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The Haunted Spas of Europe

Jews flocked to retreats like Marienbad, but what couldn’t be healed was Europe’s anti-Semitism

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Munkatch Hasidim in Marienbad. (Courtesy of Pini Dunner)

From the Catskills hotels of yore to the luxurious modern spas in Arizona and California frequented by the Manhattan elite, Jewish resort culture is bound up in our minds with success in the Golden Land. Yet the apricot scrubs and mud-baths with which the daughters (and sons) of American Jewry comfort themselves pale next to the bygone Jewish spa culture of Europe. Thankfully, a new book by Mirjam Zadoff, Next Year in Marienbad: The Lost Worlds of Jewish Spa Culture (translated from the German by William Templer), comes to fill the void left by the destruction of a world once populated by a multitudinous European Jewry who lived and often bathed and relaxed together. Drawing from a wide variety of historical sources, Zadoff reconstructs the Jewish experience at the western Bohemian spas, which she depicts as “Jewish spaces,” places where Jews felt at home after adopting the European middle-class practice of annual spa visits, often in the summertime.

Take Karlovy Vary—or Carlsbad, as this town was known in its heyday, in the first decades of the 20th century. Wishing for a kosher meal, one would have found oneself being asked the kind of kashrut one preferred, for there was a restaurant that catered to the stringencies of every sect. A similar range of choices would confront whoever looked for a prayer house: from imposing synagogues or “Temples” liberal style, to prayer rooms set up ad hoc by Chasidic courts that arrived accompanying their rebbe during his annual cure, and other traditional minyanim for those to whom organs and mixed choirs were unpalatable. While strolling on the famous promenade, a visitor might happen to meet figures of the stature of Theodor Herzl and Theodor Lessing, Yiddish and Hebrew writers such as Judah Leib Gordon, Sholem Aleichem, and Chaim Nachman Bialik, along with hundreds and thousands of other Jewish guests—men, women, and children, who “invaded” every corner of the health resort during the high season. In the woods, one could have bumped into a throng of Belzer Chasidim accompanying the Rebbe, who enjoyed his walks on the forest paths.

Carlsbad, Marienbad, and Franzensbad gained a Jewish clientele that made them veritable so-called Jewish towns, and a rich Jewish life unfolded there, with suitable facilities and institutions. In addition to countless kosher hotels, restaurants and prayer houses that catered for all tastes, a mikveh, and a Jewish cemetery, the local infrastructure included Jewish hospitals, sponsored by large Jewish communities as Vienna, Prague, and Berlin and by private benefactors, which made treatments at the springs available also to the poor—the Jewish workers and petty-bourgeois artisans and small-tradesmen in search of healing therapies for their afflictions.

Who did not come there? Assimilated and traditional Jews, Hasidim and Reform Jews, Zionists, middle-class, socialist and communist Jews from Germany, Austria, Russia, Galicia, and even from America and the Land of Israel, all made their way to the Bohemian spas. Strategically situated at the crossroads between East and West, these resorts were a natural choice for those seeking a vacationing place that offered the required combination of health, sociability, and amusement.

Jews who suffered illnesses such as diabetes, which in the early 20th century was believed to be a typically Jewish disease, often chose Carlsbad—billed as the spa for sugar, because of the composition of its springs. Many others experienced illnesses with nervous components, which were considered typical of city Jews, and they sought the relaxing effect of staying in a fashionable watering place, with its ritualized and synchronized daily routine. During a spa visit, guests typically spent their days in a physical routine recommended by their doctors that combined the use of the waters through drinking or immersion, and scheduled meals, frequently taken in the company of others. The intervals between treatments were devoted to short excursions, parlor games, strolling the promenade, or attending social and cultural events. The routine of the spa visit was perceived as a health-promoting experience. It was not just the waters that contributed toward promoting a feeling of improvement among the sick: There was the journey to the spa, the change of environment, the opportunity to make new acquaintances, the distraction from everyday concerns provided by music and dance, the opportunity to rest and distance oneself from domestic concerns. Spa patients left behind as much as they could their worries about business and domestic affairs and tried to refrain from strenuous activities; even reading daily newspapers was considered “not Kurgemäß,” not appropriate for the cure.

Jewish patients and guests found at these Bohemian spas a unique infrastructure that allowed many Jewish worlds to co-exist, at times even to communicate and interact. Spas were more than anything stages for observing and being observed. The regular visits of Chasidic rebbes are well known and have left behind not only written but also visual documentation. The Gerer Rebbe; the Wonder Rebbe of Sadagora; the Belzer Rebbe and after him his son, the Satmarer Rebbe arrived at Mariensbad and Carlsbad with an entourage comprising sometimes hundreds of followers. As they promenaded in town on their way to the water springs wearing their traditional attires, these outstanding Hasidic figures captured the interest of other guests, Jews and non-Jews—including Mark Twain, who happened to be in Marienbad in 1891 and described the Hasidic presence in town with sympathy and respect. “Uniforms are so scarce that we seem to be in a republic,” he wrote in a chapter of Europe and Elsewhere. “Almost the only striking figure is the Polish Jew. He is very frequent. He is tall and of grave countenance and wears a coat that reaches to his ankle bones, and he has a little wee curl or two in front of each ear. He has a prosperous look, and seems to be as much respected as anybody.”

Zionists, for all their criticism of the decadence of diasporic existence, did not avoid these places; quite to the contrary. Marienbad in particular was a meeting place for Zionist leaders, including Chaim Weizmann, Max Nordau, and Nahum Sokolow, who took advantage of the seemingly peaceful, depoliticized atmosphere at the health resort to expose themselves to different ideas and attitudes that prevailed among Jews. In 1921 Carlsbad, then part of nascent Czechoslovakia, was chosen by the Jewish nationalist movement as the ideal venue for the 12th Zionist Congress, the first to take place following the Great War and the Balfour Declaration. Several hundreds of delegates and thousands of guests convened at this resort to “heal the soul of the nation,” and those who witnessed the enthusiastic atmosphere did not remain indifferent, and they could not but perceive this as a most powerful experience. Years later, a similar venue was selected by Agudas Israel for what turned out to be the last World Conference of Orthodox Jewry before World War II, convened in Marienbad in 1937, with its numerous participants, in their singular attire, dominating the town’s landscape.

But even when there were no huge events, during a regular summer season, Jews constituted a dominant group, and the nearness of heterogeneous Jewish groups in one town offered numerous possibilities for forging the most unexpected encounters. Perhaps only in the permeable social boundaries of Marienbad was it not unthinkable that Franz Kafka could join the entourage of the Belzer Rebbe for a walk around town.

***

This is the bright side of the story. But there was also a darker side, which as Zadoff describes wonderfully in her book was intertwined throughout the Jewish story of these towns. As she traces the “genesis, transformation, and dissolution” of the Jewish spas, Zadoff presents us not with a linear development, but rather shows how the reality of Europe’s growing aversion to Jews was present all along. It is not incidental that even in the heyday of the Jewish presence at the Bohemian spas, Jews had their own enclaves; coexistence with members of other religions was never widespread. Jews lived apart from the rest, segregated within their own (invisible) boundaries, as if in a protected sanctuary—admittedly, not unlike other groups in these international vacation towns, at a time of intensifying national and religious tensions in the final decades of the Habsburg Empire and through the rise of Nazism.

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A note for the curious about our lead art: Tablet magazine reached out to the official Munkatch archivist Rabbi Meir Yosef Frankel who shared the following information about the occasion when Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapira, Grand Rabbi of Munkatch, visited Marienbad and strolled around the spa town sipping mineral water with his delegation. Pictured, left to right, are Rabbi Shlomo Gross, personal shohet (ritual slaughterer) of Rabbi Shapira; an unknown rabbi; Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapira, Grand Rabbi of Munkatch; Rabbi Chaim Ber Greenfeld, gabbai (personal attendant), holding the cup of mineral water; and Rabbi Shalom Eichenstein of Prechnik and Zidichov.

You can see evidence of the international Jewish presence at spas in the Jewish cemetery in Meran/Merano, Italy (in South Tyrol/Alto Adige), a spa (themal baths) and sanatorium (treating tuberculosis) town that drew Jews from around the world (including notables such as Franz Kafka). A number of patients died during their stay — there are said to be graves of people from about 100 places of origin in the Jewish cemetery.

herbcaen says:

Now the spas are inhabited by natives of N Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and Pakistan. Women are given a special Lara Logan treatment of sexual harassment and rape, and Europeans across the political spectrum applaud the rape as an enlightened example of cultural diversity. Every day, the Europeans thank Hitler for solving their Jewish problem and welcome the new immigrants who have replaced the odious Einstein and Hitler with Mohammed Atta and Abu Hamza

Melpub says:

There’s still spa culture in Europe–it is, alas, just not Jewish spa culture. What’s offered in Germany at moderate-to-somehat-pricey but affordable comes with everything but Kosher: hot, salty mineral baths, steam rooms, inhalation rooms offering eucalyptus and birch bark, massage, saunas, saunas, saunas. The spectacular Bad Salzuflen offers all of the above; see my post: http://www.thecriticalmom.com/2012/10/the-critical-moms-guide-to-german.html

SherwoodRobin says:

Wouldn’t
it have been best for these Rabbis and their followers to use their common
sense and to learn to avoid these places like the plague? Study this photograph
carefully, Jewish men dressed this way was once very common in Vienna, Berlin
and Munich for some 55 years (also in Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states) Wherever
the extreme Orthodox groups went their outlandish dress, sect garb, swarthiness
and beards caused anger, resentment and vicious untrue rumours that were
impossible to disprove or dispute. May I add hatred cannot be cured, it cannot
be eradicated and even today is more rampant than ever. It needs to be said the
Holocaust Memorial movement and Museums do more harm than good, and the
resentment they cause among non-jews far outweighs their educational use and
benefit. If you want to be Jewish then the price you pay may be your life, I
wish it was not so.

SherwoodRobin says:

Wouldn’t
it have been best for these Rabbis and their followers to use their common
sense and to learn to avoid these places like the plague? Study this photograph
carefully, Jewish men dressed this way was once very common in Vienna, Berlin
and Munich for some 55 years (also in Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states) Wherever
the extreme Orthodox groups went their outlandish dress, sect garb, swarthiness
and beards caused anger, resentment and vicious untrue rumours that were
impossible to disprove or dispute. May I add hatred cannot be cured, it cannot
be eradicated and even today is more rampant than ever. It needs to be said the
Holocaust Memorial movement and Museums do more harm than good, and the
resentment they cause among non-jews far outweighs their educational use and
benefit. If you want to be Jewish then the price you pay may be your life, I
wish it was not so.

So apparently your answer to ignorance and hatred is to run and hide, disowning ones self because hey, the racists and bigots of the world must be appeased, and if – GASP! – we actually remind them of the outcomes of their philosophy when translated into actual actions that result in death and destruction.

In your mind better we should not exist because by exposing others to ourselves, we soil their delicate sensibilities which would result in our death.

Got it.

Or, conversely, state that the bigots and racists can go F*ck themselves and take their hatred with them.

If they have a problem with others then its their problem, not ours, and we will be damned if we offer up our throats to be slit for their enjoyment. Never again means something to us, Robin, and that means that we won’t change our garb, whether it is as simple as a kippa, and possibly (horrors) a beard and tzitzit, or even as elaborate as full Chasidic dress. It also means that we will continue to remind the world that if it allows hate-mongers to rampage unchecked, that the death and destruction strewn by such evil people, won’t just be limited to Jews.

“Common-sense” means standing up with pride for oneself, and not allowing bullies to rule the proverbial playground.

Karlsbad was spelled with a “K”!

Excellent article the one point to note is that the Jewish diseases are due to intermarriage not due to food. The prevention is simpe these are all autoimmune diseases see http://www.cispusa.org

TELEFORA LIMITED says:

Jacob, great for you, what an hero and a fool you are. But please, under no circumstances must you ever let me deter you one bit, all I ask is that you walk or drive your son and daughter to school, and take heed of my warnings that each year some Chassisdiche die, very few admittedly, but a death is a death is a death not that you would care or notice. It becomes a deadly serious game when some madmen who achieve power like for instance Corporal Hitler and chicken farmer Himmler choose Jewish law abiding persons as their target, I guess you already know that most wannabe Hitlers and Himmlers cannot recognise a Jew if he was sat opposite them on a train, bus or in a restaurant, but dressed in Chassidic Garb well they become obvious targets, sad, sacred targets who tend to avoid dangerous places, and by the rule of common’sense have learnt to avoid areas in which racist trouble repeateadly occurs. So good luck, stick to Harlen, Watts, pass a few days in Gaza, and when you have time read up on orchestrated anti-semitismn, the camps, and dare I say it the Rabbonim who died, MTDSRIP.

We’ve learned Teleafora, that it doesn’t matter how we dress, it doesn’t matter where we go to shul or for entertainment, that the Jew Haters and worse, those that seek to murder Jews will search us out.

You saw it in Argentina when the local JCC was bombed. You saw it in Bulgaria when Israeli tourists were bombed. You saw it in Cyprus when the government there arrested a member of Hizballah who was told by his masters to seek out places where the Jews congregate – not just kosher restaurants, but hotels too. And these are just a few examples. The list is long and notorious.

But the idea that if we run and hide – show an assimilated face to the non-Jewish world, or run behind locked doors and thick walls – only then will we be safe – is narishkeit. They’re going to try to come for you anyway.

If that’s the case, then why hide? Why cower? Why beg and plead for our lives when in the killers hearts, we should be dead anyway?

How much should we give up? Kashrus? Shabbes? A synagogue?

Then President Reagan used to say the best defense is a good offense, or as the sages said – if someone comes to kill you, kill him first.

Hello,
Would you allow me to use the photograph of the Grüngard family in Marienbad, 1922, courtesy Anat Feinberg, Stuttgart for a book I am preparing about iron? Or otherwise perhaps I could write to the owner?
I cherish a small, rust-covered object from the Carlsbad wells and was so happy to find old photographs of the place in its glorious times.
I would duly credit the image (1/4 page inside the book).
Yours sincerely,
Pauline van Lynden
The Netherlands

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Jewish Spa Culture

Images from the lost world of prewar European health retreats
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