building. Employing family members enabled the Dichters to bring down their labor costs and allowed them flexibility in paying salaries during times of business slowdown without incurring an employee strike.
The Dichter Department Store also adapted the advertising strategies of larger department stores to cultivate their reputation in the neighborhood. Rather than buying expensive advertising space in local newspapers to promote price reductions and sales, they affixed their logo to the products sold, using a sticker to seal the wrapping of purchased merchandise. Individually wrapping the items enhanced the store’s reputation for top-notch customer service and the seal signaled the item was of high quality, bolstering the association between the Dichter logo and quality goods at affordable prices.
While the Dichter Department Store, like other retail businesses, was hurt by the onset of World War I, by the time Walter (Aptowitzer) Arlen was born in 1920, it was well on its way to becoming a profitable business once again, supporting not only Leopold and Regine, but the entire extended Dichter family.
 Kurt Zielenziger, Juden in der deutschen Wirtschaft (Berlin: Welt – Verlag, 1930): 210-212. Josef Fraenkel, The Jews of Austria: Essays on Their Life, History and Destruction (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1967): 480.
 Astrid Peterle (ed.), Kauft bei Juden! Geschichte einer Wiener Geschäftskultur (Wien: Amalthea Signum Verlag, 2017): 41, 44.
 Description of the store in Neues Wiener Tageblatt, March 24, 1895 in Peterle (ed.), Kauft bei Juden!, 33-34, 39-42.
A Poet in Exile
"Walter Arlen in LA" by Michael Haas, Part One
At 2:00 in the morning of Monday, March 14, 1938, seventeen-year-old Walter Aptowitzer watched as six Nazi policemen entered his family apartment in Vienna and ransacked it, taking jewelry, cash, and his father’s prized stamp collection. Walter’s grandfather, Leopold Dichter, was the founder and owner of Warenhaus Dichter, a successful department store in the working class Ottakring district, and one of the wealthiest Jewish business owners in the city. He and his wife Regine lived in suites of apartments above the store with their children and grandchildren, including Walter, his sister and his parents, Michael and Mina (Dichter) Aptowitzer. Tipped off by a fellow stamp dealer, local police allied with the Nazi party raided the Dichter family apartments within hours of the Anschluss, seized their property and bank accounts, and took Walter’s father and his uncle into custody at Vienna’s recently established Gestapo headquarters.
A little more than a half year later, Walter had turned eighteen. He had bribed officials to have his father freed from Buchenwald, only to see him arrested again a few weeks later. He had witnessed months of bullying and the requisition of the family's country estate on the Hungarian border, where he had spent every summer holiday with his best friend, Lorant, a Hungarian playmate from Budapest affectionately known to his friends as ‘Lumpi’. The family bank accounts and department store had been ‘liberated’ from Jewish ownership and his mother, who had worked every day in the women’s accessories department, had been abused and thrown out by her own employees. In November, he watched as the clouds of the night sky turned glowing red when marauding crowds stormed Vienna’s Jewish quarter, setting fire to all but one of the city’s historic synagogues in a murderous pogrom that would soon be known as Kristallnacht.
Not only did the Nazis destroy Walter’s family’s livelihood, they also thwarted his brilliant academic and musical ambitions. His musical talent was discovered when, as a five year old, he would entertain his grandparents’ and customers at the store by singing a popular song frequently heard on the radio. His grandfather promptly took him to see Otto Erich Deutsch, a renowned Schubert scholar, who declared that Walter had perfect pitch and recommended he be enrolled in piano lessons. But after the Anschluss, Walter’s musical education halted abruptly: he and all other Jewish students, along with many of their teachers, were expelled from school only weeks before university exams called the Matura.
Walter had absorbed these terrifying images and experiences at the most impressionable point in his life. They ingrained in teenage Walter the rejection of an entire society along with the abrupt loss of status and wealth, the fear of walking on the very streets where he had grown up and the sense that all the mitzvahs so scrupulously carried out by the Dichter family for the people of Ottakring had been for nothing. Added to this sense of desperation was the insecurity of all young men on the threshold of adulthood, and the dark ambiguities of sexual desire. His father was back in Buchenwald, his mother clinically depressed (eventually committing suicide) and his younger sister Edith no longer a member of the coveted ballet school at Vienna’s State Opera. The family was well-connected but even then, only Walter was free to make it to America before the expiration of his affidavit, changing his name to Arlen and leaving everyone else behind. His mother, father (eventually securing release through bribes for a second time) and sister would end up in London where they would be bombed out of temporary accommodation on more than one occasion. His youthful dreams of becoming a composer had been dashed.
Until later in America, he was advised by a therapist to compose anyway.
And compose he did. He hadn’t really had much training beyond lessons with Leo Sowerby in Chicago, his first city of residence, and four years spent as Roy Harris’s amanuensis. Some would think this training enough and indeed, he no doubt picked up a good deal without the day-to-day instruction in orchestration and what in German is called Tonsatz – the craftsmanship of composition. Like all talented painters, writers and composers, he was able to make his own way, if only groping forward and trying things out before putting his efforts back into a desk drawer – presumably, never to be seen again, or even heard. Writing music had become the aesthetic crossword puzzle he needed in order to stay sane. How apt that his earliest American compositions are based on the poems of Robert Frost – cool, yet full of nature, yearning and melancholic. Even in these first works, it’s possible to recognize a musical language that would result in Arlen becoming the quintessential ‘exile’ composer.
By the time of his arrival in Los Angeles in 1950, his music did not resemble anything written by one of his American contemporaries; but neither could it express itself as the work of a young Austrian. It was the music of dislocation, transplantation, longing for an unrecoverable past and thirsting for understanding, love and security. It was music that quietly sang of nobility in isolation, music of a poet in exile.