Chapter Two – Becoming an Expert – Sigmund Lichtenthal

I recently submitted this chapter to my writing group, (Lynn Palermo’s Family History Masterclass) receiving great feedback including, “Add more emotion.”, “Add more dialog.”, “Too much fact, not enough story.” And finally, the bane of my writing existence: “Kind of choppy – work on your transitions.”

I reworked the chapter and would love to hear what you think.

In case you want to start the story at the beginning, I posted Chapter One here a couple weeks ago.

Chapter Two: Sigmund Lichtenthal – Expert

Vienna, Austria: Spring 1900 

Sigmund explained his plan to Rosa. “Several months ago, I accepted the invitation to showcase my work at the Paris Exposition. There is great demand for more efficiency in hat-making. If I were to be recognized internationally, it will help the company.” The expansion of the business was, in his mind, only secondary to the validation of his expertise.

The Paris Exposition, also known as The Exposition Universelle of 1900, focused on the achievements of the past century and encouraged development into the next. Nearly 50 million people would visit the fair once it opened on April 14.

“I am confident my unique fabrication process will win a prize. I plan to be in Paris for the Awards Ceremony in August.” He paused, then looked at his wife, waiting for her expected approval. Rosa’s shoulders sagged. She averted her eyes, casting them down towards her lap. “I cannot join you.” With her hands placed gently on her stomach, Rosa continued, “I think I may be with child. It is early but I am fairly certain.”

Her announcement caught Sigmund off guard. After drawing in a deep breath, he shrugged his shoulders and stared at her. “This was not part of my plan. But we will make it work. I will go to Paris alone. We have many friends who can be of help to you while I am gone.”

Rosa swallowed hard, choking back tears. She never expected her husband to be overjoyed about her news, but his lack of emotion saddened her. Business before blood. Rosa accepted her husband’s obsession with excellence, but a small part of her wished there was more room in his heart for family. Especially with theirs so small, it was important to stay connected. Her parents and sister remained in Hungary. There was some talk of coming to Vienna, but Renee, her 16-year-old sister, wanted to finish her schooling first. And, of course, Sigmund’s estrangement from his relatives made life a little lonely. The thought of children, of creating their own family, brought her some solace.

Paris, France: August 1900

He knew he was talented. He knew he was an expert in his field. As Sigmund made his way through the crowds, he observed people dressed in their very best. Women in their street-length shirtwaist dresses, men outfitted in their finest suits. It did not escape his notice that everyone was wearing a hat—large bonnets adorned with flowers and satin bows; the men sporting top hats or Derbys. Certainly, hat-making was a lucrative business. No one would dare to be seen in public without a hat. The demand was tremendous.

The clattering of horse’s hooves and rumbling carriage wheels interrupted Sigmund’s thoughts as he paused in front of the Austrian pavilion. Before returning his attention to the map he was using to orient himself at the extensive venue, Sigmund took a moment to appreciate his surroundings.

The Eiffel Tower was visible from his vantage point on the street. Built for the 1889 World’s Fair, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world. Sigmund watched the people passing by on the “moving sidewalk.” It was an odd sensation—seeing pedestrians moving forward without the bouncing up and down typically seen as people placed one foot in front of the other. He stepped aside as yet another parade marched down the thoroughfare. The recently introduced Art Nouveau style was showcased everywhere he looked; on the advertising posters designed by the now-famous Alphonse Mucha, the guidebooks, the architecture, and the interior decoration of the buildings.

Sigmund checked his pocket watch. 2 o’clock. He had one hour to find the Salles des Fêtes, the hall where the awards ceremony would take place. As he walked, Sigmund thought of his wife, who was managing business affairs in his absence. Things will have to change. We have only a few months before the baby is born. Perhaps Rosa’s family will consider settling in Vienna. With their help, Rosa could continue to assist me in the business. Speculating about the future was uncomfortable. Building a business was something he understood. Building a family was something else entirely. Sigmund much preferred thinking about things he could control. He pushed concerns about having a child to the back of his mind, choosing instead to focus on the present—the awards ceremony.

After a few minutes, Sigmund was standing in front of the Palais des Machines. The magnificent reception hall held 15,000 people. Sigmund readied himself to go inside. He gazed up at the elaborate stained glass-domed ceiling, suddenly remembering the purpose of his visit. This is a business opportunity, not a tourist event. He was in Paris for one reason only—to be recognized internationally for his expertise.

The ceremony opened promptly at 3 p.m. with an immense orchestra playing the “Marseilles.” President of the French Republic, Émile Loubet presided over the event. After a brief speech, he called up the Presidents of the various juries and handed each of them the list of awards for their division.

Time froze as Sigmund waited for his category, “Books and Graphic Arts, Food, Hygiene, and Various Arts.” Over 83,000 exhibitors hoped for recognition. Less than 12,000 of those were now sitting in the hall waiting to learn what honor they had earned.

“I have done it!” Sigmund exclaimed as they awarded him the poster-size diploma, designed, of course, in the Art Nouveau style. He read the title: Exposition Internationale Paris. In the middle, a drawing of several female sculptures. Centered on the image was the handwritten information Sigmund coveted: Diploma: The Grand Prize: Gold Medal Cross awarded to Sigmund Lichtenthal, Hat Factory–Vienna–for superior manufacture and good quality of hats.

Mission accomplished, he returned home rewarded in his belief that he was, in fact, an expert.

Vienna, Austria

Still elated with his triumph months after returning from Paris, another life-changing event occurred. On the first anniversary of their marriage, December 10, 1900, Sigmund and Rosa’s son, Paul, was born.

“What’s wrong with his eyes?” Sigmund leaned in to examine his newborn son’s face. Paul’s right eye rolled up; the pupil was off to the side. “Rosa, are his eyes crossed?”

“The doctors say it is a weak eye. It might get better as he gets older.”

“I hope so.”, said Sigmund. There was no time or money to spend on medical problems. Sigmund congratulated himself for making the wise choice to continue working as a hat assistant with Adolf Bleier while simultaneously making plans to open a new business.

The local hat-making community already held him in high regard; his success in Paris increased recognition of his work. Over the next two years, his solid technical and business knowledge served him well, as he spent his spare time preparing to open his own enterprise. He had finally saved enough money to start his new venture. “Rosa, we are ready. I have a building secured and a sound business plan.”

Again, Rosa found herself in the position of sharing unwanted news. She was pregnant.

With the birth of their daughter, Valerie, on October 11, 1902, their family was complete. Rosa focused on raising their young family, assisting Sigmund where she could. By 1903, the firm, under the name Wiener Chic, had grown into an enterprise successful enough to allow the family to move to the 9th district, the upscale area of Vienna where he lived years earlier. “Our hard work is paying off Rosa. No longer will we live in Leopoldstadt.” He listed off his recent accomplishments. “My business is expanding. Everyone in the Viennese business community knows who I am. I received two commendations; the Grand Prize in Paris and the ‘Medal of Honor’ at the Internationale Exposition in Brussels.” He had arrived. The “world” agreed with his cocksure opinion of his proficiency.

Sigmund’s obsession with success did not wane. In fact, he found it difficult to separate his business life from his personal life. As if to illustrate how strongly he connected with his occupation, Sigmund changed the name of his business to LITAL, a shortened version of his surname. Despite now living among the “upper-crust” elite in Vienna, Sigmund remained steadfastly a “working man.” Immensely proud of his Galician background, Sigmund valued a strong work ethic and had little tolerance for those who, in his opinion, didn’t work very hard for what they had.

At 35 years old, he could finally relax a little and enjoy the fruits of his long labor. “Rosa, let’s take the family to Bad Ischl. The summer air there will be good for you and the children.” The resort-like town about 160 miles west of Vienna, provided a needed respite from the hectic working days in the city. Celebrities such as Empress Sisi, Sigmund Freud, and many famous literary figures sought the beautiful lake and the rural climate. It was a place chosen by many of Vienna’s elite. To be seen strolling in the afternoon on the waterfront promenade was a favorite sport of the summer resort society. The Lichtenthals enjoyed the area so much they made Bad Ischl their vacation destination for years to come.

LITAL continued to grow in the ensuing years. The entire family worked to support the company. After graduating from high school, Paul attended the Public Professional Advanced Training School for Hatters, completing his journeyman training at his father’s company in 1919. That same year, daughter Valerie completed her training as a milliner and dressmaker. She was a beautiful woman, with many suitors vying for her attention. “You may enjoy the company of your many admirers, but work comes first,” warned her father.

Their status in the community allowed them access to many cultural events. Art and music were a part of their daily lives. But, as with any endeavor, there were setbacks and difficulties.

“We have a problem,” declared Sigmund. “It seems the Austrian government has purchased the building housing the factory.” Originally a hotel, LITAL’s shop shared space in the building with the Austrian Mill Industry. Sigmund explained the problem to his lawyer. “The government is insisting on a monthly rent of 27.063 Kronen. In addition, we will be responsible for all maintenance, operating, and taxes. This is going to cost me over 10 million Kronen just for maintenance.” The lawyer agreed the Mill Industry had much more income than his business and used vastly more of the building. Sigmund instituted legal proceedings, eventually winning his case.

The following month, Sigmund received a call from the Viennese police. “Sir, a burglary has occurred at your establishment on Praterstrasse.” It was the second burglary at that shop in just five days.

Stunned, Sigmund asked, “What happened?”

“It seems two men forced their way into the shop at 2 a.m. When they saw the chief watchman, the men took off down the street towards the railway station. The watchman successfully apprehended one man who insisted his companion had perpetrated the break-in; he simply took a share of the loot.”

This time the men had stolen about 50.000 Kronen worth of inventory, the equivalent of almost two months’ rent. They found the men guilty of both burglaries and referred them to the regional court for sentencing.

Over the next few years, Sigmund broadened his fame His colleagues acknowledged his expertise when they elected him Chairman of the Viennese Guild of Hatmakers. He joined the Austrian Board of the Association of the Hat Manufacturers, the Vienna Chamber of Commerce, and the Customs Advisory Board. Even the Austrian authorities sought him out, requesting his help with introducing the Austrian Sales Tax.

With each passing year, LITAL grew in sales and reputation. In 1926, Sigmund joined the Cooperative Committee of Austrian Hatmakers, which later chose him to be a delegate to the federal association. As his services became more in demand, Sigmund asked Paul and Rosa to take on more responsibilities at LITAL. “The Trade School of Vienna has offered me a position as instructor and examiner, sharing my knowledge with students interested in becoming master hatmakers.” Being offered a teaching position at the world’s first vocational training school meant they held Sigmund in high regard for his technical and business acumen. Should he decide, as he aged, to turn his business over to his son, he could continue teaching for extra income.

As Sigmund and Rosa approached mid-life, they decided it was time to plan for their future. “Rosa, I found a beautiful home to purchase. We can rent it out for extra income until we retire.” The large house in the upscale Döbling district had all the “modern comforts” but needed some work. There were seventeen rooms, including service quarters, a garage, and a large garden. “We will complete the construction and make improvements to create a villa. It will be the home where we will live out the rest of our lives.” The purchase price was 145.000 Schillings and would total 225.400 Schillings by its completion.

After a fifteen-minute drive north from the 9th district, the Lichtenthals stood on the curb of their newest investment. Looking at the impressive façade, Rosa appreciated the symmetry of the building. Her eye for design took in every detail. Quite pleasing. This would be the first home they owned. All the other properties, including the factory and the various branches, were rentals. Centered between the side windows, above the columned entry, was a balcony with large windows adorned with awnings. The dormered attic cupola featured pleasing curved lines. Topping the home was a Mansard-style roof. Although the first-floor windows were simple rectangles, the addition of trim created the illusion of true Palladian windows. It was the luxurious home they deserved. Sigmund worked hard. It was time to have something to show for it.

In February 1930, Sigmund formally changed the firm name to Hutfabrik LITAL and had the business certified by official decree as a general store. As usual, he had a plan—a very specific reason for the change.

“Father, I am planning to marry Rose Spiegel. We have arranged for a date later this year,” announced Paul. “I will soon be 30 years old. It is time.”

Sigmund’s head jerked up as he stared at his son, his eyes blazing. “Hochwohlgeboren Frau Sophie Spiegel’s daughter?” Sigmund was incredulous his son would even consider such a match. “You know I have no use for people such as the Spiegels—people whose hands have not seen a day of hard physical work.” His disdain was palpable; Frau Spiegel was of a different class—the Hochwohlgeboren—high society.

Rose, three years younger than Paul, was the daughter of Sophie Spiegel. Sophie’s husband, Herman, died in 1911 shortly after the family returned to Vienna from Semarang, Java. After marrying Herman in 1901, the couple settled in Indonesia, where Herman amassed a fortune through his shop, Toko Spiegel. The couple had three children in Semarang; Rose was the middle child, book-ended on either side by her sister Claire and her brother Emile.

Sophie and Rose lived at Silbergasse 43, in the outer district of Döbling, just a five-minute walk from the Lichtenthal’s recently purchased home. The irony of both families living in the same affluent neighborhood struck Sigmund. Yes, but I have worked a lifetime to reach this point. They have only benefitted from the work of another.

The Spiegel’s apartment took up the entire third floor of an elegant building. Sophie’s other daughter, Claire, had recently married a Czechoslovakian named Felix Schuster. Emile, who was quite a handful to raise, had been sent as a teenager to live with friends of the family in Holland. He emigrated to the United States a few years earlier, at age 19, to seek his fortune in real estate.

The lifestyle of the Spiegel’s was so different from theirs. Yes, Sigmund thought, I wish for nice things and a beautiful home as well. But I want my son to understand the value of hard work. That is what makes life worth living—reaping the benefit of your struggle. He briefly considered sending Paul away (maybe to Chile?) to prevent the union, but soon saw the folly of that. Besides, Paul was an important part of LITAL’s success and a valuable asset to the business.

“If that is what you desire, then we will make a plan. The Spiegels are accustomed to the finer things in life. You will need substantial income to raise a family.” After some discussion, Sigmund proposed a change to the structure of Hutfabrik LITAL. Sigmund would split ownership between himself, his wife, and Paul. Sigmund would retain majority ownership at 40% and Paul and his mother, Rosa, would share equally at 30% each. Paul would pay for his share with 50.000 Schillings from his wife’s dowry. Rosa would be simply added as a partner; having been a part of the LITAL enterprise since its inception.

Rose and Paul married in a simple ceremony at the synagogue in Döbling on August 12, 1930. Sigmund resigned himself to the marriage, but a year later, attempted to interfere in his son’s personal life once again, when Paul and Rose took a trip to Salzburg, Austria, ostensibly to conceive a child. So opposed to the possibility of a grandchild, Sigmund traveled nearly 200 miles to intervene. To no avail. Doris May Lichtenthal was born on March 5, 1932.

Less than a year after Doris’s birth, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany and the Nazi Party rose to power. The future Sigmund had worked so long and hard to secure would soon be endangered.

Well- what do you think? Would you want to keep reading this story? Why? Why not? What tripped you up? Confused you? Bored you? As always, thanks for your feedback!!

2 thoughts on “Chapter Two – Becoming an Expert – Sigmund Lichtenthal

  1. Quite a story, and the transitions really smooth out the flow! Question: How do you know that Sigmund was opposed to Paul & Rosa having a child–is this a family story? If so, maybe signal that with a phrase like “according to family legend” or something similar because that’s quite a dramatic development. For the final paragraph, may I suggest using Sigmund’s viewpoint. Was he worried about what would happen to the future he worked so hard to create or did he have no idea what the rise of the Nazi Party could mean? Did anyone in the family try to warn him or was he already seeing danger signals?


    1. My mom told me the stories about her grandfather opposing the marriage and the birth. Excellent suggestions. Thanks for reading!!


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