In the bubble of Marienbad before the Second World War, rabbis and members of royalty came to take a “cure” of water
Over a century ago, Jewish doctors prescribed “solitary forest walks” and Bohemian spring water to their patients. Marienbad, one of three Czech spa towns with a seasonal influx of Jews, was ready to face the onslaught of largely Yiddish-speaking tourists.
Surrounded by dozens of high mineral content springs, Marienbad was where great Torah scholars from Poland rubbed shoulders with British King Edward VII and Sigmund Freud. Adorned with elaborate fountains, boardwalks and meeting rooms, the city was perfect for conventions and conferences.
“In Marienbad they all mingled, and the Rabbonim tried to influence the public in a Jewish and positive way, without upsetting them, ”wrote David Leitner, author of“ Marienbad & Beyond», A book about the role of his family in the Jewish heyday of the spa town.
Before the Holocaust, Leitner’s Hasidic family operated the David Leitner Hotel National, founded by the author’s great-grandfather. Welcoming celebrities and workers, hotel staff learned about world events from the actors themselves, said Leitner, who lives in Manchester, England.
For example, when Queen Wilhemina of the Netherlands visited Marienbad, she saw thousands of people greet Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Spira at the train station. Requesting a meeting with the legendary scholar, the Queen planned to tell Spira – known as Muncaj Rebbe – her inability to produce an heir.
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After delivering a few blessings during their meeting, the Muncaj Rebbe assured the Queen that her lineage would continue. Within months, the Queen was pregnant with Princess Juliana, heir to the throne. (Years later, as Nazi Germany took control of Europe, Queen Wilhemina stepped in to help 80 prominent rabbis acquire entry visas to the Netherlands.)
A stage for politics
Known in Czech as Mariánské Lázně, Marienbad opened its first treatment center – “Le Ballon d’Or” – at the end of the 18th century.
In 1820, Jews were allowed to settle in Marienbad, which they had previously visited for treatment. The community built a synagogue and operated many institutions, as illustrated by dozens of photos compiled by Leitner for his book.
Although Marienbad was never exclusively Jewish, the three great spa towns of Bohemia – Marienbad, Carlsbad and Franzensbad – were often referred to as “Jewish towns. “The Jewish communities in Vienna, Prague and Berlin helped fund a local hospital in Marienbad, which made the sources available to the poor.
At the National Hotel, kosher food and running water in every room was standard. The entrance was flanked by signs indicating the various amenities, including an elevator to upper floors and central heating.
The hotel’s religious facilities included a mikveh ritual bath and synagogue whose ceiling was painted in dark blue. As pride, the foyer displayed a poster with images of 50 leading Torah scholars who frequented the premises.
In Leitner’s view, the most important aspect of his family’s job was “to respond personally and to meet the diverse needs of the wide range of Gedolim [great scholars], by learning from them, their ethics and their personalities. This allowed everyone to learn these lessons and deepen their own Yiddishkeit, writes the author.
A section of Leitner’s book is devoted to recollections of the Third World Jewish Congress, or the “Great Knesset” of the Orthodox movement, organized by Agudas Yisroel in 1937. Kurt Leitner – the author’s father – was the organizing secretary, responsible communication with 5,000 delegates installed in hotels in the city, including his own.
The main congress resolution was clear with regard to Zionism: “A Jewish state not founded on the principles of the Torah is a denial of Jewish origin, opposes the identity and true stature of our people.” , and undermines the existence of our people.
It was the last congress organized by the Orthodox Jewish community before the Holocaust.
“They all got mixed up”
The death knell for Jewish Marienbad came with Kristallnacht in 1938. The synagogue and cemetery were destroyed, and most of the community fled to Prague. The local newspaper boasted of a “city without Jews” soon after.
Kurt Leitner was secretary of the Federation of Czech Jews during the Nazi occupation. According to David Leitner, his father helped publish the founding document, “The Persecution of Jews in Nazi Slovakia,” in which the world was alerted to the stages of the ongoing genocide.
After the Holocaust, there was a modest resurgence of Jewish life in Marienbad. However, in 1972 the main Jewish institutions closed for lack of funding and participation. Since then, the main source of Jewish life has been the flow of Israeli tourists passing through Prague.
“The Jewish clientele in Marienbad is gone and they would love to see them come back, for economic reasons,” Leitner told The Times of Israel. “Many Russians and Germans still visit this unique city and I understand that the Germans buy holiday apartments there.”
At the crossroads between east and west, Marienbad was where Franz Kafka could join the Belzer Rebbe for a forest walk. Although Marienbad is no longer a Jewish destination, Leitner has visited the city several times and said he had a great time.
“Marienbad is not corrupted by modern entertainment,” Leitner said. “There are no pornographic posters displayed and therefore it is a very ‘morally’ clean place for a natural vacation.”