Es Geht Wohl Anders (Things Turn Out Differently): The Unexpected Life of Walter Arlen

Nazi Annexation and the Dichter Family

The Anschluss and the Aryanization of the Dichter Department Store
On March 12, 1938, Austria was annexed into Nazi Germany, changing Walter’s life forever. That night eight SA troopers hammered on the Dichter family’s door with their rifle butts and stormed the apartment, taking jewelry, the department store’s savings books from the Creditanstalt and other business documents, cash and Leopold’s stamp collection. With German efficiency, the SA typed a list of the seized property, a copy of which Walter has kept. Walter’s father was arrested and his uncle Bert was taken to a collection point on the Kariangasse.  Not only did Vienna’s Assistant Mayor participate in the raid, so did the department store employees.
Owning a department store in Ottokring and a villa in Bad Sauerbrunn clearly made Leopold Dichter a wealthy entrepreneur in Austria, and therefore a target for those seeking to enrich themselves at Jewish expense.  The Dichter Department Store ended up in the hands of bank owner Edmund Topolansky, who purchased it along with the third floor apartment suites, for less than a third of its real value. How exactly Topolansky acquired the store remained unclear for many years. But after viewing Claude Lanzmann’s 2013 documentary Der letzte der Ungerechten (The Last of the Unjust), which consists of a detailed interview with Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein, Walter came to understand what had happened to his family’s property. Murmelstein described in the film that Adolf Eichmann levied an emigration tax on Jews attempting to flee the city after the Anschluß. Eichmann deposited the money into a fund independent of the National Socialists’ bureaucracy, promising Vienna’s Jewish community leader Josef Löwenherz that he would contribute the funds to Jewish immigration to Palestine. Instead, Murmelstein described that Eichmann transferred the funds to Topolansky, who used the cash to take control of a local department store. Arlen surmised that the store mentioned was in fact the Dichter business.  Indeed, Topolanksy had acquired the store, the apartments, and the entire inventory for 450,000 RM. He had not invested any of his own money. Since the value of the inventory had decreased to only 129,000 RM, Walter perceived that Topolansky had used store profits to repay Eichmann for the capital to acquire the business.[1]

Unlike other large European urban Jewish populations, the Jewish Community of Vienna (IKG) was a unified organization with a paid staff of over 600 responsible for 79 houses of prayer, 23 synagogues, 4 orphanages, a hospital, a pediatric clinic and an old peoples’ home. Eichmann raided the Community’s headquarters on March 15, 1938 and by occupying the offices on March 18, brought all publicly visible activities to a halt. The gap in Jewish emigration was filled by the Dutch philanthropist Frank van Gheel-Gildemeester. Eichmann allowed Gildemeester to aid Jewish flight from Austria, because he had previously assisted imprisoned Nazis under Kurt Schuschnigg’s regime, when Nazis were banned. Gildemeester’s plan was to help non-religious, wealthy Jews not assisted by the temporarily closed Community. It compelled the wealthy to transfer ownership of all property and businesses to the Gildemeester fund as a Trustee. Ten percent of the assets’ value enabled impoverished Viennese Jews to emigrate. The individual originally responsible for the transfer was the attorney Heinrich Gallop and his assistant Erich Rajakowitsch. Two changes occurred to the Gildemeester Plan in May 1938. Rajakowtisch replaced Gallop, since he was not a Nazi Party member. In addition to the 10% given to help poor Jews flee, an additional 5% was paid to the Krentschker & Company Bank of Graz for administrative fees. The bank had managed Nazi assets, when the party had been outlawed in Austria. It was no coincidence that Rajakowtisch was a partner in the financial institution.[2]

This method was first used against Moritz Kuffner, the brewery owner and benefactor of the Ottokring Synagogue. Kuffner and his son Stephan were arrested in April 1938 by the Gestapo to accelerate the sale of their brewery, their shares in the Reitler & Company Bank, and extensive property holdings. Known as the Kuffner’schen Brauerei, the brewery had founding capital in 1905 of nearly 10 million Kronen and by 1913, produced as much as 13,200 gallons of beer at a facility encompassing 40,000 square meters.  Gustav Harmer was able to purchase the corporation far below its market value, just 14 million Schlling. The Austrian government approved the sale, although they eventually fined Harmer 3 million RM for attempting to camouflage the purchase from its former Jewish owner. The sale enabled Moritz and members of his family to flee to Switzerland via Czechoslovakia in July 1938 and pay the 3 million RM exit tax. But Moritz would never have accepted such a low price, were it not for their arrest.[3]

Annexation and the Dichter Family 
The seizure of the Dichter family assets was distressing, but no amount of money could ever compensate for the devastating violence and trauma that the Nazis inflicted on his family.  Weeks after his father’s arrest, Walter received a letter from his father requesting money, alerting the family to the fact that he had been shipped to the Dachau Concentration Camp, 270 miles away from his beloved Vienna. The existence of the concentration camps was not a state secret: as early as April 1933, the Furher Anzeiger newspaper published a short story about three Communists who had been shot while attempting to escape Dachau and the April 23, issue of the New York Times confirmed the deaths. It was publicly announced in the Vossische Zeitung that there were 10,000 people imprisoned in Prussia by March 31, 1933. As historian Timothy Ryback has argued, these disclosures of incarcerations in concentration camps were designed to create fear and keep the population complacent. [4]

Walter, just eighteen years old at the time, was responsible from obtaining funds from the family’s blocked bank account. A bribe payment had initially enabled his father’s release from Karajangasse prison, but he was rearrested in May 1938 and a second letter in 1939 informed the family he had been sent to Buchenwald. Walter did not see his father again until 1946. 

Walter also became responsible for caring for his mother and eleven year old sister Edith and struggled to find the family housing, since Topolansky assumed possession of the family apartment above the store when he took over the department store. Some remaining family members moved to the summer villa in Bad Sauerbrunn but were forced to relocate when it was appropriated to become the local Nazi headquarters. Walter successfully obtained 400 RM from the blocked bank account, enabling him to secure housing in a two-bedroom unit in the Pension Athens. The funds also enabled Walter to obtain care for his mother at the Helia Sanatorium, because her mental health declined significantly after her husband’s detention.
Unfortunately, by February 1939, Walter’s family could no longer pay their rent at the pension and they moved in with his paternal grandmother, Hannah Aptowitzer.The sanatorium proved insufficient treatment for Walter’s mother, Mina Dichter, and she took her own life.  The Nazi annexation of Austria had a profound impact on the Jewish population, who had previously imagined they were safe from the persecution suffered by their brethren in Third Reich Germany. Mina’s act of desperation was imitated by all-too-many other distraught Jewish citizens.

Then in March 1939, the family received the first bit of good news. Uncle David Rattner, one of the few family members who had been able to escape to England, had obtained visas for Walter and his sister through an English aid organization and secured the release of Walter’s father from Buchenwald. On March 15, 1939, the day before his visa would have expired, Walter and Edith left Austria from Vienna’s South Station. Their father Michael Aptowitzer followed in May but was classified as an enemy alien upon his arrival in England and detained on the Isle of Man. Grandmother Hannah Aptowitzer was sent to Theresienstadt in 1942 and later died in the Treblinka extermination camp. 

Leopold Dichter’s granddaughter Fanny had married Abraham Pritzker, making the Chicago-based Pritzker family related to Walter by marriage. Robert and Donald Pritzker were co-founders of the Hyatt Hotels, who provided an affidavit to the American Government, guaranteeing that Leopold, Walter and Esther would not become a financial burden on the United States if allowed to immigrate. They soon left England and settled in Chicago, where Walter began working as a furrier. A few years later, Walter moved to Los Angeles to resume his musical education. 

Seeking Restitution  
After the war's end, Viennese Jews mobilized efforts to seek restitution of their businesses, apartments and building plots. The Austrian Historical Commission employed a research team under University of Vienna Cultural Historian Gerhard Melinz to investigate what became of seized Viennese properties. The team investigated 670 real estate parcels owned by 1,178 former Jewish citizens. It is known that 264 of those researched were killed. A disproportionate number were elderly, who attempted to remain in Vienna whereas younger adults fled. From many other proprietors no trace could be found, leading to the conclusion that they too had been murdered during the Holocaust. More than 400 of the 1,178 were able to flee, several remained in the capital protected by non-Jewish spouses and 21 returned to Vienna from concentration camps. Between 1946 and 1963, 747 former Viennese residents had their homes or acreage restored to them. Of these post-war recipients, only 82 were at the time living in post-war Austria. More than one-third decided to remain in their new homes in the United States, Great Britain, Israel and Australia. This geographical distance hindered their ability to receive restitution, as did the Austrian courts' decision that the displaced Jewish people needed to repay the purchase prices paid by Aryans in 1938. Many other Jewish refugees did not have the financial means to pay for lengthy legal procedures.[5]

Edmund Topolansky retained possession of the Dichter Department Store until 1949, using its continued profits to balance the books of his bankrupt bank. But eventually his bank went under and he sold the store for just 20,000 Marks to Oskar Seidenglanz who, like Topolanksy had Aryanized Jewish-owned businesses during the annexation. Edmund Topolansky eventually “shot himself” in prison in 1955. But Oskar Seidenglanz continued to operate the store under the name “OSEI” (a contraction of his name) until 2003.   
Walter Arlen's grandfather asked him to investigate the possibility of reclaiming the Dichter building in Vienna in a restitution case in 1952. Unfortunately, Walter’s new career as a music critic, together with the combined assets of the extended Dichter family, were insufficient to file legal proceedings in order to be able to reclaim the department store. To this day, the Dichter family has never received any compensation for the crimes committed against their family.


[1] Der letzte der Ungerechten, Disk 1 1:20:37 – 1:22:10. 
[2] Doron Rabinovici, Eichmann’s Jews; The Jewish Administration of Holocaust Vienna, 1938-1945 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011): 18, 33, 210. Dieter J. Hecht, Topographie der Shoah: Gedächtnisorte des zerstörten jüdischen Wien (Wien: Mandelbaum, 2015): 323-327. 
[3] Hecht, Topographie der Shoah, 57. 
[4] Timothy W. Ryback, Hitler’s First Victims: The Quest for Justice (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014): 39-40. 
[5] Gerald Hödl, “Arisierung von Realitäten. Realitäten der Arisierung,” in Verena Pawlowsky and Herald Wendelin (Eds.), Ausgeschlossen und entrechtet. Raub und Rückgabe – Österreich von 1938 bis heute (Wien: Mandelbaum Verlag, 2006):178-179, 182, 268.


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