Maximilian D. Berlitz, 1890

Maximilian D. Berlitz, 1890

Maximilian D. Berlitz


German-Jewish immigrant Maximilian D. Berlitz founded the first Berlitz School of Languages in the United States in 1878. He went on to create a company that made his name synonymous with foreign-language instruction in the United States and throughout the world.


German-Jewish immigrant Maximilian D. Berlitz (born David Berlizheimer, April 14, 1852 in Mühringen, Kingdom of Württemberg; died: April 6, 1921 in New York City) founded the first Berlitz School of Languages in the United States in 1878. He went on to create a company that made his name synonymous with foreign-language instruction in the United States and throughout the world. He was a pioneer in the field of language acquisition and is best known for having marketed the eponymous Berlitz Method of Language Instruction worldwide in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The business he founded survives to this day.

Family and Ethnic Background

David Berlizheimer was born in the rural village of Mühringen in the Black Forest region of the southern German Kingdom of Württemberg on April 14, 1852.[1] His ancestors were German Jews who had migrated to the region from Markt Berolzheim in Bavaria during the eighteenth century. His grandparents were Joseph David (1761-1855) and Gustel (née Kaz) Berlizheimer (1799-1861). Joseph David and Gustel’s father Moises Kaz (1750-1829) were granted the status of protected Jews by the owner of the feudal estate of Mühringen. The baron only allowed Jews with sufficient assets to reside officially in his small feudal estate, and granted them a letter of protection in exchange for an admittance fee and a yearly protection payment.[2] Joseph David was one of the Jews who early in the nineteenth century gradually rose from peddler to trader and became the largest trade taxpayer in the village. He served as the president of the Mühringen Jewish community, and in that capacity he acted as the liaison between the Jewish community and the village and county governments.

Joseph David and Gustel had three sons and a daughter. Two sons continued their father’s trade of manufacturing and selling fabrics. David’s father Löw (1799-1865), however, did not join his brothers in the cloth trade. Instead, at the late age of twenty-nine, he decided to train at the Esslingen Teachers' Seminary to be a cantor and religious teacher. There he started using the German spellings of his given name, Leopold, and his surname Berlitzheimer (adding the “t”). He married Caroline Heilbronner (1814-after 1866) from Mühringen in 1841. Leopold served the small Jewish community of Massenbachhausen for several years. Conflicts about his salary and accommodations, as well as his poor health and unsatisfactory cantor and teaching assessments, forced Leopold to return to Mühringen. David Berlizheimer was born in Mühringen during the years when his father only held temporary teaching positions. Leopold was hired by another very small Jewish community in Markelsheim in the late 1850s. He died there in 1865 leaving his widow with three children. David was only thirteen when his father died. His mother remained in the Markelsheim and Mergentheim area and received a little financial support from the Jewish administrative boards.

David’s relatives in Mühringen were unable to help his family. Financial difficulties and deaths had forced one of his uncles’ widow and her young children to emigrate in 1857. David’s older brother Isaac enrolled in the Esslingen Teachers' Seminary for the class of 1864 to 1866, but in 1865 he presented his emigration application. At eighteen Isaac sailed from Hamburg to New York.

At that time, all Jewish boys in the Kingdom of Württemberg were legally obligated to attend an academic institution or to train as an apprentice in an approved trade.[3] David’s mother received a stipend in three installments from the Jewish Administrative Board to pay for his apprenticeship from 1866 to 1868 with a watchmaker in Mergentheim.[4] With no financial resources for further education and no family connections to facilitate employment in the region, David, like many other young Jewish and non-Jewish Germans, decided to leave his homeland. Two years after his apprenticeship ended, at age eighteen, David traveled north to the port of Bremen and departed on the SS New York for New York City, arriving on June 30, 1870.[5]

Early Years in America

In America, young Jewish immigrants typically sought out relatives or fellow Jewish immigrants from the same village. David did not follow the pattern. He did not join his brother in Cincinnati or later in Philadelphia. He did not settle with his cousins in Chicago. He did not go to live with his sister Hanna who emigrated separately in 1870 and settled in New York City. Instead he sought work as a machinist in the small community of Westerly, Rhode Island, just east of the Connecticut border, where fewer than six Jewish families resided, none of whom shared Old World connections to him or his family.

In 1872, after only two years in America, twenty-year-old David changed his given name to Maximilian. He married eighteen-year-old Lillie Bertha Ehlert the same year. Lillie had been born in New York City in 1854 to German immigrant parents Ferdinand and Christina Ehlert and was living in North Adams, Massachusetts at the time she met Maximilian. Lillie came from a Protestant family. They married in the Berkshires and continued to live in Westerly, Rhode Island. By 1874 Maximilian had shortened his surname to Berlitz (at first sometimes spelled “Burlets” or “Burlitz”).[6] The same year the couple’s infant daughter was christened in a Protestant church in Westerly.

In 1875 Maximilian began working as a watchmaker, using the skills he had learned during his apprenticeship in Germany to earn an income for his family.[7] He supposedly supplemented his earnings as a watchmaker by giving private Greek and Latin lessons in the evenings and providing language instruction at the local high school.[8] Other accounts of his life indicate that he may have served as a language teacher in a theological seminary in Providence, Rhode Island.[9] Assuming that Berlitz had little formal language training before he immigrated to the United States, he must have learned a number of languages on his own in Württemberg, or very rapidly when he arrived in America.

In 1876 Berlitz moved his family forty-five miles north to Providence and adopted Delphinius as his middle name. Henceforth, he usually used “M. D. Berlitz” in written materials and correspondence. He went to work as a teacher of languages at Bryant & Stratton’s Commercial College in Providence. When William W. Warner took over the college and renamed it Warner’s Polytechnic Business College, Berlitz served as the head of the language department. He taught according to the traditional method of providing instruction in a student’s native language and placed emphasis on grammar and translation.

Business Development

When William Warner departed as head of the Polytechnic Business College, Berlitz opened his first language school, the Berlitz School of Languages, in May 1878. Since he assumed all of the college’s language students, his first school had more than two hundred students, and he employed several teachers.[10] At first, Berlitz and his teachers taught using traditional methods, but Berlitz knew of a new teaching method called the “Natural Method.” This method had been invented by German immigrant Gottlieb Henness and French immigrant Lambert Sauveur. They opened a language school in Boston in 1869 and wrote teaching manuals describing in detail the process of learning a foreign language as a child learns his mother tongue. The new language was taught by pointing to objects and acting out verbs to build a basic vocabulary. Berlitz modified Henness’ and Sauveur’s techniques to create a new language-instruction system he termed the “Berlitz Method,” or simply “The Method.” In the introduction in some of his instructional books and brochures in the 1880s, Berlitz wrote that the “Berlitz Method is based on a system of language instruction generally called the ‘Natural Method,’ (first used by Professor Henness.)”[11] Berlitz’s new system improved on the “Natural Method” in a number of ways: more student participation through clues and suggestions; rejection of the use of assonance as the basis of lessons; and introduction of grammar from the first lesson in an organized manner.[12] Only the foreign language could be spoken during class and teachers could be dismissed for disobeying this fundamental principle. Once Berlitz established this method, he claimed it as his own in advertisements and other public forums.

A July 1878 advertisement in the Providence Daily Journal, placed a few months after Berlitz founded his language school, highlighted his instructional techniques. “Prof. Berlitz” began by offering a three-month daily course in French, German or Latin for $10 (approximately $225 in 2010$) with a free trial period.[13] He emphasized that his instructional method was “original and easy; very little memorizing [was] required; rapid progress [was] guaranteed; [and] individual instruction [would be provided] to every student.”[14] By 1880 “Principal M.D. Berlitz” was advertising the “very best instruction by Native Teachers. Lowest tuition fee.”[15]

In the late-nineteenth century, language schools existed in most cities and towns, but they were, for the most part, very small enterprises limited to one location or city. Berlitz had more ambitious plans for his language program. Slowly he opened branches of his school using his teachers and others as principals. His advertising followed the usual pattern for language schools: schools placed small display advertisements in their local newspapers under the categories of education, schools, or languages at targeted times throughout the year. In 1884 Berlitz reorganized the structure of his organization. He formed Berlitz School & Co. and Berlitz & Co. Former partners and principals became proprietors of specific schools.

Berlitz’s keen marketing sense led him to publish materials that could be sold to his students, which generated a second income source besides the language courses themselves. In 1882 he published his first French instruction book, Methode Berlitz, which sold for $0.75 to $1 (approximately $16.50 to $22 in 2010$). His publishing company brought out books in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, and English. In addition, students were offered grammar books, memory aids, teaching aids, comedies and novels. Self-instruction books, “With or Without a Master,” with English translations were also available. He published Berlitz Method books in German and French for children. Since the Berlitz Method remained largely unchanged for decades, these books could be used with only minor changes for multiple generations. Finally, Berlitz used the first and last pages of his publications to advertise his books and school branches.

Berlitz expanded the range of services to entice students and to enlarge his constituency. As well as offering classes in his well-located schools, he also provided teachers to schools or private residences for private instruction. He offered flexibility since courses could start at any time. Students were able to transfer classes to other branches, which was especially appealing to businessmen and recent immigrants who traveled and moved often. Berlitz’s native-speaking instructors possessed diverse educational and social backgrounds. His schools employed both men and women, and many instructors were recent immigrants themselves. A final key to Berlitz’s financial success was the stipulation (clearly stated in brochures and on signs hanging in each classroom) that all the tuition had to be paid before the first class and was non-refundable.

Berlitz employed a variety of methods to attract and retain new students. French and German lectures were offered to the public for a small fee (free to students of the schools). These were advertised in the city newspapers under “Amusements.” During the hot East Coast summers, when many students would leave the cities for cooler climates, Berlitz started a summer language school in Asbury Park, a beach community in New Jersey close to New York and Philadelphia. Berlitz & Co. published a monthly magazine Le Français that contained modern French comedies, novels, anecdotes, as well as exercises for grammar, pronunciation, and idioms. Translation services were also offered.

Berlitz went through a period of transition as his language-instruction business expanded. He moved his family to Boston in 1882 where his wife gave birth to another daughter. He was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1885 in Boston. In 1886 he moved his family again to New York City where he opened a school in Brooklyn and moved the company headquarters to New York. The next year he opened a school in downtown Manhattan. He quickly moved the school to Broadway and Twenty-Fifth Street where it remained for two decades.

During the late 1880s, Berlitz traveled to Europe on extended trips to investigate business opportunities on the continent. An 1899 interview with Berlitz described his incursion into Germany:

When he made the announcement that he proposed to open a school in that vaunted center of education—the papers all jumped on this American temerity and jumped on it hard. They laughed him and his school to scorn. The idea! Berlitz only smiled a shrewd American smile behind his flowing red mustache. He hadn’t spent thirty years of his life in America for nothing. He knew the value of advertising. He called on the professors at the university [in Berlin]. ‘I have not come to teach you teachers how to talk English and French. Come and see how I do it.’ [He offered free classes for four months.] They came, they saw, and he conquered. In a few months he had his pupils doing what the German teachers had not been able to do in years—had them carrying on conversations in English and French easily. The Berlin experiment turned out a brilliant success….[16]

In 1888 he opened a school in Berlin which was directed from his headquarters in New York. Immediately he began publishing Berlitz Method books with a well-known publisher, Siegfried Cronbach Buchhandlung, in Berlin. He retained the European copyright, and his texts were copyrighted as well. In 1889 he started schools in Paris and London. The expansion in European cities grew at a rapid rate.[17] Most likely a lack of sufficient funds to open his own European schools led Berlitz to appoint several agents who granted licenses for new schools in specific geographical areas.[18]

These international branches opened new marketing possibilities. The Paris Universal Exposition of 1900 (a World’s Fair with attendance of more than fifty million) inspired many businessmen and visitors planning to attend the event to learn French. Berlitz offered special additional classes during the years leading up to its opening at his European and American schools. Since so many of his American-based students traveled for business or pleasure, “special advantages” such as mail and telegram services were often provided to students by school directors.

The growth of foreign travel due to more affordable transportation options and the expansion of international business ventures brought with it an increasing demand for foreign language instruction. The Berlitz organization’s worldwide expansion continued. From four schools with 1,000 students in1883, the organization expanded to eleven schools with 2,750 students in 1888, and finally reached 101 schools (16 in America) with 31,000 students by 1900.[19]

With the impressive growth in the number of Berlitz schools, Berlitz needed to take steps to protect his invention against those who wanted to copy his method or compete against him. The directors of his schools were forbidden from giving any teacher an evaluation certificate. Only Berlitz, “the inventor,” could issue a certificate.[20] In advertisements and brochures, he warned of “unscrupulous” teachers claiming to be Berlitz teachers or imitating its advertisements.[21] In the 1890s and early 1900s, Berlitz brought suits against former teachers who, after signing non-compete contracts during their employment, taught languages—even by other methods—in the same city before two years had elapsed.[22]

Berlitz eventually settled in New York City. In the 1890s, he bought a three-story dwelling overlooking a park in the Bronx. His eldest daughter married Victor Howard Harrison at his home in an elaborate ceremony in 1898. Harrison, thirty-four, was a passenger agent in Washington working for a navigation company. He was born in Italy and was naturalized in 1888. After Victor Harrison joined Berlitz’s family, the structure of the Berlitz Schools of Languages changed in a significant way. Berlitz did not have any sons so Victor Harrison was made secretary and general manager for America and the company became a family-run business. At the request of his father-in-law, he added Berlitz to his surname, becoming Professor Victor Harrison-Berlitz, thus institutionalizing and solidifying his position in the company. At the same time Berlitz parted ways with several former teachers who had become co-proprietors, directors, and officers for his language schools.

The Paris Exposition of 1900 brought the Berlitz Schools worldwide acclaim. Teachers from France’s Berlitz Schools, in a brilliant publicity event, taught groups of native craftsmen from the French colonies of Dahomey and Senegal at the Berlitz School Pavilion. Berlitz personally supervised the event.[23] Berlitz Schools were awarded two gold and two silver medals for best and most practical teaching methods. In connection with the Exposition, the president of France made Maximilian D. Berlitz a Knight of the French Legion of Honor (Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur). He was recognized for his services in propagating the French language abroad and for his textbooks on modern languages.[24] This honor and the medals were included in many advertisements, on the title pages of his books, and on business stationery. Another vote of confidence was given to Berlitz when the Congress of Teachers of Modern Languages of 1900 formally adopted the principles of the Berlitz Method.

The Berlitz Schools of Languages were awarded more medals at international expositions including a gold medal at the 1902 Lille Exposition and the Grand Prize for Excellence in Language Teaching at the 1902 Zurich Exposition. At the 1904 Saint Louis World's Fair (Louisiana Purchase Exposition), Berlitz teachers taught English to the Igorrotes and Moros (ethnic groups in the Philippines) in their exposition villages and French to twenty-five high school pupils in the Palace of Education. As reported, “the progress made by the semisavages in their two months’ studying was extraordinary, as they are now far enough advanced to make themselves understood without difficulty, while the progress of the High School children was no less wonderful, as at the end of three months they could conduct a French conversation intelligently.”[25] The Berlitz Method was awarded the Grand Prize for Excellence in Language Teaching at that World’s Fair. The prizes continued at major international events such as the 1905 Belgium Exposition, the 1908 London Exposition, and the 1911 Turin Exposition.

Maximilian Berlitz received additional personal honors. In 1906 the French Ministry of Education, Fine Arts and Culture made M.D. Berlitz an officer of the French Academy (Officier d’Académie), an honor given to only a few American citizens. In 1910 Spanish King Alphonso XIII bestowed upon “Maximiliano Berlitz” the decoration of the Commander of the Civil Order of Alphonso XII (Comendador de la Orden Civil de Alfonso XII), in appreciation of the services rendered by Prof. Berlitz through his method.

Berlitz’s business continued to expand throughout the world. Schools opened in major cities in Russia, South America, Australia, and North Africa. The growth in the number of schools and the company locations was dramatic during the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1901 the organization operated 125 schools with 27,000 students and 850 teachers, by 1905 the number had grown to 300 schools with 105,000 students, and by the end of the decade more than 350 schools (19 in America) were in operation.[26]

In America most of Berlitz’s schools were owned by the company, but others were owned and operated by licensees.[27] In 1905 Berlitz and two of his European agents formed a company for the management of non-American regions from its headquarters in Paris. It was expanded to the Société Internationale des Ecoles Berlitz in 1907.[28] The Société Internationale owned and operated some schools, owned but did not operate others, and licensed operations throughout the world.[29]

The Berlitz Company claimed many European successes in its press releases about the Berlitz Method, which was referred to as the “American Method” in Europe. According to the firm, the president of France “entrusted the linguistic education of his children to this institution.” Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany placed the firm in charge of administering French courses for future officers at the military academy in Potsdam. “In another Berlitz school the [German] crown prince perfected his knowledge of foreign languages.”[30]

Between 1878 and the first decade of the twentieth century, Berlitz’s business thrived due to increasing international travel and the expansion of multi-national business activities. On July 28, 1914 with the outbreak of World War I, however, everything changed for the Berlitz Schools of Languages and for Berlitz himself. Most American businessmen curtailed their activities in Europe. American tourists no longer crossed the Atlantic on pleasure trips. Current and potential European students were drafted into the armed forces of combatant nations. With Europe at war, fewer residents traveled between countries for business or pleasure. Berlitz described the dramatic and swift impact on his company:

I have four hundred schools scattered throughout the civilized world, and three hundred of them are in the war zones; I cannot even communicate with most of them, and those I have heard from are closed, while my managers and teachers have gone to war, and those same men who served me so faithfully and who did such great work, are against each other in opposing armies.[31]

In 1915 Berlitz wrote one of his school directors that “I have to support so many schools from my private funds currently that I have to be cautious not to get into trouble if the War continues on a longer time.”[32] Shortly after the war, he spent several years in Europe helping with the reconstruction of his schools. Considering that Berlitz was in his late sixties at the time, these efforts seemed to have sapped his strength.[33]

Moreover, following the war Berlitz lost ownership of his European company, the Société Internationale des Ecoles Berlitz. In a private letter to his German publisher in September of 1920, Berlitz explained the series of events that led to his divestiture:

On account of my failing health and the great disorder in our European schools, I had expressed the wish, when I was in Europe, to sell the greater part of my interests. This was however, merely unimportant talk, not seriously meant, and when I left Europe, I had not the slightest idea that anything would come out of it; but about a month after my arrival here [ca. April 1920], without being warned beforehand, I received a cable that a French Syndicate had bought the majority of my stock and deposited the money in a bank at Paris in my name.[34]

Berlitz accepted the “fait accompli” due to his poor health and the challenge of managing the firm’s European operations from New York. He continued to serve as the president of the company and the director of pedagogies in order to assure the public that he maintained an interest in the business. Thereafter the Paris-based Société Internationale des Ecoles Berlitz and the New York-based Berlitz Schools of Languages of America, Inc. functioned legally as separate organizations but cooperated on many educational and publishing matters.[35]

Just shy of his sixty-ninth birthday, Maximilian D. Berlitz died suddenly on April 6, 1921, of a heart attack. His obituaries and articles reporting his death listed his many commendations. He was laid to rest in the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Berlitz’s estate was valued at $210,440 (approximately $2.5 million in 2010$), the bulk of which was in securities valued at $152,410 (approximately $1.8 million in 2010$).[36] Berlitz’s interest in the Berlitz Schools of Languages was appraised at $22,567 (approximately $275,000 in 2010$), and that of his partner and son-in-law, Victor Harrison-Berlitz was valued at $10,750 (approximately $131,000 in 2010$).[37] Berlitz planned his succession to ensure that the Berlitz Schools of Languages would remain a family business. In the formal announcement of his passing sent to business colleagues, his company’s future was clearly outlined: “The Schools and Publishing House will be continued by Mrs. M.D. Berlitz under the same name and under the General Management of Mr. V. Harrison-Berlitz as heretofore.”[38] A few months before his death, Berlitz had written a will in which he left his estate to his wife Lillie. He appointed his son-in-law, who had been his partner since 1900, manager of his United States schools and publishing business. Harrison-Berlitz was to receive half of the net profits. The other half of the profits would go to his widow who was to be consulted on all important issues, although Harrison-Berlitz’s opinion would prevail. If the business were to show a loss, Lillie could “wind up the business” even if Harrison-Berlitz were still alive.[39]

After Lillie’s death in 1925, half the business went to the two children of his eldest daughter, who had died in 1902, and the other half to his youngest daughter, who had one son.[40] In the 1920s, the copyright of the Berlitz books was held by the Estate of M.D. Berlitz. Victor Harrison-Berlitz died in 1932. Harrison-Berlitz’s son appointed Jacques Strumpen-Darrie, a former Berlitz teacher and school licensee, as the controlling interest-holder in the newly incorporated Berlitz Schools of Languages of America. Berlitz’s two grandsons, Victor Harrison-Berlitz Jr. and Charles Frambach-Berlitz (the best-selling author Charles Berlitz) worked for the company for decades. After Berlitz was purchased by British publisher Cromwell Collier and MacMillan, Inc. in 1966, the American and European companies were reunited. Maxwell Communications then bought Berlitz in 1988. The Japanese company, Fukutake Publishing Co. (now known as Benesse Corporation) bought a controlling interest in the then publicly traded Berlitz International in 1992. Benesse acquired complete ownership of Berlitz International in 2001.

Immigrant Entrepreneurship

Berlitz’s life epitomized the mythology of the poor young immigrant who achieved the American Dream through hard work and creativity. In doing so, however, the young Jewish emigrant from Württemberg fashioned a new identity for himself: Maximilian Delphinius Berlitz, an educated, young German with great aspirations. Berlitz deliberately chose to obscure his Jewish roots. He married a Protestant, and he brought his children up as Protestants. Most probably Berlitz did not join a Protestant church formally, but he did live his life as a Christian.

However, Berlitz did not really hide in America. Had he wanted to hide, he would have changed his surname to something completely different and would have altered his birth information. Berlitz provided his correct birth date, April 14, 1852, on his passport applications and naturalization papers. It was also stated on his death certificate and was carved on his headstone. Nevertheless, Berlitz International and Berlitz’s grandson maintained, based on one U.S. Census record, that his birth year was probably 1847 and therefore that he was not born David Berlizheimer.[41]

Berlitz’s direct descendants denied any Jewish ancestry and claimed that his surname had always been Berlitz.[42] It is not known whether Berlitz cut off his ties from his Jewish relatives in America, or they from him. He maintained a relationship with his spinster sister Hanna Berlitzheimer, to whom he bequeathed $1,200 (approximately $14,600 in 2010$) a year for life in his will. On the other hand, it is clear that the descendants of his brother and cousins who remained Jewish did not have any contact with Berlitz. Berlitz’s brother Isaac, who retained his Berlitzheimer surname, owned a hosiery manufacturing business in Philadelphia. He was involved in the Jewish community and maintained his ties to his family in Mühringen. Berlitz’s cousins lived in Chicago where they owned retail stores and were active in their synagogues. The families seemingly never communicated. Jewish Berlizheimer descendants who emigrated from Germany in the 1930s had no inkling that Berlitz was a relative either.[43] Among Jewish-German immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century, Berlitz’s story was not unique, but it was certainly unusual according to anecdotal information. Accurate statistical records do not exist of those who intermarried and left the Jewish community, since often the goal of these Jews was to hide their Jewish roots for personal or business reasons. In any case, it was perhaps more surprising that it was the son of a cantor and a Jewish teacher who was the only first generation Berlizheimer who chose to live as a Christian in America.

It is not known whether his partners, employees, and teachers in America knew he was born David Berlizheimer. In 1887 a former teacher, whom Berlitz was suing, publicly stated in an accusatory manner “that Berlitz’s right name is Berlitzheimer”[44] It is also not known if his German publishers, who were Jewish,[45] and the directors of his European schools knew his background, or if it indeed mattered to them.

Articles reporting his death related various stories of his background that were not accurate but were probably based on the personal history he presented to the public. The New York Times wrote that he came to America as a child.[46] The New York Tribune elaborated: “He had hardly mastered his mother tongue when his parents and three other children emigrated [sic] to this country. The young Maximilian was sent to the public schools in Boston and it was while struggling with the task of getting his lessons in English that the idea [the Berlitz Method]…came to him.”[47]

In interviews during his lifetime and articles about him, his European origins were cited to enhance his background as a language teacher. The Berlitz International website states that he was descended from a long line of German teachers and mathematicians.[48] In the Berlitz International, Inc.’s anniversary book, 120 Years of Excellence: 1878-1998, the company wrote: “He is said to have traveled extensively in his youth and to have been fluent in more than a dozen languages including all the major Romance languages and several Scandinavian and Slavic languages.”[49] While he might have traveled to nearby France after his watchmaking apprenticeship ended in 1868, he would not have had the financial resources to partake in those opportunities he was purported to have had. He came to America speaking German, reading and writing Hebrew, and perhaps some French. He might have been able to teach himself several languages, but it is hard to conclude that he had any formal language training.

Legends and stories, most likely created over the years by Berlitz himself, were part of company lore. According to one legend included in the Berlitz International, Inc. anniversary book, Berlitz found himself one day in a clock maker’s shop in Westerly, Rhode Island, and overheard the clock maker commenting about a clock in the window that could not be repaired. “With characteristic self-confidence, Berlitz boldly offered to try to fix the clock himself. Apparently, he succeeded in getting the works of the old timepiece running again and was hired on the spot by the store owner.”[50] It’s hardly surprising that Berlitz could fix the clock, however, since he had trained as a watchmaker in Germany.[51]

As well as inventing a new personal history, Berlitz constructed a corporate image that reinforced his public persona as an immigrant seeking the American Dream. The most important legend, the invention of the Berlitz Method, is still part of the Berlitz corporate culture. When Berlitz opened his first school in 1878, he needed an assistant and hired an educated recent French immigrant who was working as an elevator operator in a New York hotel.[52] “But when the new teacher spoke, the welcome faded abruptly, for Nicholas Joly’s entire English vocabulary consisted of the numbers from one to eight and the words ‘up’ and ‘down.’ Supposedly, Berlitz instructed Joly to identify classroom objects in French and demonstrate verbs to the students. Six weeks later, after an apparent stress-induced period of bed rest, Berlitz discovered that the language students had made remarkable progress. “Then and there the emergency measure became The Method.” [53] It is not clear if this legend was created during the decades when Joly was Berlitz’s employee and then partner, after Joly’s separation from the company in the early 1900s, or even after Berlitz’s death.

An often-told story that Berlitz taught Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany to speak English in 1890 is also highly unlikely. Such a feat certainly would have been quite a coup for Berlitz, but he did not mention this event in his 1899 interview about his German achievements. Moreover, the Kaiser’s mother was English, and he was thirty-one at that time. Nevertheless, this success story was in the Berlitz International anniversary book and was still on the Berlitz website as of 2011.[54]

The Berlitz Company culture was tested decades later in 1920, when the company could have been torn apart by the European Syndicate secretly buying Berlitz’s stock. Instead, the company, and perhaps Berlitz himself, publicly put a positive spin on the events: it was consistently reported that Berlitz initiated the sale to a syndicate of his European school managers in 1919.[55]


Maximilian Delphinius Berlitz transcended his upbringing as the son of rural German Jews and fashioned a new identity and a new profession for himself in the United States. Berlitz was a showman and a booster for his language acquisition business, but his intelligence and drive were equally prodigious. During the course of his life, he mastered approximately forty-five languages.[56] He gave his name to the Berlitz School of Languages and the Berlitz Method of Language Instruction. His personal history and mystique helped develop his schools into a company still known around the world. The innovations of the Berlitz Method, combined with creative business strategies and advantageous circumstances, led to his entrepreneurial success.


[1] Jewish Family Register J 386 Bü 412 (J2139), 122. Jewish Birth Register J 386 Bü 416 (J2131), 141-2 # 5,State Archives (Württembergisches Hauptstaatsarchiv) Stuttgart, Germany. Maximilian D. Berlitz, passport applications, 1886, 1899, 1904, 1906, 1908, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Washington D.C.; Passport Applications, 1795-1905 and January 2, 1906 – March 31, 1925, (accessed December 15, 2008). Berlitz Naturalization, October 30, 1885, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington, D.C.; Index to New England Naturalization Petitions, 1791-1906. Berlitz Death Certificate, April 6, 1921, Bureau of Records, Department of Health of the City of New York.

[2] Emily C. Rose, Portraits of Our Past: Jews of the German Countryside, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2001), 259-64.

[3] Law regarding the public status of members of the Israelite faith (Gesetz in Betreff der öffentlichen Verhältnisse der israelitischen Glaubens-Genossen), Staats und Regierungs Blatt (Württemberg), May 8, 1828, 301–20.

[4] StAL F 184 Bü 324, State Archives (Württembergisches Staatsarchiv), Ludwigsburg, Germany.

[5] New York Passenger Lists, 1870, (Listed as “David Berldscharmer” and “David Berlischeimer,” age 28 [incorrect transcriptions]), Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1820-1897, National Archives. Maximilian D. Berlitz, passport applications, 1896, 1897, 1899. Berlitz Naturalization, October 30, 1885.

[6] Lillie B. Berlitz and Max D. Berlitz, August 15, 1874, Rhode Island Births & Christenings. Film # 1822626. Max Burlitz, Westerly Census, 1875 (June), 59. Maximilian Burlets, Webb’s Westerly City Directory, 1875-6, 42. M.D. Berlitz, Providence City Directory, 1877, 47.

[7] Westerly, Rhode Island Census, 1875 (June) 59; Webb’s Westerly City Directory, 1875-6, 42.

[8] Berlitz International, Inc., 120 Years of Excellence: 1878-1998, (Princeton: Berlitz International, Inc., 1998), 3.

[9] Robert Sellmer, “Berlitz Schools,” Life, February 24, 1947, 57. Since any teaching work would have been part time, Berlitz likely would not have listed it in the local city directory or on his U.S. Census documentation.

[10] Berlitz School, “Entwickelung [sic] der Berlitz Schools,” Berlitz International, Inc., 120 Years of Excellence,14.

[11] M.D. Berlitz, Méthode Berlitz, (New York: Berlitz Co., 1889), 3. M. D. Berlitz, “The Berlitz School of Languages, ca. 1892, Languages Collection, Warshaw Collection, National Museum of American History Archives Center, 9.

[12] M.D. Berlitz, Méthode Berlitz, (New York: Berlitz Co., 1889), 3-7. M. D. Berlitz, “The Berlitz School of Languages, ca. 1892, 9-13.

[13] All 2010 dollar figures based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[14] Providence Daily Journal, July 1, 1878.

[15] Advertisement, Providence City Directory, 1880, 693 (accessed December 15, 2010).

[16] Jos. Ohl, “What Causes Russian Unrest,” Atlanta Constitution, September 15, 1899.

[17] Berlitz School, “Entwickelung [sic] der Berlitz Schools,” Brochure, Kassel, Germany, ca. 1910 in Berlitz International, Inc., 120 Years of Excellence,14.

[18] Berlitz International, Inc., 120 Years of Excellence, 23.

[19] National Republican (DC), October 20, 1883, 3, (accessed December 6, 2010). Berlitz School, “Entwickelung [sic] der Berlitz Schools,” Brochure, Kassel, Germany, ca. 1910 in Berlitz International, Inc., 120 Years of Excellence,14.

[20] M. D. Berlitz, Letter to Directors, undated, Berlitz International, Inc., 120 Years of Excellence, 13.

[21] M. D. Berlitz, “The Berlitz School of Languages,” ca. 1892, [ii].

[22] Washington Critic (DC), October 27, 1887; National Republican (DC), October 28, 1887, Washington Critic (DC), August 16, 1888, 4 (accessed December 6, 2010). M.D. Berlitz vs. Christian Strack, Decided December 9, 1889, Reports of Cases Argued and Adjudged in The Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, 1890, 491-7, (accessed January 5, 2011). St. Louis Republic, July 2, 1901, 5, (accessed December 6, 2010).

[23] Jules Charles-Roux, Exposition universelle de 1900, Les Colonie française, (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1902), 216-219. New York Tribune, March 15, 1900, 10 (accessed December 6, 2010).

[24] Chicago Tribune, September 11, 1901, 14.

[25] St. Louis Republic, November 6, 1904, Part IV, 8.

[26] Berlitz School, Washington DC, marketing material, 1901, Berlitz International, Inc., 120 Years of Excellence, 14, 23, 116; Washington Times, October 8, 1903, 3 (accessed December 6, 2010). New York Tribune, November 11, 1904, 14; Berlitz School of Languages, Freiburg, Germany advertisement, 1907; and “Berlitz Language Schools Unite after 48 Year Split,” Bakersfield Californian, September 16, 1967, 31 (accessed April 24, 2011).

[27] Berlitz International, Inc., 120 Years of Excellence, 22.

[28] Berlitz International, Inc., 120 Years of Excellence, 22. Letterhead, December 29, 1906, private collection.

[29] Berlitz International, Inc., 120 Years of Excellence, 24-5.

[30] Los Angeles Herald, September 4, 1910, 2 (accessed December 6, 2010).

[31] Adams County Union Republican, September 9, 1914, 7 (accessed April 24, 2011).

[32] Letter, M.D. Berlitz to Mrs. Mühlhof, November 11, 1915, and February 11, 1916, private collection.

[33] Letter, M.D. Berlitz to Otto Süβapfel (owner of Siegfried Cronbach publishing company), December 4, 1919 and May 20, 1920, private collection.

[34] Letter, M.D. Berlitz to Otto Süβapfel, September 17, 1920, private collection.

[35] Berlitz International, Inc., 120 Years of Excellence, 26-7.

[36] New York Times, April 25, 1924, 2.

[37] Maximilian D. Berlitz, Last Will and Testament, Written February 10, 1921, Entered into Probate, Surrogate’s Court, April 25, 1921.

[38] Death Announcement, private collection.

[39] Maximilian D. Berlitz, Last Will and Testament.

[40] Maximilian D. Berlitz, Last Will and Testament.

[41] Berlitz International, Inc., 120 Years of Excellence, 2. Charles Berlitz, interview by Emily C.Rose, 1999. Michael Palm, Director of Marketing, Berlitz Languages Services, letter to Emily C. Rose, September 20, 2001.

[42] Charles Berlitz, interview by Emily C. Rose, 1993-99.

[43] Berlizheimer descendants, interviews by Emily C. Rose, 1993-99.

[44] Washington Critic (DC), October 27, 1887; National Republican (DC), October 28, 1887.

[45] Fritz Homeyer, Deutsche Juden als Bibliophilen und Antiquare, (Tübingen: Mohr, 1963), 137.

[46] The New York Times, April 7, 1921.

[47] New York Tribune, April 7, 1921,13.

[49] Berlitz International, Inc., 120 Years of Excellence, 3.

[50] Berlitz International, Inc., 120 Years of Excellence, 3.

[51] StAL F 184 Bü 324.

[52] Descriptions of Nicholas Joly’s background varied: he was a savant (Sellmer, “Berlitz Schools,” 57); he had a degree in literature from France (Berlitz International , Inc., 120 Years of Excellence, 6); he had been a tutor to a prince in Europe (Chicago Tribune, January 6, 1901, 1. New York Tribune, January 6, 1901, 3).

[53] Sellmer, “Berlitz Schools,” 57. Berlitz International, Inc., 120 Years of Excellence, 6.

[54] Berlitz International, 120 Years of Excellence, 16.

[55] Sellmer, “Berlitz Schools,” 58. Berlitz International, Inc., 120 Years of Excellence, 26. Letter, M.D. Berlitz to Otto Süβapfel, September 17, 1920, private collection.

[56] Sellmer, “Berlitz Schools,” 57.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Maximilian D. Berlitz
  • Coverage 1852-1921
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date May 23, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018