In this sociological study of the spas of western Bohemia from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the rise of Nazism, Zadoff, a professor of Jewish culture at the University of Munich, proposes that Jews made up a large segment of spa visitors and left a distinctive cultural imprint on the towns of Marienbad, Carlsbad, and Franzensbad. To make her point, she quotes generously from well-known Jewish writers and artists who spent time there, such as Franz Kafka, Arthur Schnitzler, Israel J. Singer, S.Y. Agnon, and Chaim Bialik. These extended quotes give a much more vivid portrait of spa time than Zadoff’s academic prose, but that’s to be expected.
The Bohemian spas built around mineral springs were to Western and Eastern European Jews as the Catskills were to Northeastern American Jews in the 40s and 50s — a place to get away, to show off, to relax, to eat, to flirt, to pretend to be concerned about one’s health, and for some to be genuinely concerned. At a time when medicine could do relatively little, the fresh air, the woodland trails, the mineral springs, the medical consultations — all at least did no harm. Zadoff makes the point that Jewish doctors, who were routinely discriminated against in the academy, could build reputations as spa physicians as well as add to their incomes. In fact, Zadoff argues that physical or rehabilitation medicine, dominated by Jews, was established as a science at the spas, where these doctors had the chance to try out different techniques and see which were more effective.
The spa towns created spaces of cultural diversity among the Jews too. They attracted observant Hasidic Jews as well as the assimilated Jews of Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. The Polish and Lithuanian Jews stuck closely together, renting entire floors in hotels for the rebbe and his court, and were a source of fascination for those visitors from Western Europe. There was also plenty of standard anti-Semitism in the spa towns, and postcards with crude jokes and cartoons of Jews were everywhere.
Collections of Jewish history would benefit from this relatively narrow study, but the casual reader may be better off with Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain or Aharon Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939 for a portrait of this aspect of European Jewish life.