One of the most wonderful things to happen to me over this last decade was to discover a family member who not only truly made me believe that ancestral family bonds exist, but has also fulfilled the role of health guru to my ever-searching soul.

Enter Dora Schwarz, my paternal great grandmother (1894-1982) who was once widely known as  the ‘Priestess of Health’ – a moniker she earned through being an early pioneer of vegetarian, vegan and raw foods almost 100 years ago. Of course, there were people pioneering this lifestyle before the First World War (and prior to this even!) but it still wasn’t considered “mainstream” by any stretch of the imagination.

My great grandmother authored a cookbook and ran a successful sanatorium / spa from the 1930s through to the late 1960s. She was born in Innsbruck Austria to a Jewish family and in her teens married Walter Schwarz, a department store and gallery owner who showcased the works of up and coming artists of the time including Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.

In 1917 towards the end of the First World War Dora decided to travel to Zurich to pursue her dream of becoming a health professional and study at the famous Dr Bircher-Benner Spa.

The Swiss doctor pioneered raw food nutrition and vegetarianism and Dora was extremely interested in this particular diet as a means of healing the body. Today Dr Bircher-Benner is probably best known for his muesli, which has become a staple for many in their morning routine.

After achieving her qualifications Dora returned to Austria but when the stirrings of anti-semitism began to rise she decided to leave for Palestine in July 1933. Walter stayed behind to continue running the family business. Sadly he was later arrested by the Gestapo in Vienna and taken to the SS headquarters in Munich where he was murdered. Fortunately Dora managed to bring her three children with her, one of them being my grandfather Hugo.

Once in Palestine Dora set about trying to find premises to open her own health spa and in 1935 she realised her dream and opened the doors to her vegetarian health centre. Dora herself was a strict vegetarian, which in those days is what we today would term as vegan, but the word ‘vegan’ was not actually coined until 1944.

It didn’t take long for the sanatorium to become a place where people travelled far and wide to visit and convalesce and was frequented by many famous people of the time including former president of Israel Zalman Shazar, philosopher Hugo Bergmann, as well as other artists, writers and actors.

Dora Schwarz was promoting the current self care movement well ahead of her time, she was anti smoking, pro exercise and believed that breath work or breathing gymnastics as she called it in her spa brochure, were all key components to a healthy body and mind. Her cookbook very much centres around the consumption of raw fruits and vegetables for optimum health and for healing chronic diseases, as well as including many vegetarian recipes too.

She had a very strong business acumen for a woman of her time and this was evident in the popularity of the sanatorium; it was always fully booked and Dora was always a present figure, giving her undivided attention to her guests in a bid to help them become healthier versions of themselves.

In 2012 I had a lightbulb moment and decided to quit smoking. I had already been vegetarian for many years but decided to pursue a vegan diet instead. I started to research a plant-based lifestyle and after a particularly in depth internet sleuthing session stumbled across Dora’s recipe book and was completely in awe. A little while after that my husband gifted me an original copy of the book in English (it was also written in German and Hebrew) that he had managed to track down in a little antique book shop in Jerusalem, as a birthday surprise. I couldn’t believe the fact that I was actually holding a copy of my great grandmother’s book and as I started to look through it I suddenly became aware of just how progressive she really was. There was a recipe for avocado smash and almond milk – recipes that I thought were ultra modern and hipster and here they were staring me in the face in a book written almost 100 years ago!

It completely amazed me and the book has become a huge inspiration to me, filled with an array of recipes and even a weekly menu guide for the summer and winter months! It also incorporates a separate menu for people suffering with chronic health conditions and how to reverse disease though the aid of vegetarian, vegan and raw foods.

I myself have been a raw food vegan over the years and at one point only eating a fruitarian diet. I spent a lot of time researching veganism and raw food diets originally for the health benefits they had to offer. When I was eating a 100% raw food diet my energy levels went through the roof but I have gravitated to a more varied vegan diet over the years and even though I still eat an abundance of raw fruits and vegetables I do now include equal amounts of cooked vegan foods too. I am not just vegan for health benefits but also for my love of animals and I have enjoyed eating this way for over a decade now.

It has been incredible to uncover the story of my great grandmother and connect with her through the pages of her book. It inspired me to write my own book which centres around her trailblazing life and historic recipes, as well as including modern vegan recipes of my own and a family memoir regaling a brilliantly vibrant yet highly dysfunctional family heritage – all which centres around a shared passion for food.

Article by Author/s
Sandra McDonagh
Sandra McDonagh (neé Schwarz) is a writer, mother of three and Iives in Brighton Uk . She has just finished writing her debut book: 'My Vegan Great Grandma & Me' which is currently sitting with her agent in London. She has also studied holistic vegan and raw food nutrition and holds a diploma in holistic vegan nutrition.

Write A Comment


Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter