It is in the nature of European Jewish museums to conjure up vanished worlds. With its newest exhibit “Kauft Bei Juden!” (“Buy From Jews!”) the Jewish Museum Vienna has resurrected the Jewish-owned department store, which reshaped the city at the turn of the 20th century. The exhibit, which opened today, also recalls a lost age of family-run retail that has in Europe (but more so in the United States) given way to chains and big-box stores.
It was thanks to a series of egalitarian and emancipating reforms in the 19th century that Vienna’s Jews fell into department store ownership. In particular, deregulation of the professions in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1859 ended Jews’ exclusion from certain trades. Jewish families ascended from the schmatta trade to own and run destination department stores—names like Gerngross, Zwieback, and Jacob Rothberger that are engraved in gold font into the wall of the exhibit like a memorial, were analogous in their centrality in retail culture to present-day giants like Saks, Neiman Marcus, or Bergdorf Goodman. These families were often not of Vienna. Just as the department store model came from Paris, Jews who set up shop in Vienna were from elsewhere. Most arrived from other parts of the empire, in particular Hungary, but also Bohemia, Moravia, and Galicia. Some families came from Germany. The story of the Viennese department store is a story of migration, and as when wealthy Jewish families bought land on the Ringstrasse and constructed magnificent cafes, salons, and apartment buildings, the department store was a way for Jews to become Viennese.
Moving between posters for architect Victor Gruen’s visionary plans for the redevelopment of Vienna, to a 1920s movie reel made by Norwegian tourists about a visit to Gerngross, the compelling argument “Kauft bei Juden!” makes is that the department store was A contribution OF Viennese Jews to European modernity. It created a new class of professions that became subject to working-time regulations. Gerngross created sports clubs for its employees, while Rothberger was known for its good pay and welfare benefits. Although department stores would perpetuate a certain ideal of womanhood, they can also be viewed as a haven for working class women, both as employees and consumers. The standardization of styles and sizes made clothing more accessible
Department stores could be a social leveler, in that sense, but the exhibit also highlights the glamour that existed at the top end of early 20th century retail. Claus Jahnke, a Canadian collector and fashion historian who provided some of the clothing for “Kauft Bei Juden!,” explained to me that he purchased the items over time from auctions, thrift stores, or, in rare cases, the children and grandchildren of émigrés in North America. Items from Jahnke’s collection now on display include a 1930s double-breasted men’s ski suit from Rothberger and a 1920s handwoven coat from Maison Zwiebeck, in shades of orange and peach.
The great names of Viennese Jewish-owned retail were vanquished in 1938, as buildings were requisitioned and families scattered. The restitution process was fraught with difficulty and today in Vienna there is only one Jewish-run department store left. (Ignaz Wachtel was born in Lviv, survived the Holocaust, and came to Vienna after the War where he founded Wachtel & Co.) But as well as reminding us of this culture destroyed, “Kauft bei Juden!” too recalls an era when shopping was a novelty, an event to be savored, and when department stores were palaces.