When Schocken Was Germany's Marks & Spencer, Before Haaretz

New museum in Chemnitz tells the story of once a trend-setting department store chain.

Last week, on a grey and rainy day, 30 members of the Schocken family from around the world gathered in Chemnitz, a dreary industrial city that was mostly destroyed in World War II, an hour’s train ride from Leipzig. It offers nothing to tourists who happen to pass through. The street leading from the train station to the center is full of election posters calling on voters to support the neo-Nazi party, which already has one member on the city council.

The Schockens, owners of Haaretz, came to Chemnitz to participate in the inauguration of a new museum, the pride of the city, which opened last week. The facade of the impressive building still bears the Schocken name, a vestige of days long gone, in which it housed a popular department store run by Shlomo Salman Schocken, when Chemnitz was still an important industrial center.

The date of inauguration was not chosen at random. On May 15, 1930, the Schocken department store opened its doors in this building for the first time. The chain had 20 branches across Germany, but this was its flagship store. It was one of the biggest in Europe, with 6,000 employees. The building was designed by the architect Erich Mendelsohn, and became a showpiece of modern architecture in the 1930s.

In addition to the family, thousands of visitors arrived, lining up for hours in pouring rain in order to visit the museum. The older visitors came for some nostalgia, trying to relive their pre-war childhood, when they came to ride on the first escalator in the city.

Some of them, such as Eberhard Gurner, still keep items purchased at the department store all those years ago. Gurner’s mother worked at one of the store’s branches. “Schocken was part of my childhood, I have great respect for the name”, he said. “When we went shopping, it was only to Schocken’s.”

He donated some of these items to the new museum, which features displays showing the history of the store and the family. Other people from the city and its surroundings also donated items they had.

“Last year, we had a hard time locating authentic items, so we advertised in the local newspaper and sought the public’s assistance”, says Sabina Wolfram, the museum’s curator.

From the Schocken Museum exhibit. Photo by Ofer Aderet

The response was impressive. Clients and children of former employees came forward with cameras, boxes, records, shoes, gloves, clothes, porcelain items and even a tennis racquet, nostalgic items which were collecting dust in the attics of older family members. One person surprised the curators when he brought a big metal plate with the Schocken name emblazoned on it, as well as a list of cities in which there were branches of the chain. Wolfram says the man found it in his yard. It now holds a central place in the museum.

The curators also found postcards and songs composed by employees when they went on vacation at a rural guesthouse run by the company. They also collected guidelines for proper behavior that Schocken set down: “Employees must show wisdom and a good understanding of customers and their wishes; the salesperson should be a good advisor to clients who are unsure or who don’t know enough about a product; salespersons should treat complaints in a calm and sociable manner; a good response to a complaint is the best advertisement.”

Schocken department stores stood out. The encyclopedia of the pioneers of the Yishuv (Jewish residents of pre-state Palestine) edited by David Tidhar states that “effective methods in purchasing, organization and selling enabled customers to find items easily and with minimum bother. Schocken developed his commerce with scientific methods, endearing his style among customers. His improvements led to growth, making him an important factor in Germany’s commercial world.”

From the Schocken Museum exhibit. Photo by Ofer Aderet

The chain strived to become more than a shopping center. “They realized they had to be unique in order to survive, and branded themselves as high-quality but inexpensive”, says Wolfram. “They treated customers respectfully and the service was good.”

In addition, the department store tried to educate customers to be modern consumers, cultured and with good taste. The short tight dresses they sold were compatible with a modern look for women, and eau de cologne was sold to the modern man. The music department sold American hits and the book department sold learned books, written specifically for the chain by leading writers, covering topics such as psychoanalysis and sexuality, popular science and economics.

Schocken also tried to change the undergarment market, fiercely opposing selling long underwear, which he detested. He tried his best to convince customers to change to short and more hygienic underwear.

A metal plate with the Schocken name emblazoned on it displayed in the exhibition. Photo by Ofer Aderet

Artists from the Bauhaus school were hired to design advertisements, notices, signs and leaflets, and even receipts and price tags. He described his advertising as a work of art, designed as folding pictures with two pages of product information. In an ad for women’s stockings, a shapely leg could be seen through a slit in a dress.

The chain also had a quality control division, employing professionals with modern equipment. The chain’s labs tested whether products met specified standards, and its gardens tested seeds and plants sold in their stores.

Before the museum opened, attempts were made to find someone who had worked in the department store. They found Edna Wolff in Kibbutz Ein Harod, who will turn 106 next month. She remembers the Schocken brothers as kind and sociable, even in tough times. “They could count on their employees, and expected to be able to,” she said.

Wolff left in 1935 for Palestine, receiving a book with a personal dedication. “I lived for that job, for my department”, she said.

The Schocken family contributed a suitcase to the museum. Shlomo left Germany for Palestine in 1934, settling later in New York. His chain was taken over by the Nazis. The building in Kamenitz survived the Nazis and Communists. In reconstructing it, an attempt was made to keep it as close to the original it was as possible.

In addition to owning the chain, Shlomo Schocken was also a collector, publisher and philanthropist. He bought Haaretz as a wedding present for his son Gershon in 1935.