Badenheim 1939 takes place during the intermission between the quiet reality of prewar Vienna and the unimaginable horror about to be unleashed by WWII. The story unfolds throughout a series of character studies and vignettes, each moment a pause filled with anticipation and the anxiety that comes with endless waiting.
It is spring in Badenheim, a quiet little summer resort community. As the town hurries and bustles about readying itself for a new season, there is the low ominous rumblings that all is not right. The only ones able to pick up the slight seismic shifts of a new impending world order and identify the poisoned and diseased world for what it is, are the chronically ill. Trude and Martin, together run the town's pharmacy, but since Trude developed a nervous disorder, all she can do is stand by the window uttering vague and cryptic prophecies of the days to come, as her illness seeps into Martin's soul drop by drop.
Slowly, one by one, guests arrive, bringing with them the "moist breath of the big city and the smell of excitement and anxiety." This year, the highly anticipated summer festival is destined to amaze, and as the organizers organize, and the porters unload luggage and musical instruments; the musicians stand by the gate "like tame birds on a stick" waiting for orders and a season of frenzied practice and preparation.
As more participants make their way to Badenheim, a strange quiet monster in the guise of the Sanitation Department, begins setting up a camp of its own. It is a quiet, initially unobtrusive behemoth, with rules, obligations and creeping demands. First, all those of Jewish origins must register with the sanitation department, although the Jewish inhabitants seem beleaguered by yet another census, they are not distrustful.
"A strange night descended on Badenheim. The cafes were deserted and the people walked the streets silently. There was something unthinking about their movements, as if they were being led. It was as if some alien spirit had descended on the town."
After everyone has complied with the obligatory registration, one by one the town amenities begin to become more and more restricted. The water is turned off and the city pool is eventually emptied. The post office no longer delivers mail. A sentry is posted at the entrance to the town, and while people still wander in, no one is allowed out. Food becomes scarce and the people quietly wait for their fate.
They are told that they must all go to Poland. Those from Polish descent are overjoyed and quickly begin to create an esparanto of sorts from the smattering of Polish words they remember from their youth. The others, nervous about assimilating into a new country are regaled with the national pride and glorious past from its lost citizens. All pack. And in a moment all are ready and waiting for the journey to begin. But as the civic noose gets tighter and tighter, they are left in limbo, to wait and worry.
Slowly the endless waiting and monotony begins to gnaw at the souls of the citizens. Some go insane; others, that seemed steeped in insanity become lucid. There is fighting and bickering. Although they share a common ancestry, they are a palimpsest of diversity. Yet all, despite wealth or birthright they have one thing in common, and that is the shared belief in humanity and a naive hope that all will turn out well. One red flag after another is forcibly overlooked and explained away until they are led by guards to an empty train station to await their fate. As the train pulls up with its cattle cars Dr. Pappenheim remarks:
"If the coaches are so dirty it must mean that we have not far to go."
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