Nothing Beat the Spa for Wealthy 19th Century Jews

Where Franz Kafka, Karl Marx and the Prince of Wales Went to Relax

Having a Lovely Time, Wish You Were Here: Carlsbad was one of several spas where wealthy Jews in Central and Eastern Europe went to take the waters.
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Having a Lovely Time, Wish You Were Here: Carlsbad was one of several spas where wealthy Jews in Central and Eastern Europe went to take the waters.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published April 23, 2013, issue of April 26, 2013.
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The upper crust of Eastern and Central European Jews in the 19th century had a solution when their lives became too stressful. They opted for health cures in spa towns, especially at one of three tourist paradises built around local natural mineral waters full of dissolved carbon dioxide that were considered particularly salubrious. In the German language, for the hotels were often owned by Germans, the spas were called Karlsbad, Marienbad and Franzensbad. All three were located in what is now western Bohemia, the Czech Republic. “Next Year in Marienbad: The Lost Worlds of Jewish Spa Culture” offers a fascinatingly erudite glimpse of the joys and sorrows of well-to-do Jews on holiday over a century ago.

Written by Mirjam Zadoff, who teaches Jewish history and culture at the University of Munich, and ably translated by William Templer, the book describes how tourists supposedly seeking health cures would instead gorge on goodies in coffeehouses and delicatessens: “It was a land of Cockaigne where the sense of vacationing in style gave one the impression that the pretzels were crispier, the coffee was better, and even the dietary dishes were tasty.”

Among those Jews in search of crispy pretzels were many not normally identified as sybarites, such as Karl Marx, author of “The Communist Manifesto,” who visited Carlsbad in 1874 to treat an enlarged liver, bad nerves and insomnia, doubtless all caused by capitalism. Then there was Franz Kafka, who in 1916 wrote to his then-fiancée Felice Bauer: “Karlsbad is rather pleasant, but Marienbad is unbelievably beautiful. A long time ago I ought to have followed my instinct which tells me that the fattest are also the wisest.”

Kafka jotted in the margins of a spa guidebook offered to his friend Max Brod more advice on how to be wise and fat: “Of course Marienbad is the only place to go! Breakfast at the Dianahof (fresh eggs, honey, milk, butter), then quickly to the Maxtal for a snack (sour milk), quickly on to the Neptune where Headwaiter Müller presides over lunch, to the fruit vendor to stock up on fruit, a brief nap, then a bowl of milk at the Dianahof (place your order beforehand), quickly to the Maxtal for sour milk, on to the Neptune for supper, then sit awhile on a bench in the public park and count over your money, then to the pastry shop…”

Just how many of the exuberantly gorging guests at these spas were Jewish remains debatable. Zadoff cites one 19th century study which claims that only 10 percent of tourists in Karlsbad were Jews, while another authority asserts that fully half of the city’s visitors were Jewish. Certainly a considerable population of Jews seemed to frequent the places, as the pioneering American Jewish costume designer Aline Bernstein wrote with some hyperbole in 1928 from Karlsbad to her lover, the novelist Thomas Wolfe: “I’ve never seen women so beautifully dressed anywhere, the finest from all over the world, and Jews, Jews, Jews, from the richest to the poorest.”


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