If you find a pre-World War II photograph of several European rabbis together, chances are high that they are either at a large wedding or at a resort of the kind once popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries—where people went to enjoy the putative health benefits of fresh air and “curative” waters. If the picture was taken at a resort, chances are high it was the Marienbad spa (now Mariánské Lázně in Czechoslovakia), a popular destination for Orthodox Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. David Leitner, whose ḥasidic great-grandfather founded the town’s Hotel National, has recently written a book about the spa and its role in rabbinic history. Matt Lebovic writes:
Surrounded by dozens of springs with high mineral content, Marienbad was where great Torah scholars from Poland rubbed elbows with Britain’s King Edward VII and Sigmund Freud. Festooned with elaborate fountains, promenades, and meeting halls, the town was perfect for conventions and conferences.
[W]hen Queen Wilhemina of the Netherlands visited Marienbad, she witnessed 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 the Munkatsher rebbe—about her inability to produce an heir. After uttering a few blessings during their meeting, the rebbe assured the queen that her line would continue. Within months, the queen was pregnant with Princess Juliana, heir to the throne. (Years later, as Nazi Germany took over Europe, Queen Wilhemina intervened to help 80 prominent rabbis acquire entry visas to the Netherlands.)
At the Hotel National, kosher food and running water in every room were standard. The entrance was flanked by signs displaying the various amenities, including a lift to upper floors and central heating. The hotel’s religious facilities included a mikveh (ritual bath) and a synagogue whose ceiling was painted dark blue. As a point of pride, the foyer displayed a poster with the images of 50 great Torah scholars who frequented the premises.