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Family Lifestyle Enabled by the Success of the Dichter Store
"Walter Arlen and the Dichter Department Store" by Bill Katin, Part 2
Raised in the Dichter Department Store
Walter (Aptowitzer) Arlen was the son of Leopold’s daughter Mina and Michael Aptowitzer. The store provided livelihoods for nearly every member of the Dichter clan and also enabled several of the extended family members to take up residence in the apartments on the third floor of the building.
While Walter’s parents worked in the store, he frequently travelled with his grandparents, Leopold and Regine. Summers were spent at the family vacation home in Bad Sauerbrunn, a resort town about fifty miles south of Vienna known for its mineral spas. Leopold purchased the villa in Sauerbrunn in 1911 and it provided a space for many multigenerational gatherings full of swimming, hiking and playing tennis. Grandfather Leopold practically adopted his grandson, making decisions in lieu of his parents. Walter was being groomed to run the store. As a result, many of Walter’s happiest memories are his summers spent at Sauerbrunn.
Walter’s time in the store also inspired his musical career. In 1923, Leopold installed loudspeakers in the store, playing the hits of the day on a phonograph. Department store employees would lift the three-year old Walter onto the counters and ask him to sing along with the records. Grandfather Leopold was so amazed by his musically talented grandson that he took Walter to the Schubert expert, Otto Erich Deutsch. At age eleven, Walter began composing his own music, expressing his feelings though the music of the Romantic tradition and in the model of the great composers of Vienna who came before him. Yearning to develop his talents, he asked his mother for permission to receive harmony lessons from Alfred Uhl. But since his parents expected him to assume the responsibilities of the Dichter Department Store, they postponed further discussion of his request until after he graduated from high school. Walter instead spent his summers at Sauerbrunn writing music, composing a cradlesong for his cousin Michael, “Es Geht Wohl Anders” (Things Turn out Differently), first performed as part of the 2008 anniversary of the Anschluss of Austria.
The Dichter Family and Jewish Identity
While many Viennese Jews attempted to avoid anti-Semitism by becoming indistinguishable from the surrounding Gentile neighbors, for Walter’s family, assimilation connoted the adoption of non-Jewish literature and music through the self-improvement lifestyle of education, known as “Bildung.” Bildung had a long history in among Central European Jews tracing back to the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) in the Eighteenth Century. One of its earliest manifestations was the establishment of the Jewish Free School for poor children in Berlin by David Friedländer and Isaak Daniel Itzig in 1778. The pupils, called “apprentices” were taught German, French, Hebrew, geography, arithmetic, bookkeeping, and drawing. Lazarus Bendavid, who became the Director in 1806, held that the institution had to dispense with instruction in the Jewish religion in order to accelerate Jewish integration into Christian society. By 1809, the Jewish school began accepting Gentiles and less than a decade later, sixteen of the 80 pupils were non-Jews.
Although the Jewish Free School was disbanded in 1825, Bildung continued in new forms. Inspired by Goethe's concept of the cult of personal friendship, Jewish intellectuals advocated for a continuous process of self-cultivation and the pursuit of a Jewish identity separate from rabbinic Orthodoxy. In contrast with the Gentile population of Prussia and Austria, the German-speaking Jewish emphasis on a university education was profound. In Prussia of 1906-1907, only 8% of all children went beyond elementary school. However for Jewish children, the figure rose to an average of 59%, although the numbers in major cities far exceeded the average which included towns and rural areas. Thus the total percentage of Jewish children pursing education beyond elementary school was 67% in Berlin, 86% in Frankfurt am Main and 96% in Hamburg. The statistics recount a similar narrative for Vienna, where in 1912 there were 5,605 Jewish students in college-bound high schools, comprising 47% of all attendees.
For other Jews, pursuing integration and acculturation meant abandoning their Jewish identities entirely or converting to Catholicism and/or Protestantism. Jakob Thon reported in 1908 that, based on statistics compiled from the five censuses taken in Vienna during 1869-1910, there had been over nine thousand conversions of Jews in Vienna in the period from 1868 to 1903, mostly of Jews younger than thirty. It was commonly assumed that these were young Jewish men converted in order to satisfy their career ambitions, but love may also have been a factor as Austrian law required either conversion to Catholicism or Protestantism or for the partners to have legally left their religions as a pre-condition for intermarriage. Thon's study revealed that women often represented half or more of the annual totals, and that in working class districts like Ottakring, many of the conversions were of widowed Jewish men who pursued second marriages to their Gentile cooks or housekeepers out of loneliness. Regardless of the cause, the number of conversions alarmed many Viennese Jewish leaders, particularly local Zionists who demanded that the Viennese Jewish Community (Israelitische Kultusgemeinde) publish the names and addresses of those leaving Judaism in order to pressure those individuals as well as informing family members.
None of the Dichter clan converted; rather the family pursued a modern, acculturated form of Jewish identity. Walter recalled observing Jewish holidays and maintaining kosher food laws by having one set of dishes for meat and another for milk products. In Bad Sauerbrunn, meals were taken in the Weiss Restaurant nearby, the sole kosher establishment in the area, rather than use the kitchen at the summer home. But his family also sported the latest Viennese fashion styles, listened to popular and classical Viennese music and attended local Austrian schools.
The photo above illustrates the generational differences in Walter’s family – great-grandfather Salomon Dichter maintained the Jewish traditions of wearing a head-covering and donning a long, full beard. His son Leopold had shaved off the religiously-required beard in favor of a more modern mustache. Leopold’s eldest son, Isidor, wore wire-rimmed glasses and no facial hair, and Walter, sat wearing a double-breasted outfit.
Walter remembers the family attending services in observance of Jewish holidays, at the synagogue at 8 Hubergasse in Ottakring. Another successful Jewish businessman, Moritz Kuffner, who owned a brewery in the area, donated the land in the 1880s. Architect Lugwig Tischler designed a two-story edifice with a Renaissance façade, capable of seating for 406 men in the three-aisled downstairs and 266 women in the upstairs gallery. Walter celebrated his Bar Mitzvah there in 1933, under the supervision of longtime Rabbi Julius Max Bach.
And so Walter Arlen was raised in this modern, acculturated Viennese Jewish household, performing songs at the Department store and spending happy summers in Sauerbrunn. In 1934, the family celebrated the grand opening of their newly remodeled Dichter Department Store, designed by architect Philipp Diamantstein. The streamline moderne design gave the store a sleek new look that echoed the finest new buildings in Europe. The days of hanging pots and pans around the Dichter entryway were gone.
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 Julius H. Schoeps, “Chevrat Chinuch Nearim; Die jüdische Freischule in Berlin,” Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte, Vol. 53 No. 3 (2001): 274-277. Monika Richarz, “Occupational Distribution and Social Structure,” in Michael A. Meyer (Ed.), German-Jewish History in Modern Times, Vol.3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997): 55.
 Ivar Oxaal and Walter R. Weitzmann, “The Jews of Pre-1914 Vienna; An Exploration of Basic Sociological Dimensions,” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook. Vol. XXX (1985), pp.411-415.
 Pierre Genée, Wiener Synagogen 1825-1938 (Wien: Löcker, 1987): 76-77.
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.