It is spring 1939. And Badenheim, a resort town vaguely in the orbit of Vienna, is preparing for its summer season. The vacationers arrive as they always have, a sampling of Jewish middle-class life: the impresario Dr Pappenheim, his musicians, and their conductor; the bubbly Frau Tsauberblit; the historian, Dr Fussholdt, and his much younger wife; the "readers," twins with a passion for Rilke; a child prodigy; a commercial traveller; a rabbi.
The list waxes as the summer wanes. To receive them in the town are the pharmacist and his worried wife, the hotelier and his large staff, the pastry shop owner and his irritable baker, Sally and Gertie (two prostitutes), and, mysteriously, the bland inspectors from the "Sanitation Department."
The story unfolds as matter-of-factly as a Chekhov play. Finally, the vacationers, whose numbers have now increased by the forced crowding-in of other Jews hardly on vacation, become de facto prisoners in their familiar resort; their "vacation" begins to take on the lineaments of undefined disaster.