92. It never rained at Marienbad

By Peter Fraenkel

Today people appear to have little guilt about lazing in the sun and doing nothing. They flock, unashamedly, to the Riviera or the Caribbean or numerous other resorts. It must have been different in my childhood. People did not abandon their working routine for trivial pursuits.  They went on ‘cures’ to recuperate from serious ailments – though I have a suspicion very many of these were imaginary.

Wherever mineral waters bubbled out of the soil, spa towns had arisen and doctors descended in flocks to sing the praises of these waters. In fact, before a visitor was allowed to sip such waters, a cure doctor had to subject him to a thorough examination and recommend which of the many springs available were suited to his condition.  Soil was dug up and transported to bath houses where trained nurses helped visitors to wallow in brownish-black radioactive mud. Their blood pressure was measured before such a mud bath and again after. Most felt ever so much better after.

Fine gardens had been planted and promenades; good restaurants had sprung up. They frustrated the effects of the diets prescribed by the cure doctors…. And extended the period when curing was required.  Even more certain to ensure obesity were numerous cafés where cherry tart or apple tart or “Streuselkuchen”, all with sugary whipped-cream, were served. And my favourite – poppy seed cake.

Marienbad [Marianske Lazne], and Karlsbad [Karlovy Vivary] in the Sudetenland, just across the border in the Czech lands, were among the more prestigious spas, competing with others further west like Baden Baden and, in Austria, Bad Gastein and Vichy in France. However within two hours or less by rail from my home town Breslau [Wroclaw] there were a dozen smaller and more modest spas. I remember the names of some that came up frequently in the conversation of adults: Bad Reinerz, Bad Landek, Kudowa and Kufstein, though from Wikipedia I learn there were many more. Reinerz is the one I will never forget because while we were taking the cure there in 1934 grandfather Goldschmidt had a second stroke and it was there he died.

In these spa towns there were numerous hotels and boarding houses. There were parks with artificial lakes and sparkling fountains and pretty pavilions where, every afternoon, bands played Viennese operetta tunes to visitors lounging in basketwork chairs in a circle around.

Parks were wonderfully maintained by an army of gardeners. I remember my father joking that every blade of grass was polished twice a day. Natural mineral waters from different springs – some hot, some warm, some cold – were piped to a central Kurhaus.

From the Kurhaus promenades radiated out, some open to the heavens, others sheltered by glass roofs to shield cure guests from every single drop of rain…. and from snow, hail, sleet and the sun. In my memory, though, it never rained at Marienbad. Never.

The glass roofs over the covered walkways were supported on ornate cast iron imitation-baroque pillars. Strolling ‘cure guests’ sipped the miraculous waters from cups with curious protruding spouts.

As a child I was taken to Marienbad several times because grandfather Fraenkel’s will contained a provision whereby his children – my father and my aunt – were, in alternating years, to accompany grandmother Franziska for her annual  cure.

During the Nazi period lending libraries flourished in these Czech (but German-speaking) Sudeten spa towns. They stocked books banned in Germany itself. My father read avidly. Librarians covered these books in brown paper to protect the reader from Nazi snoopers.  I too found reading matter not available back home: American comics in German translation. In Germany comics were banned as un-German. I find it surprising that Goebbels, who was a shrewd propagandist, never ‘aryanised’ comics. The Niebelungen saga might have yielded some exciting comics.

In the countryside around Marienbad there were cafés that became the destination for weekend hikes.  They served coffee and cake but also homemade lemonade and raspberry water for us children. I remember one of the country roads that we wandered was lined by fruiting cherry trees. Most had already been picked by farmers who had leased a stretch of road for picking, but occasionally I could still find a sweet, ripe cherry that had been overlooked. Placards proclaimed this was verboten but my father quoted an old saying “Stolen cherries taste best.”

At the end of a tiring afternoon we usually took a horse-drawn droschke home. I was allowed to sit in front with the coachman.

My father discovered a cousin at Marienbad. Luzie was married to a Dr Preminger, one of these cure doctors. He had one practice in Marienbad which he ran in the European summer and another at Aswan in Upper Egypt for the winter. Attached to his Czech practice there was a well-equipped gym and I was allowed to play there. My problem was my legs were still too short for the exercise bicycles. The doctor’s patients were mainly corpulent Egyptian pashas who wore red fezzes. In their waist coat pockets they carried large gold watches. My father called these Zwiebeln  – onions.

In 1938 Hitler seized the German-speaking Sudeten region and a little later he annexed the whole of Czechoslovakia. Czechs were treated brutally. But Hitler lost this war which he had unleashed and then the Czechs took their revenge. Germans were expelled from the Sudetenland en masse.

Some years after the war I managed one brief stop-over at Marienbad. Many of the fine hotels I remembered were derelict though the glass-covered promenade was being tenderly restored. I found one neglected-looking café open.

All the world had changed but – hallelujah! – that café did still serve poppy seed cake!