Next Year in Marien­bad: The Lost Worlds of Jew­ish Spa Culture

Mir­jam Zad­off; William Tem­pler, trans.
  • Review
By – July 31, 2013

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 Ap­pelfelds Baden­heim 1939 for a por­trait of this aspect of Euro­pean Jew­ish life.

Miri­am Rinn has been an edi­tor and writer for decades, recent­ly retir­ing from a posi­tion as com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ag­er for JCC Asso­ci­a­tion. Her writ­ing has appeared in many news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines and she has won numer­ous awards, includ­ing a Rock­ow­er, for her work. She is a reg­u­lar review­er of books, film, and the­ater in print and on the Web, and is also the author of a children’s nov­el called The Sat­ur­day Secret, which has been cho­sen as a selec­tion by PJ Library.

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