Apr 25, 2016
The editors of In geveb are on break for the week of Passover, eschewing khomets and the internet. (In some spas, patients avoided reading the news, which was thought to aggravate anxiety and slow the healing process.) In case you’d like a retreat of your own, we’ve compiled a list of Jewish spa towns, past and present, to help you while away your days, ease your woes, and emerge with clean lungs and a calm mind.
Best for those with money to burn: Marienbad (now Mariánské Lázně, Czech Republic)
Whether in 1925 or 2015, the town once known as Marienbad has and remains a place to get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. Walk along streets where the Belzer rebbe and his court once strolled or where Kafka once encountered the miracle-working rabbi. If you’re in need of reading material, be sure to pick up a copy of Sholem Aleichem’s 1911 epistolary work, Marienbad, for an insider’s look at the nouveau-riche social climbers who once visited this western Bohemian spa town.
Best for skiing, hiking, and catastrophism: Zakopane, Poland
Situated in the foothills of the Tatra Mountains along Poland’s southern border with Slovakia, Zakopane has been an official health-resort since 1886. Today, instead of visiting a tubercular sanatorium built by Nobel Prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz, you can enjoy skiing in the winter, hiking in the summer, and in summer or winter you can catch a lift to the peaks of Kasprowy Wierch and Gubałówka by funicular. Admire the Zakopane style of architecture, credited to Stanisław Witzkiewicz, 19th century artist and father of the writer Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, better known as Witkacy. What did Witkacy think of Zakopane? Maybe don’t ask.
Best for Zionists with high blood sugar: Carlsbad (now Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic)
Once known as the most fashionable and cosmopolitan Jewish spa town, Carlsbad hosted Jews from across Europe and farther abroad. Its waters were said to be especially beneficial for diabetics, and the variety and intricacy of accommodations available for Jews of many different observance levels, sects, and denominations was legendary. Famous guests included Theodor Herzl, Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In 1921 the 12th Zionist Congress was held here; today it hosts the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, and the springs are still a major tourist draw.
Best for recovering from nationalism: Franzensbad, Germany (now Františkovy Lázně, Czech Republic)
Along with Marienbad and Carlsbad, Franzensbad made up the third stop on the most heavily traveled European spa route; people often traveled from one to another seeking a better cure or simply a change of scenery. Frequent spa patron Theodor Herzl retreated to Franzensbad after a series of frustrating Zionist conferences in 1903 and 1904, hoping to recuperate from his stress, but he died of pneumonia soon after, and his plan to create a Jewish state in present-day Uganda failed. Doctors recommended that women seeking to become pregnant take a trip to the spa town, which was so quiet in the off season that it was known as a “Blessed Isle.” But during the first winter of World War II, the quiet town was transformed by an influx of 500 Austro-Hungarian and German troops who took mineral and mud baths before returning to the front.
Best for tubercular use of daytshmerisms: Merano, South Tyrol, Italy (formerly Meran, Austria)
The Austrian-inflected German spoken in Northern Italy sounds a lot like Yiddish, so you’ll be able to ask the locals for directions if the Italian/German road signs in the shadow of the Dolomites start to get confusing. The current Jewish community is the smallest in Italy, but thousands of Jews once passed through a sanatorium run by the American Joint Distribution Committee on the way to Palestine after World War II. In the interwar period, the town was filled with kosher restaurants and hotels catering to the visiting tubercular population. Famous visitors include: Menakhem-Mendl Dolitski, who recovered from studying literature of the Haskole in Meran during the mid-1870s before embarking on a career as an early Zionist; David Vogel, the modernist Hebrew poet who found inspiration for his first novella, In the Sanatorium, while recuperating in Merano in the winters of 1925 and 1926; and Kafka, himself!
Best for ailing labor activists: Denver, Colorado
Ailing after a lifetime of work? Why not head toward the land once known as the Davos of the American West, the American El Dorado, or—in the words of one rabbi—the tubercular’s gan-eyden. Since the mid-nineteenth century, Denver has attracted large groups of health-seekers with its fresh mountain air and gorgeous vistas. Still looking to see the sites? Why not stop by David Edelshtat’s grave, now located in the Golden Hill Cemetery. The buttonhole-maker turned communist-anarchist’s headstone is engraved with the battlecry poem “My Last Will and Testament” (“Mayn tsevoe”). Famous visitors from the first half of the twentieth century include: poet and translator Yehoash; poet and dramatist H. Leivick; memoirist and sanatorium-chronicler Shea Tenenbaum; and “The White Prince of the White Plague,” Lune Mattes.
Best for German emigrés and anti-fascists: Villa Aurora, Pacific Palisades, California
After escaping Nazi Germany and internment in France, the prominent German-Jewish novelist Leon Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta settled in Los Angeles in 1941. Given the popularity of works such as Jud Süß, Feuchtwanger had the means to purchase the Villa Aurora, a Spanish style villa built in the scenic hills of Pacific Palisades. The Villa soon became a meeting place for the growing community of German exiles living in or visiting Los Angeles, including Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Döblin, Ludwig Marcuse, Arnold Schoenberg, Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, and Fritz Lang. Today the Villa runs artist residencies focused on supporting artists in exile.
Best for the family business outing: New York, New York
While it is possible to find members of In geveb’s staff sweating (from the steam, not the deadlines) at the Brooklyn Banya, if you harbor a grudge like Di Yunge’s Zishe Landau and Mani Leyb, then you’ll want to relax at the Russian and Turkish Baths on East 10th Street in Manhattan instead. The owners, Boris and David, run entirely separate operations, with David’s hours on one week, Boris’s the next. Once the preferred shvitz of mobsters, it appears that a peaceful, if slightly odd, detente now reigns.