The Jewish Duo That Brought Department Stores to Germany

A photo exhibit in Jerusalem pays tribute to Erich Mendelsohn, the architect who built Germany's first department stores in the 1920s.

Keshet Rosenblum
Keshet Rosenblum

The building which housed the Schocken department store in Nuremberg was built in 1926, bringing with it a wave of modernism to the city. Mayor Hermann Luppe was concerned that the new building with its naked walls and square windows would not be well received. However, he hoped that it would reflect the revitalized spirit of Germany. His concerns were valid.

This store was the first of many that were designed by architect Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953) for businessman and philanthropist Shlomo Zalman Schocken (1877-1959). It marked the beginning of their working relationship, which continued even following their hesitant (and temporary) migration to Palestine. Local newspapers claimed that the new building demonstrated how culture had lost out to materialism. The Nazi newspaper ‘Der Sturmer’ stated that its very construction was a result of the existing regime’s faults. It showed a cartoon in which Schocken and Luppe are shaking hands over a coffin of ‘the decent businessman’.

This was Germany between the wars, in a period of great social and financial instability. From the outset, the store became a target of slander and boycotts by the ascendant Nazi party in the city. This did not prevent thousands of citizens from eagerly storming its doors when it first opened.

Last month, another former Schocken department store, this one in the city of Kamenz in Saxony, hosted a conference devoted to Schocken and Mendelsohn. The impetus for holding this conference was the approaching completion of a five-year-long renovation of the structure, which will house the archaeological museum of Saxony.

John Muller is writing a Ph.D thesis for Cambridge University that studies German department stores between 1890 and 1940. He relates that by the 1890’s there was already an extensive network of department stores in Germany. The vast majority were owned by Jewish families, who purchased them close to their place of residence. Thus, Bavaria saw a chain of stores belonging to the Tietz family, who opened the first department store in Germany in 1882 in the city of Gera. Southern Germany saw the expansion of the Knope stores whereas the north saw the development of the large Karstadt chain which still operates today.

Modern consumerism was first presented to the German nation in a manner that became an eclectic example of loud vulgarity. This style evoked derision when the Wertheim store, part of a national chain, opened in Leipzig square in Berlin, which was a source of pride and nostalgia for the German empire before the First World War. The press applauded the new Wertheim building which resembled a gothic cathedral. It was considered by experts to be “a proud and self-confident” creation, “a dignified and restrained building” and, most importantly, not associated with America, in contrast to the Tietz branch that was erected just across the street, which symbolized foreign, chaotic and Jewish ‘seduction’.

The blossoming of German neo-Gothic building was nipped after Germany’s strident defeat on the battlefield. This paved the way for a new esthetics, international and ahistorical, which transformed the Werkbund (the association of architects, artists and designers) from serving simply as a professional union into an institution that generated a spirit of innovation in design that was based on German industry.

Erich Mendelsohn consolidated his style during those years. As someone who had been educated in Munich in the first decade of the century, he wandered between art-noveau and expressionism (such as in the famous Einstein tower in the Potsdam square in Berlin). His search for a style culminated in a restrained and practical expression in buildings he designed for, among others, Schocken. In 1924 he joined contemporary architects such as Walther Gropius and Mies Van Der Rohe in establishing the Ring Collective, which advanced the new and ‘clean’ architecture they espoused. That year he also went to the United States, where he discovered something that was to subsequently tie him to Schocken.

Schocken was a businessman, but he believed in Ford’s dictum which stated that “a business that generates only money is a miserable one." This wasn’t an unusual concept at the time, but Schocken fervently believed that along with its financial aspects, a business has social and cultural obligations toward its employees and clients. His business slowly expanded to small cities within his comfort zone of Saxony. When he established a store in Zwickau in 1901 he turned the initial store in Leipzig, which belonged to the family following his brother’s marriage, into a chain that eventually comprised 20 stores, the fourth largest chain in Germany.

The power of artificial lighting

The store in Nuremberg, located in the city’s industrial zone, was not intended to be elegant, but was geared toward its intended working class customers. According to Prof. Regina Stefan, dean of architecture at Mainz University who researches the history of architecture, what Mendelsohn discovered in the United States had convenient commercial value for Schocken. This was the power of artificial lighting. Upon his return he published a book of illustrations where he displayed his impressions, such as the impressive silhouette of the Waldorf Astoria hotel at night, flooded in lights and rising up into the city sky. Berlin was a metropolis at that time, but until 1916 used only gas illumination.

Mendelsohn sought to use light as an integral part of the building. From the very first store he designed for Schocken and continuing with subsequent buildings, he took great care in using glass and other materials in equal proportions. At dusk, when all of Nuremberg darkened, the lit-up openings of the Schocken building created a negative image of the original building. Above it all shone the name of the store in gigantic letters. Another store was opened in Stuttgart two years later. It was made of stone and concrete and was furnished in wood. It had an escalator but no air conditioning. The wide windows also served for ventilating the building.

Prof. Paul Lerner, a historian at the University of Southern California, connects the architectural innovation to the cultural Zionism of Schocken and to the Jewish identity of the developer and architect. In his view, the rational use of clean lines to create illuminated temples of consumerism is a democratic reaction to the crowded, cathedral-like halls built by the previous generation. Retail business was always considered a Jewish occupation, even when they weren’t the managers. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 Schocken had to sell his stores to his non-Jewish competitors. The store in Stuttgart was torn down in 1960 and the one in Nuremberg was altered beyond recognition.

Schocken and Mendelsohn did not want to leave their homes, but did so in 1933-1934. Schocken was a Zionist, known in Palestine as a patron of Jewish art. During his first steps in Germany, he was better known for his chain of stores, but even then he started fostering S.Y. Agnon, Martin Buber and, of course, Mendelsohn. He entered the publishing world as well (with a publishing house established in 1931, and the purchase of the daily Haaretz in 1935.) Mendelsohn, as an architect, was enchanted with the country’s primeval scenery. However, neither of them found their place here.

In later years, in Israel, Mendelsohn designed Schocken’s private home as well as the Schocken library in Jerusalem, but their joint chain of stores was left behind. An exhibition of photos of Mendelsohn’s buildings, taken by the Berlin photographer Karsten Krohn, is currently on display (until December 15) at the Goethe Institute in Jerusalem. The photos document his buildings in Stuttgart, Berlin, Kamenz, as well as in Israel and San Francisco. The exhibit is part of the ‘Berlin Days’ project, produced by the Goethe Institute together with the Tel Aviv Municipality and the German Embassy.

A Schocken department store built in 1930 by Erich Mendelsohn in modernist style. Credit: Roland Halbe
Shlomo Zalman Schocken ran the department store chain until forced out by the Nazis.Credit: Alferd Bernhiem
Architect Erich Mendelsohn
The building that housed the Schocken department store in Nuremberg.Credit: Evyatar Zifer

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