The Haunted Spas of Europe
Jews flocked to retreats like Marienbad, but what couldn’t be healed was Europe’s anti-Semitism
Of course, many hoped and believed that things would evolve differently. Back in the 18th century, in the early stages of Jewish acculturation, spas offered communicative spaces where social and religious differences could be bridged; they seemed to be ideal places for practicing the principle of religious tolerance. When German Jews started flocking to the fashionable spas, these cosmopolitan settings in which the ideal of sociability was nurtured offered a stage for interreligious encounters. Moses Mendelssohn, the famous Jewish philosopher, spent two summers in Pyrmont in northern Germany in the early 1770s, and in addition to the strenuous therapeutic treatment he underwent in the hopes of recuperating from the mysterious illness he suffered, he socialized with non-Jews, as did other members of the Jewish economic and intellectual elite. It was in Carlsbad in 1795 that Sara and Marianne Meyer, two sisters from the Jewish elite in Berlin, established a lifelong friendship with none other than Goethe. Jewish women from the famous Eskeles dynasty in Vienna also socialized with the famous writer during their common stay in Carlsbad and Franzensbad. It was while vacationing at this latter spa in 1797 that another Jewish woman, the Breslau-born Esther Gad, then an aspiring author, made the acquaintance of Jean Paul Richter, a German writer widely admired at the time.
However, inter-religious sociability failed to become the dominant feature of the spa. It was rather Bäderantisemitismus, the specific type of anti-Semitism evident at spas and resorts, that eventually gained the upper hand. At intimate spas in Germany anti-Semitism was outright and expressed itself in a direct rejection of Jewish visitors, with some petty bourgeois localities purposely fostering this image; in the large, international spas in western Bohemia the anti-Semitism was more genteel: Jewish summer guests received friendly and courteous treatment, but during the winter the latent hostility was given free rein, and aggression was turned toward the local Jewish community. On the eve of World War II, even the summer idyll was shattered. By the end of 1938, six weeks after the Nazi invasion, Marienbad locals boasted in the Marienbader Zeitung: Our town is judenfrei.
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