Commerce and Community


From the pictures taken after it was enlarged at the turn of the century, the Skotschau synagogue in Austrian Silesia looks like a modest structure. The only decorative element is the small columned porch that projects at the front. Arched windows framed by simple sandstone surrounds mark the two stories on the sides. Perhaps the color of the stone gave the building more presence, but there is no way to tell now since the synagogue was destroyed in 1939
That day in 1901 when Skotschau’s newly expanded house of worship was re-opened was particularly meaningful for great-grandfather David Spitzer who had led the community for more than forty years. Like many young Jewish men freed from residence requirements in the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the revolution of 1848, he had left his birthplace in Terlicko, Moravia, at the age of twenty-six for opportunity elsewhere. In David’s case, it was marriage to Rosa Lindner, the daughter of a successful dry goods retailer, that led to his taking up residence in Skotschau. The Lindner shop, fronting the town square, had been in existence since 1820.
From what we know of David’s later history, a flourishing Jewish community also beckoned. The Skotschau Jews had done so well that as early as 1850, they were able to build a small house of prayer. Though they lacked the privileges of independence–taxes were paid to the official Jewish community in Cieszyn which had permission to hire the itinerant rabbi and keep the birth and death records–the building reflected their affluence and cohesion.
Once settled, David, exhibited the independence essential for an entrepreneur. He did not join his new in-laws’ flourishing business, but set up on his own as a tanner. He must have had some experience in the profession, since he recognized in Skotschau all the requisites for the process of transforming hides into leather. The two streams that ran through the town provided sufficient water for soaking, while the oak and spruce trees in the surrounding woodlands were a source for the vegetable tannin essential for curing. Raw skins could be acquired from the slaughter houses in the nearby towns of Cieszyn and Bielsko and trade was eased by the nearby Emperor’s Road which ran through the area from Vienna to Krakow and on to Lodz. The business developed apace and when, in 1875, David acquired a former brewery, he was able expand his workshop into a full-scale factory. The tannery was soon the largest employer in town.

David proved to be a leader with energy to spare. In the tradition of the court Jews who deemed it a matter of honor to use their privileges and influence to protect their co-religionists, so the industrial elite at mid-century took it upon themselves to give financial and managerial support to their burgeoning religious communities. At the same time that he was expanding the tannery, David was serving as the head of the Skotschau Religious Alliance which oversaw the Jewish communal property, supervised the kosher butcher and cantor and ran a small religious school.
In 1892, the growing number of Jews in cities and towns throughout Austria convinced the government in Vienna to introduce a new territorial division of the Jewish communities. Skotschau was given its independence and put in charge of a district which included more than 600 Jews. Creating an organization capable of handling these new responsibilities was tantamount to setting up a local government from scratch. It was David who steered the community through the process. As head of the electoral committee, he had to determine which Jews had sufficient income to be taxed and were therefore eligible to vote for the members of the new administration. Once elected head of the managing board, he performed this function, without pay, from 1893-1902 and, once again from 1905-1908. It was under his first term that, over a period of six years, the official statutes were written spelling out in complete detail how the community was to fulfill the religious needs of its members.
With the re-dedication of the synagogue in 1901, the Jewish house of worship took its rightful place in Skotschau alongside the Catholic and Protestant churches. More than a symbol of the success, growth and official status of the community, the building reflected a Jewish minority that, at the turn of the century, was unusually integrated into Skotschau’s mixed population of Polish Catholics and German Protestants. Working as industrialists, lawyers, doctors, and merchants, Jews were also members of the town council, volunteers in the fire brigade, members of the all-male glee club. A local string quartet was divided equally between Polish and Jewish players.

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Chance Encounters

With this entry, “Refugee Tales” moves east from Vienna and its environs to outposts of the Austrian Empire in Moravia and Silesia. (Located today in the Czech Republic and Poland.) This was the region my father’s family, the Spitzers, came from. However, with the advent of the Iron Curtain after World War II, those of us living in the U.S. were cut off from that part of the world for decades. Even after 1989, regaining personal contact appeared impossible until sheer chance, in the person of a Polish house painter, opened the door. Hired to refurbish my parents’ apartment in Manhattan, he surprised my father by casually mentioning that he was from a small town in Silesia called Skoczów. This was the birthplace my father had left half a century before! The painter, too, experienced a shock of recognition. He explained that the tannery, once owned by the family, was still going strong. Despite all the time that had passed and all that had happened during and after the war, people who worked there still spoke of being employed at “Spitzers.”

A year later, the painter returned home to embark on the sweet life his American earnings had made possible. The large house that he began to build for himself on the Rynek, Skoczow’s large central square, roused the curiosity of an elderly woman by the name of Maria S. With the impertinence of the old, she asked him how he had come by the money for his new abode. He gave her the details of his American sojourn, but when he concluded with the news that the Spitzers were alive and well and living in New York, her ears perked up. She saw an opportunity for herself.

Maria’s grandfather had been the coachman for the tannery in the early part of the century. She could recall my parents. Now it was 1992, and Poland had barely emerged from the Communist decades. Life was still difficult, the town shabby. Any contact with the West was a prize worth having. It was Maria’s effusive letter to New York that determined my first trip to Poland. Someone in Skoczów who remembered the family would be there to serve as my guide.

Unfortunately, Poland was not yet ready for me. Yes, Maria showed me around, but her itineraries were based on personal claims I could make nothing of. She did not introduce me to anyone else, insisting, with post-Communist paranoia, that the town was rife with troublemakers. The only contact I made was at the tannery, where, of course, the manager was excited at the arrival of a “Spitzer.” He had me sign the guest book, gave me some leather goods for my father, provided a tour, but communication was difficult. As my visit came to a close, I faced the depressing reality that nowhere in Skoczów was there any indication that a Jewish community had ever flourished there. I had no desire to return.

Two years later another letter from Skoczów arrived in New York. It began:

My name is Jacek Proszyk. I am twenty-one years old and study in Bielsko. In Skoczów I live since 1976. Some years ago I became interested in the history of the Jews of Skoczów and I started to collect memoribilia and information about those who survived. Having been in the tannery, I noticed a notation in an album which was signed Mrs. Monika Spitzer-Strauss. In the same note Maria S. was mentioned and she gave me your address. I am very pleased that I am able to write to you since I am looking for contact with your family for many years. I had lost hope that I would find the family Spitzer.

Last year I found out that exactly one hundred years ago, the Jewish congregation in Skoczów got official recognition. About one hundred and four years ago, a synagogue was built in Skoczów. It was mainly the initiative of the manufacturer David Spitzer, a man who did a lot for the little town. Looking through all the archives, I found very old documents of the time of the founding of the Jewish congregation signed by hand of David Spitzer.

In 1992, Jacek had come upon the sad remains of the Jewish cemetery. He was so distressed by the decades of neglect that he determined to resurrect the history of Skoczów’s lost community and recruit others to join his quest. Within a year, a local research committee was searching for survivors or their families, combing the archives for material on Jewish life in Upper Silesia, and making plans for an official day of commemoration.

In addition, a local businessman agreed to finance a scholarly publication titled In the Shadow of the Skoczów Synagogue. Historians contributed articles on the role of the Jews in the region over a period of 300 years and the director of the museum provided a detailed and unvarnished account of the fate of all the Jewish citizens under the Nazi occupation. The volume concluded with biographies of 50 Jewish families.

And so I returned to Skoczów after all. On June 21, 1994, I was present at the commemoration of a monument erected on the original site of the synagogue–the synagogue to which great-grandfather David Spitzer had dedicated so much of his life.

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Postwar Summers

In the years immediately before World War I, Leopold Guttman’s business continued to expand. He added the installation of gas, water, sanitary, and electrical installations to services the company offered. In addition to the factory and warehouse in Vienna, there were branch warehouses in major cities of the Empire—Budapest, Lemberg (present-day Lwov), Bucharest and Prague. With his six children–two boys and four girls born between 1876 and 1891–now fully grown, Leopold’s wife Anna joined the firm and helped manage the growing enterprise.

Austria was a very different country after the war. Vienna was now the capital of a small alpine republic battered by epidemics, food shortages, inflation and unemployment. And yet it became the first European city to elect a social democratic government and launch a program of reform benefiting the working class. In response to an acute housing shortage, the municipality embarked on a campaign of social housing that culminated in the construction of 64,000 new apartments. Specializing as it did in domestic installations, the firm of Leopold Guttmann was in a good position to take advantage of these new developments. By 1924, Leopold had done so well, he was able to acquire the ultimate symbol of financial success—a house in Bad Ischl,the popular resort town in the Salzburg region where the Emperor had summered before the war.

Leopold’s purchase—a spacious three-story stuccoed structure, fronted by wooden balconies with espaliered fruit trees–was known as the Villa Traun after the local river. The house was made up of several apartments so that all six Guttmann children and their families could enjoy independent quarters during the summer holidays. The fairy-tale quality of the building with its fanciful timbered roof boasting an onion dome, a miniature steeple and overhanging gables was enhanced by the small-gauge railway that ran so close to the garden, the engineer regularly waved to the inhabitants. This was the fabled “Salzkammergut Lokalbahn,” built under the patronage of the Emperor in the 1890s. A local artist had been called upon to map the route so that the little train would pass the most picturesque spots between Ischl and Salzburg.


Villa Traun with family members on the lawn.

After the end of the monarchy, Bad Ischl became the headquarters for producers of imperial nostalgia—the composers and librettists of the so-called silver age of operetta. Franz Lehár of “Merry Widow” fame had his villa there and the others came as summer guests, composing and writing in rented villas and hotels. They would meet over “Viennese breakfast” (coffee, fresh rolls, marmalade and a soft boiled egg) at the Café Zauner on the Esplanade or gather in the late afternoon in its smoking room, often consulting with visiting singers and actors. Most of them were Jewish and their extraordinary success, which extended to London’s West End, Broadway, and eventually Hollywood, insulated them from the growing anti- Semitism in some of the other resorts in the Salzburg region. In 1921, Arnold Schoenberg had to interrupt his vacation in nearby Mattsee because of the local hostility to Jewish summer guests.

During the summer season the visitors to the little Salzburg towns often looked like performers in an operetta, themselves. In the 1870’s the Imperial court had begun to wear imitation peasant costumes while staying in the summer resort. These were the “Lederhosen,” or short leather pants sported by the men, and, for women, the “Dirndl”–a bodice, gathered skirt and apron over a puffed-sleeve blouse. Soon these outfits became de rigeur for anyone spending the season in the country. Even Dr. Freud was seen on holiday arm-in-arm with his daughter Anna dressed in a fetching “Dirndl.”

Great-grandfather Leopold Guttman made the most of his days in Bad Ischl. In the picture heading this blog he and his wife are seen in one of those fake wooden airplanes in which one could sit and be photographed on the Esplanade. He was so pleased with the result that he sent it as a postcard to his eldest son in 1925 with a message from “the higher regions.” He died three years later, leaving his two sons the business he had founded, and his daughters the Villa Traun.

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Casa Piccola

Topped by a fanciful, multi-tiered turret, the five-story “Casa Piccola,” where Leopold Guttmann’s flourishing business was located after 1902,  was not “piccola” at all. Erected in 1896, the building retained the name of the structure that preceded it—the long-standing Café Casa Piccola founded in 1830 by one Dominik Casapiccola. That café became a popular meeting place in Vienna for the Italian nationalists known as the Carbonari. Even then, apparently, Italian fashion exerted its charm and the Viennese were soon seen sporting the Carbonari’s characteristic multi-collared great coats until, by Imperial decree, the Emperor declared the nationalists, as well as their garb, symbols of subversion, and both were outlawed.

The fin-de-siècle builders remained true to the tradition of the spot, and a new Café Casa Piccola was incorporated at street level. Like its predecessor, it began to have a special place in Vienna’s social life when it became a favorite watering hole for the admirers of the café proprietors’ youngest daughter—the fledgling actress Lina Obertimpfler. Among her suitors was the rising architect Adolf Loos.  She married him in 1902.

With the arrival of the third business tenant to the Casa Piccola in 1904—the dressmakers “Schwestern Flöge,” (Flöge Sisters)–an outpost of an artistic circle actively opposed by Adolf Loos had found its way to the Mariahilfestrasse address.  Emilie Flöge, one of the three sisters involved in the enterprise, was the companion of the painter Gustav Klimt. He had been among the artists who helped found the very successful Vienna Secession in 1897. Inspired by this collective effort, a group of Secession artists and architects launched the “Wiener Werkstätte” (Viennese Workshops) in 1903. The venture was intended to link artists and craftsmen and give architecture and decorative arts the same modern momentum that had inspired the Secession. One of the Wiener Werkstätte’s first commissions was the design of the Flöge Sisters’ showroom in the Casa Piccola.

To Loos, whose disdain for artists tinkering with the functional was so extreme that he published an article titled “Ornament and Crime,” the Wiener Werkstätte represented everything he was against. His position was made clear by his close friend, Vienna’s caustic critic Karl Kraus,  who wrote:

Adolf Loos and myself—he literally, I in words—have done nothing other than show the difference between an urn and a chamber pot, and it is only this difference which allows culture to exist. As for the others, they can be divided into those who use an urn as a chamber pot and those who use a chamber pot as an urn.

For most Viennese, the metaphor of the “chamber pot” used by Kraus to heighten the hyperbole would have cut too close to home. Just below the elegantly designed showrooms of the Flöge Sisters and just above the café belonging to Loos’s in-laws, great-grandfather Guttmann was, indeed, making “urns out of chamber pots,” not out of aesthetic choice but social necessity.

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Advancing Business

Energy, ambition and the cultivation of useful contacts had made a successful businessman of great-grandfather Leopold Guttmann in the 1890’s. But a decade before, crafty politicians had already begun to draw on old anti-Semitic attitudes to fan resentment of Jewish achievements. By 1897, the politics of prejudice had come so far that Vienna’s elected Mayor was Karl Lueger, the leader of the anti-Semitic Christian Social party.

The city’s Jewish population responded in a variety of ways. Some were driven to turn their back on assimilation and re-connect to Jewish traditions and rituals. Others embraced the new movement of Zionism which postulated that there was no future for Jews in Europe. But the Jewish business community was dependent on its fellow citizens no matter what their ethnic stamp.  They could not indulge in a policy of  retreat, but had to defend themselves in a manner that would neither alienate their adversaries nor suggest that they were a community apart as the Christian Socials tried to insist they were.  This was the mission of the Verein zu Hebung der Gewerbe (Society for the Advancement of Business) founded in 1891. Leopold Guttmann was a vice-president.

I had a hard time learning about this organization until I came upon a footnote referring to the Society’s 1899 Annual Report. The pamphlet was available in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem! I obtained a copy for $25.00.

There is nothing like an original document to convey the mood of a moment in history.  The report surprised me.  It contained no rallying cry for Jewish businessmen to fight the common enemy.  On the contrary, most of the text defining the society’s purpose was self-validating and revolved around improving relations with fellow Jews, both members and non-members.  Emphasis was given to the importance of unity and collegiality among a motley group of small manufacturers and master craftsmen that included, among others,  stationers, corset makers,  and piano builders.

Prejudice was an issue,  but not that of the anti-Semites.  What rankled were the low opinions of businessmen held by fellow Jews. In fact, the crisis brought on by anti-Semitism was only addressed obliquely.  The report insisted that all were welcome, whatever their religious affiliation, to the lectures on tax laws, the Austrian economy, and more general topics that were a feature of  the society’s monthly meetings. This policy was pointed out as a refutation of the Christian-Social assertion that businesses had ethnic identities.

In essence, this was a mutual-aid society. It held daily office hours  for members to discuss their needs and problems.  Business loans were available where necessary, and financial assistance was provided to those no longer able to work. The  placement and education of reliable Jewish apprentices was a particular concern. And every year a list of members was distributed throughout Vienna to drum up business.  Nor was social life neglected.  Excursions were made to factories, specialty shops, and even the great new Ferris wheel in the Prater amusement park upon which “a joint ascent was undertaken.”

The Annual Report concluded that, after nearly nine years of its existence, the Society for the Advancement of Business had given its members a sense of self-respect among their fellow Jews and provided a united front before the rest of the world.

In the end, the  Christian-Social campaign against Jewish businesses did not take hold.  Jewish entrepreneurs were so deeply woven into the fabric of Vienna’s urban life that it was impossible to dislodge them from what was still a law-abiding society.  Leopold Guttmann continued to prosper.  In 1900 he moved the business to a mezzanine showroom in the elegant Casa Piccola, a new building combining offices and residences situated  at the start of the Mariahilfestrasse, the broad thoroughfare through which Emperor Franz Josef traveled regularly on the way to his suburban palace Schönbrunn.  As other tenants moved into the same address, the building became a focal point for some of the cross-currents and controversies of fin-de-siècle culture.

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Inventions–Timely and Untimely

About a month ago, two friends from Vienna—the architectural historian Ursula Prokop and her husband Peter, a first-rate archivist—came to visit me in New York.  They have been a help with my research in Austria for many years.  I was glad to have them with me just as I was beginning to delve into the Siemang/Guttmann partnership. When I asked them the question with which I concluded the last post–what could have prompted the connection between First Lieutenant Stefan Siemang and my great-grandfather, the jeweler/watchmaker Leopold Guttmann–Peter immediately cited an Austrian saying: “Schulden wie ein Stabsoffizier.” (Debts like a Field Officer) In other words, the soldier needed money.  Peter’s intuition was confirmed when I deciphered Siemang’s military record and found he owed a great deal.

Stefan Siemang had an interesting background. His father, Georg, was the librarian and curator of one of the largest mineralogical collections in Europe, one accumulated over many years by his employer, the Archduke Stephan von Habsburg-Lothringen and displayed in his castle Schaumburg Lahn in Germany. Stefan was born there in 1854,  but shortly thereafter his father became ill and left the archduke’s employ. Perhaps this was the reason why young Siemang was sent to a military boarding school when he was ten years old. He went on to a Military Technical College and by 1888, when he and Guttmann must have met, he was a First Lieutenant in an artillery division of the Imperial Army.  By then Siemang had already established himself as an inventor and small manufacturer with an important patent for the safety of petroleum lamps. In a booklet he published to stress the value of his discovery, he described thirty-five cases of near-fatal accidents caused by the gas leakage his new device was designed to prevent.  Alas, Siemang’s enterprise, set up  eight years after Edison patented his light bulbs, and five years after they were shown at the 1883 Electrical Exhibition in Vienna,  might have been the source of his debts.  Petroleum lamps, safe or not, were on the way out.

Undeterred, and with obvious faith in his own ingenuity, Siemang continued to experiment with devices of containment. In January 1888, he patented a closure for ink bottles that prevented spillage and in March of that same year, took out the patent, shared with Leopold Guttmann, on the hygienic closure for the ubiquitous domestic commode. Guttmann, on his part,  had made considerable progress by 1889. He was no longer listed as just a watchmaker and jeweler, but also as a manufacturer of watches and clasps. Could it have been as the owner of a  factory capable of handling small parts that Leopold attracted  the Lieutenant’s attention?

By 1895, the  new line of odorless commodes with their hermetic seals was a run-away success. They were advertised as available in a variety of furniture styles, priced in a range from 12 florins to 100 and were on view in a showroom on the Bäckerstrasse that Guttmann called the “leading and largest establishment of its kind in Vienna.” Siemang’s name continued to appear on the patent whenever Guttmann advertised their product, but he was never listed as part of the company.  Nonetheless, their partnership, however brief, attested to Vienna’s cosmopolitanism–a city where an army officer and a self-made entrepreneur could join forces to a productive end.

That broad-minded urbanity was under threat, however, in the 1890’s and Leopold Guttmann was aware of it. In 1896, he was elected vice-president of the Verein zur Hebung Der Gewerbe (Society for the Advancement of Business). This group of Jewish entrepreneurs were intent on protecting themselves from the growing influence of the anti-Semitic Christian Social party which had been on the rise since the mid 1880’s. Jewish businesses were seriously threatened by the party’s propaganda which encouraged the boycott of Jewish shops and warned Christians against working for Jews. How did Leopold Guttman and his fellow businessmen meet this challenge?

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Toilet Culture

As late as 1985, the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard has his misanthropic character Reger,  in the novel Old Masters, declare that “Vienna has no toilet culture. Its toilets are scandalous. Even in the most famous hotels in the city, scandalous toilets are to be found.”

Ninety years earlier, the young would-be architect Adolf Loos, returning to Vienna in 1896 from a few wanderjahre in America, made a similar complaint. “Our taps, sinks, water closets, washstands, and other things are still far inferior to the English and American fittings. What must seem most remarkable to an American is that in order to wash our hands, we must first go down the hall for a jug of water since there are toilets that do not have washing facilities. In this respect America is to Austria as Austria is to China.”

What Loos failed to mention was that the presence of any toilet at all in most apartments of fin-de-siècle Vienna–with or without washing facilities–was still considered a luxury, and not only among the lower classes. In each of the city’s twenty-one districts, except the aristocratic first, the number of toilets was less than the number of dwellings, and in six of those it was less by more than forty per cent! The water supply was usually communal as well—a tap in the corridor served several tenants.

This paucity of sanitation facilities, however, was the source of a family fortune on my mother’s side. In 1891, her paternal grandfather, Leopold Guttmann, went from several years of working at the traditional Jewish trade of jeweler and watchmaker to proud purveyor of “commodes and chamber pots” with a patented hygienic, hermetically sealed cover guaranteed to be completely odorless. The communal water basins, known as “bassenas,” were among his products as well.

Leopold Guttmann was born in 1852 in the Carpathian mountain town of Sobotiste in what was then Hungary, but is now Slovakia. At the time, Sobotiste had a Jewish community of about 500 families, but for Leopold, like for most ambitious Jewish young men from the provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna beckoned.

I discovered him in the imperial capital via Vienna’s very helpful precursor of the telephone book–Lehmann’s General Directory. Founded in 1859, it listed the addresses of established residents as well as businesses and organizations. The 26-year-old Leopold appears there for the first time in 1878 living in the 8th district and working as a trader in watches. From that point on, year by year, “the Lehmann,” charts his progress. By 1885, he has a watch-making factory, two years later he is also a wholesaler in gold and silver, and in 1890, “L. Guttman” is an incorporated firm handling watches, gold and silver, and jewelry.

What a surprise then, when from one year to the next in 1891, the commodes and chamber pots with their hygienic covers suddenly appear as products of the firm. Lehmann lists a patent under the name Siemang-Guttmann. Siemang, I discovered, was one Stefan Siemang.  He was not only the holder of several earlier patents, but also a professional soldier, a First Lieutenant in the Artillery Division of the Imperial Army. What could have brought the army officer and the watchmaker/jeweler together? And why was it only Leopold Guttmann who made a flourishing business of their device? Further speculations on this connection and the growing success of Leopold’s enterprise to follow in the next post.

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