Happy Birthday to My Great-Grandfather, the “Expert”

Today, October 20, 2021, is the 146th anniversary of Sigmund Lichtenthals’ birthday. I’ve written about my great-grandfather before; most extensively, in this post from 2013 where I summarized his life. In 2020 I wrote about forming opinions of our ancestors we never knew simply using the photos and documents we collected.

I have been diligently (ok- that might be generous!) working on my family’s Holocaust story, in which Sigmund is a central figure. The story has changed quite a bit since I posted the first chapter on June 27, 2020. The first chapter is now an introduction to Sigmund, his family and his early life. I’d like to share that with you today. If you have ever wondered how felt hats were made at the turn of the last century, this post is for you! FYI – it is a bit longer than my usual posts. It’s okay if you don’t read it – I’ll never know!!


“I am a Galitzianer”

Spring. The season of rebirth, promise, and hope. The dark days of winter have passed, with each day expected to be brighter than the one before. In Vienna, Austria, the spring of 1938 was like no other that came before. Swastikas sprouted all over the city. Nazi flags swayed in the breeze. The streets teemed with soldiers. One day Sigmund Lichtenthal was an Austrian. The next, a German. The Anschluss, Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria, on March 12 changed not only Sigmund’s nationality but also the course of his life.

Tarnopol, Galicia: 1892

“I am leaving, Father,” Sigmund announced.

Stiffening his posture, Rachmiel stared at his son. “What are you saying? You are leaving Tarnopol? Our family? Our business?”

Rachmiel was a lifelong resident of Tarnopol, having been born there in 1839, when the Polish city was still owned by the noble family of Pototski. Polish Jews had been in Tarnopol, a bustling city set on the banks of the Seret River, since its founding in 1540. Nearly half of the 26,000 residents were Jewish—a sharp contrast to the small surrounding villages where Jews were “outsiders” and anti-Semitism accepted as the norm. Following Poland’s annexation to Austria, the region became known as Galicia.

One of the wealthiest and cleanest cities in Galicia, Tarnopol was a city of well-educated people. Sigmund and his older brother, Chaim had attended the same school, the Gymnasium Tarnopolskiego where Sigmund was one of the top students. Since leaving school, he assisted in the family business selling leather, fur, and hats.

“You have been a great help to your brother Chaim and me. We make a decent living. I have worked a lifetime to build our business. Your sister Feige will marry, but I always thought my sons…,” Rachmiel’s voice trailed off as his shoulders fell and his eyes watered.

“Yes. I know. But you will be fine. Chaim is the best of help to you. Noach will be of age soon and then will come Abraham.” Sigmund stole a quick look at his mother, Antonia. Known to some as Taube, and Toni to others, she looked every bit of her forty-plus years. Managing a family of seven, the youngest of whom was only ten years old, had taken a toll on her. Since the stillborn birth of her fifth child, she carried an air of sadness. The birth of Abraham two years later was not a joyous occasion, but another mouth to feed as the income from the family business declined.

Sigmund was proud of the business his family built. But things in Tarnopol were changing. Especially for the Jews. Non-Jewish merchants were forming cooperatives. These organizations, funded by the large district bank, were no match for the small, independent Jewish business owners.

“The business will get on without me. And besides, it will be one less person to provide for,” explained Sigmund. “So many people leaving and going to America. We are getting less work. There is no future for me here.” Sigmund chose not the share the actual truth; that he was ready to make his mark in the world. If that meant leaving his family behind, so be it.

An eager learner, quick to pick up new skills, Sigmund was passionate about being the best at whatever he attempted. He had decided. He would become an “expert” in his chosen field—to become a master hatmaker.

Budapest, Hungary

Sigmund set out for Budapest, Hungary’s capital city, 400 miles southwest of Tarnopol. He was not alone; large numbers of Jews were making the move to Hungary’s capital city. Straddling the Danube River, with Buda on one side and Pest on the other, there were many opportunities for a young man yearning to excel. Apprenticing with well-established hatmakers in the city would provide just that. He was ready to start his life’s work.

Two months after his 17th birthday, on December 27, 1892, Sigmund secured his first job as a hatmaker’s assistant with master artisan, Ignaz Ostermann. There was so much to learn. He had gained some knowledge about leather and fur while working with his father back in Tarnopol, but there were at least nine separate steps involved in creating a felt hat—daunting. Sigmund intended to become skilled at them all. He had no doubts about his ability. His confidence would serve him well.

Entering Ostermann’s factory for the first time, Sigmund surveyed the scene. Dark and damp, poorly lit. Massive rooms, each dedicated to a specific task. To become an expert Hutmacher, an apprentice must master each step before being allowed to advance. Sigmund, a fast learner, already imagined himself moving quickly through each area as he became more adept.

In one enormous area, men sitting on wooden benches hunched over rabbit pelts placed on their laps.

“Sit,” commanded a man wearing a leather apron. You will start here.” Handing Sigmund a large knife and a tweezer, the man instructed Sigmund on how to pluck out the stiff hairs from the pelt. “You need to work quickly!” This was to be Sigmund’s first job. He would start at the very bottom—a “puller”—a tedious task.

At the end of the first week, Sigmund received his official Arbeitsbuch. He looked on as the clerk, Lajos Rebák entered the required employment information in the pocket-sized green booklet: Workbook Number: 309. The workbook’s owner’s birthplace: Tarnopol. District: Tarnopol. Country: Galicia. Issued by the 4th-10th districts mixed guild as the authority in Budapest on January 9, 1893. Workbook owner’s birth year: 1875. Religion: Jewish. Face: Oval. Eyes: Brown. Nose: Normal. Teeth: Intact. Hair: Brown. Beard: Diffuse. Diffuse? The word reminded Sigmund of just how young he was; his beard was barely visible.

Sigmund next learned to arrange the pile of pulled fibers, beating them down until they formed a flat, matted oval shape about four feet long. This, he learned, was called “fluff.” The room he now worked in was hot and steamy. The mannerisms of the workers here differed from those Sigmund worked with previously. Some had very red cheeks, others seemed to shake while they worked. There were huge vats filled with orange liquid. Men stirred the contents with huge wooden paddles, then removed the soaked fluff to large benches. The air hung low—humid and musty. As steam was applied, the matted material took on a strange orange tint, like that of a carrot.

“This is the “carroting” room,” said one man.  “My job is to teach you how to use the solution to separate the fur from the rabbit skin.” Continuing, he explained, “We use a solution of nitrate of mercury, which causes the scales on each hair fiber to pull away from the hair shaft. This makes the next step of “felting” easier to do.” He cautioned Sigmund to be careful around the carroting solution, but there was no need.

Sigmund was acutely aware of the peril. He saw the proof right there in front of him; men shaking so hard they could barely perform their tasks, others sweating more than expected for the temperature of the room. He had heard the phrase, “mad as a hatter” used to describe those who suffered prolonged exposure. Tremors. Sweating. Reddened fingers and toes. Delirium. All were accepted occupational hazards for a hatmaker. The cause, mercury poisoning, would not be discovered for almost fifty years. Mercury vapor was odorless. There was nothing a person could do to protect themselves from the toxic fumes. Sigmund had no intention of remaining a “carroter” for long. He planned to open a factory of his own. He would focus on the creative end of the business and leave the dangerous work to others.

It took Sigmund three months to master the next step, “bowing”—arranging and steaming the soaked fur, then beating and matting it. After layering the flat pieces on top of each other, he would apply more heat, forcing the layers to shrink and bond together.

In April, he was ready to move on. Handing over his Arbeitsbuch, he felt a sense of accomplishment as the factory owner filled in the employment info, stamping the proof of his successful apprenticeship in the last column. Sigmund would assure that every job thereafter was carefully recorded in the little book. This was the proof of his training—the progression towards becoming a master hatmaker.

Sigmund spent the next four months under the tutelage of Josef Meszarich, another Hungarian hatmaker. Now considered a “journeyman,” Sigmund needed to perfect the art of “planking.” His new workplace, the “planking” room, was another vast space. Men wearing aprons worked the felt pieces on planks of wood, dipping the shrunken ovals into a solution that would toughen and shrink them further. He was becoming impatient.

“Herr Meszarich, I have been working in this trade now for nearly a year. All this work, nothing yet resembling a hat.”

Without taking his eyes off the task, his mentor replied, “Experts are made not born. It requires practice and patience. You will struggle and you will sacrifice. There are no shortcuts.”

To his relief, Sigmund soon moved on to a stage where he could finally visualize an actual hat being formed. Wooden cones of varying shapes and sizes filled the immense room in which he toiled next. The workers arranged the “felted” and “planked” pieces on the wooden molds, where they would dry, forming the beginnings of a hat-like shape. As he “blocked” each piece on the form, Sigmund imagined a finished product, complete with hatband and feather embellishment. Occasionally, he would allow himself to imagine a logo of his own inside the crown of the hat.

By August 1893, he knew how to shrink the felt and was learning to perfect the shaping of felt into an actual hat. Focused and determined as always, Sigmund absorbed as much as he could from the master craftsmen in Budapest. To hone his craft further, Sigmund decided to move to Vienna. More than twice the population of Budapest, Vienna, with its storied history, would be the ideal place for a young Jewish man to begin his adult life.

Vienna, Austria

Sigmund arrived in Vienna just after his 18th birthday. It was a beautiful city; the Ringstrasse, a grand boulevard built by Emperor Franz Josef, encircled the Inner City. Its opulent buildings were a showcase of grandeur. Some of Vienna’s most notable Jewish families built magnificent homes along the beautiful boulevard Since being granted full legal rights, the Jewish population of Vienna had grown to nearly ten percent. Many Jews, like Sigmund, were “assimilated”, more secular than religious, considering themselves Viennese first, Jewish second. Or, in Sigmund’s case, a “Galitzianer” first.

Despite being immensely proud of his homeland, Sigmund rarely contacted his family. Their financial struggles continued as his father dealt with a bankruptcy suit. He didn’t return to Tarnopol in 1894 when his grandfather Hirsch Lichtenthal passed away, nor did he attend his sister Fiege’s wedding in 1897. The physical distance was but one reason. As the years passed and Sigmund focused on his craft, he felt less connected to his family.

He would train with hatmaker Ferdinand Hermann for the next few years, occasionally learning from another Viennese master, Siegfried Engl. By age 21, Sigmund had mastered his craft, training under some of the best hatmakers in Vienna: Adolf Blass, Stroheim & Co., Löwensohn & Schwarz, and finally, at Adolf Bleier Hutfabrik. He perfected his felting skills, knew how to shape the felt into a cone, and was adept at using a hat block. He had an eye for style and a talent for embellishing the hat crown with decoration.

Sigmund had been in Vienna for five years when he decided to make the city his permanent home. He would not return to Tarnopol. The cultural richness of life in Vienna was one draw. Of more importance to Sigmund, the capital city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire provided the opportunity to grow a small business into one with international acclaim. Sigmund had forged a new life in Vienna.

Sigmund left his apartment in the fashionable 9th District and took up residence in Vienna’s 2nd District, where many Jews from Galicia settled. The border of the 2nd district, Leopoldstadt, was strategic. Surrounded by the Danube Canal and the Danube River, Leopoldstadt was an island within Vienna. Sigmund considered the setting of his new home along with it’s clear message to Jews: We will tolerate you, but stay to yourselves.

Leopoldstadt was certainly a more affordable area than the 9th, and without a doubt, more traditionally Jewish. Sigmund felt no connection to the men, all dressed in black, as was the custom in Poland. He felt even less kinship with the ultra-orthodox Jews, as they milled around the shops, speaking Yiddish, dressed in long black robes, shiny black hats with tall crowns, and sporting long flowing beards.

 Sigmund was not a religious man. He remained focused on his work and so spoke German; the language used for business. He carried himself with an assurance surprising in someone so young. Sigmund’s stern countenance conveyed an air of arrogance; the sort of intimidating presence one might expect of someone taller than his stature of 5’ 6”.

His new home in the 2nd District placed Sigmund farther from the hat factories and shops concentrated in the 5th, 6th, and 7th districts. But the trip was not difficult, less than six miles at most, made easier by the newly electrified tramway system. Sigmund chose the apartment on Wasnergasse for another reason—it was an easy six-minute walk to Matildeplatz, the home of Rosa Berger, the woman he planned to marry.

Sigmund considered his decision. Rosa was an excellent choice of a mate for a man who aspired to be a renowned hatmaker. She was talented in her own right, a trained milliner, who would be of tremendous help in building his future enterprise. Sigmund appreciated her serious nature and her ready acceptance to put work first.

Sigmund and Rosa married on December 10, 1899 in Vienna’s Templgasse, the synagogue in the 2nd district. Also called the “Leopoldstadt Temple” the magnificent building, with seating for two-thousand and lavish oriental-style ornamentation, it was the symbol of Vienna’s thriving Jewish life.

Rabbi Dr. Adolf Schmiedl officiated the small ceremony. Rosa’s father, Jacob Berger, signed the marriage certificate as a witness. Sigmund’s family did not attend.


Now a married man, Sigmund’s desire to build a business empire grew stronger. He began planning his new hat-making enterprise under the name Wiener Chic.  

Only a few months into their marriage, Sigmund announced he had a grand plan. “Rosa, I am going to Paris.”

If you’re still with me at this point, thanks for reading! I’d love to hear what you think. Rather than writing a typical family history, I want this story to be more “relatable” so I’ve been learning about the genre of “creative nonfiction.” How did I do? All feedback is welcome.

3 thoughts on “Happy Birthday to My Great-Grandfather, the “Expert”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s