By Abraham Cahan, Translated by Chana Pollack
Stern appearing and a dedicated Litvak workaholic journalist with a successful fiction career, Abraham Cahan, founding editor of the Forward newspaper, might be the last person you'd expect to see taking the spa waters at Karlsbad.
But tucked into the fifth and final volume of his memoirs is the story of his tummy troubles pre-World War I and a detour on his European tour, on his return from Galicia, to the spa. Out in nature, strolling with the friendly public, meandering between café and park, Cahan has a kind of magical realist epiphany beneath the sun about how the pathways of Karlsbad are the ultimate social equalizers.
There he observes royals, commoners, the wealthy and the poor, Hasidim and secular Jews, all strolling along, eager to heal what ails them.
Returning from Galicia, I wended my way to the city of Karlsbad, with its baths about which I’d heard so much. They impressed me from the first minute, though I didn’t believe the waters there would cure my stomach ailment. But I had a bit of hope.
The air had a unique affable sensibility, and the folks around the baths, in the parks and streets, in the cafés and restaurants seemed unfettered and worry-free. You forget they’re sick, each with their own physical ailments. The overall mood was replete with a spirit of democratic fellowship. Apparently, that’s how it is at all spas. Millionaires and the impoverished, members of royal families and commoners standing in line together, mugs in hand, waiting for the consecrated water.
Mornings, when everyone goes to the cafés for breakfast, are so pleasant. Only coffee is served, and one brings one’s own rolls. You could order breakfast there, with butter, cheese and jams or ham, if you like. But only the rare outliers order that. The custom here is to bring along your own food. A few folks stand outside each bakery. Row by row, patient, leisurely purchasing rolls for a few kreuzer. They soon come back out, holding a few paper bags, and that’s how one strolls, rich and poor alike. It could be that someone is a wealthy banker, a government minister, a public intellectual or even a sales agent or bookkeeper somewhere, all seeking respite here in Karlsbad. And everyone’s holding those paper bakery bags. If one were back home and saw the rich and powerful walking the streets this way, one would be tempted to call for a psychoanalyst to help them. But here, it’s normal. The unifying effect of poor health has taught each of us how insecure life is, and how ludicrous pride is. Whether or not this is really the reason why—it’s fashionable to buy your rolls at the bakery and amble over to the cafe with them. We march with our rolls, pleased with ourselves and with God's creation, like respectable Jews in tallises and tefillin on the way to synagogue.
The most important part of this type of procession takes place across an avenue that follows the Eger River to the emperor’s park. It’s a double wide street, half designated for cars and half a thinly covered sand path for pedestrians. It’s a lovely avenue. There, one can spot the most expensive women’s fashions. Jews in long caftans with sidelocks in a variety of hats seen willy-nilly on all other streets and parks of Karlsbad, are fewer there. Past Cafe Sanssouci, one doesn’t see them at all. Jews in modern clothing and the non-wealthy abound. The air is heavenly. One strides along, feeling inspired to sing. Your appetite develops rapidly here, and the emperor’s park with its large cafe attracts you like a magnet. I stopped from time to time to observe the crowd, watching their faces, mannerisms and frequently their clothing, noting all the various nationalities, classes and types. Right in front of me was a thin Russian priest in a light blue cassock with a massive golden crucifix on his chest, with the sun reflecting on the cross and flashing off his robe. That same sun also shone on the vibrant white byzantine outfit of the Muslim cleric. There was an enchanted aura in the air among the trees bordering the yellow sand, and a special sparkle in the paper bakery bags with the rolls.
In the afternoon, there was a whole other procession—a simple stroll. This too was a fashion parade. The women would show off their outfits and hats. In the parks and on the main streets one saw a lot of Jews in Hasidic outfits, mixed in with the shining officers’ uniforms, showy suits of the civil servants, and the latest styles of women’s frou-frou.
An observant, old fashioned Jew passed by me with his wife, her head and shoulders decked with a plain white silk shawl. Many eyes were on her.
”Who is that?” I asked a Hasid.
He responded with a reverent tone full of delight, noting my ignorance and his own awareness that this is the Sasower Rebbe's daughter and her husband, who is the rebbe of a town near Zlocow, in Galicia. A few minutes later, that same Hasid points out a young wife accompanied by an entire set of older women. One of them was dressed in a completely beautiful modern style with a big hat and au courant outfit: a magnificent wine colored silk dress. Her head covering was a thick kerchief of lovely white silk. She walked proudly yet humbly, and her white silk headscarf shimmered in the sun. Nearly all the other passersby stopped to watch for a while.
“The Yaroviver Rebbe’s daughter!" the Hasid whispered in my ear, catching his breath.
An older Hasidic man and a stylish middle aged one strolled by, deeply engaged in a bit of Torah. I happened to be walking beside them and heard the older man relay a Talmudic anecdote to his companion, based on a meandering bit of Gemara logic. The elderly man interpreted with delight, all the while gesticulating or pointing with a single finger, as though directly attacking his companion’s heart. His other approach was to swat at him and refute directly in his face. The younger fellow countered with his own hands, but merely out of duty, as he was enjoying the line of reasoning and from time to time would interrupt with a verse that hadn’t yet been mentioned or a bit of Gemara as well.
The older man spoke with a soft Lemberg Yiddish, while the younger man spoke German with a strong Hungarian accent. One could sense that he’d studied Gemara in the Pressburg Yeshiva. Once the two stopped for a long while mid-speech, such that the whole thrum of humanity on the sidewalk was also held up.
I recall that at one point the older man was explaining how the master of the universe had expelled some angel from his heavenly realm.
The young Hungarian scholar interrupted in German with his accented “r’s,” that could be heard from a distance. The older man understood the word and nodded in agreement, smiling.
In that same place, each afternoon a group of five or six Hasidic men would meet up. They all wore elegant hats, underneath which swung their long sidecurls. They were all elegant neatly dressed in new clothing of fine material. The eldest of the group appeared to be around sixty years old, a reedy type with red cheeks who gave the impression of being the wealthiest as well as the most scholarly of the group. The second one resembled a savvy merchant, and the third was a pale youth, not exactly thin, with the longest side curls and the face of a middle class Torah scholar. I don’t recall the rest of them. One afternoon they too were deep in Torah talk, and the same occurred with them as with those other two. They ambled around while discussing, bright with pleasure as though all of us other walkers didn’t exist at all. Once, the group stopped the entire procession, at which point an elderly German woman impatiently burst out and angrily had a word with the oldest man. He apologized like a gentleman and spoke to her in German, such that it was hard to believe this was the same Hasid in his long elegant coat and side curls.
The most interesting men and women in the thrum were middle-aged, with dark circles under their eyes. They knew how to enjoy life, embellishing their figures and faces with the latest chic accoutrements. Experienced actors, they had long ago absorbed how to dress up and mug for the stage.
Chana Pollack is the Forward's archivist providing research, translation and production of original Forward archival content.