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Altmann was the son of Karoline Keile (Tischler) and Karl Chaskel Altmann. His family was Jewish. He entered the textile trade in Vienna in 1915, and in 1919 founded his knitwear manufacturing business. His company grew to employ 1000 people by 1938 before the German Anschluss forced him to flee to London. His brother Fritz Altmann - husband of Jewish refugee Maria Altmann, who made her living in America after the war selling Bernhard's cashmere sweaters - was taken prisoner by the Nazis and Bernhard was forced to sign over the business in return for Fritz's release from Dachau Concentration Camp.
Altmann started a factory in Liverpool in 1938, which he had to abandon in 1939 as a result of The Blitz and the UK Enemy alien Act of 1939, in which all nationals of enemy countries had to withdraw from coastline cities in three days after the declaration of war. After Liverpool he immigrated to the United States, where he started a company in Fall River, Massachusetts. After two years he lost control of his assets. In 1941 Altmann moved to New York City, where he took a job at $50 a week.
The cashmere business started in North America in 1947 when Altmann added the cashmere fiber line; he subsequently opened a factory in Texas. By 1951 it was reported that one in every three cashmere sweaters sold in America came from Altmann's Texas mill.
Altmann also produced clothes in Shetland wool, vicuna and a lambswool/fur fibre blend called "Bernamere". A 1960s advertising tagline for the company ran: "The Legend of a Great Knitter."
Altmann is the father-in-law of painter and fashion designer Ruth Rogers-Altmann.
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