issue 42: May - June 2004 

 | author bio

by Barbara F. Lefcowitz


"I am Josef Goebbels. . .I, too, took the waters at. . ."
—Arnold Lutz

My name is Barbara Lefcowitz. Last summer I spent a few days in Marienbad after trying to teach English to a bunch of kids in Slovakia who thought America’s greatest contribution to the world were video games, preferably those that mixed violence with hardcore sex. They giggled whenever I told them that’s not what America was like, certainly not back home in Hollis, Ohio, where at the time I taught English as a Second Language in a community college when not teaching abroad. But it’s what happened in Marienbad, not Slovakia, that still addles me. So I offer these excerpts from my journals, hoping you might more able than I to resolve my ambivalence about those few days:

July 10, 2003
  How could I have been so foolish to assume this was the setting of the Resnais film? I’m definitely not in that mythic Marienbad whose architecture is an artifact of the imagination, but in the old Czech spa town where they’re terribly proud of the many luminaries who took the waters here. Everyone from Chopin to Goethe to Nietzsche to Freud to assorted pashas, shahs, and kings. Nowadays the guests are mostly middle-class Germans.
      I hate them. There, I said it. Even though all of that happened six decades ago, long before I was born, and no members of my family were in the camps as far as I know. Friends tell me to let go already; I’m much too hung up on the past. Still I can’t help it. They also think I’m too damn serious. At least I should learn to pretend. Live for now, not the past. And forget the future. Cultivate that ironic distance you admire so much on your teaching gigs in Europe.
      They should only know how paranoid I feel now, how positive I am that the Germans are staring directly at me—though I’m far from being an observant Jew. I understand German fairly well, so I know all they’re talking about are their aches and pains, money, family, weather, stray dogs. Sometimes I try to initiate a conversation, I’m not sure why, but then they cut me off. Perhaps I’m using some Yiddish words? They hate me. Maybe I’m more paranoid than I realize? (To quote my Croatian friend Stefan, whose favorite expression is Nema Problema—no problem—even when Serbs and Croats are killing each other.)
      A most serious place, this spa: no facials, body wraps, hot tubs. Among their offerings: underwater thalassotherapy; oxygen infusions; a pot pourri of "gaseous treatments," including the "world famous Mary’s Gas: It comes out from the depth of the Earth, a remarkable atavism of volcanic acts in the Tertiary which erupts from the Earth’s heart . . Eruptions of Mary’s Gas are a unique phenomenon to cure all manifestations of human suffering. . ." There was actually a sign in the treatment center that said This Way to the Gas. I couldn’t help laughing and wondered if anyone else had noticed.

      Yes, Arnold Lutz had noticed. Arnold, a balding 50ish man, one of the few other Americans here. He claims he’s here only because his elderly mother, a tiny woman with a glass eye, insisted he accompany her. From the moment I met him on the hotel verandah, I knew he was not my kind. Something about the lime tint of his spectacles, the large Star of David on a chain around his neck., the thick T-shirt with orange birds he wore despite the heat. Worse, his loud, contentious voice, its shifting accents. German one minute, French the next, then Polish or Russian, all sounding like parodies.
      He spotted me as Jewish right off, I don’t know how, asked me why I was reading Kundera’s Farewell Waltz instead of Faye Kellerman’s latest, something about murder at a mikvah bath. I told him Kundera probably set his once banned novel right here in Marienbad, but all he said was that K. was probably a Nazi like the rest of them. Like every so-called doctor in this place, all former butchers at Terezcin. The nurses, too. . .
      Who the hell is this guy? Too young to be a survivor of the camps. A Soviet émigré? A former Nazi disguised as a Jew? I wonder what Stefan would think, but he’s back in Dubrovnik. He’d probably tell Arnold Lutz to fuck off, right from the git-go, as my Slovakian students would say, courtesy of the previous English teacher.
      On July 12 they’re having one of those "folkloric" evenings, dancers in "traditional " costumes, some cute little games with the audience. Schmaltz, Schlag, Scheisse. I’ve seen them all over the world and you can scarcely tell the difference between folkloric Thai and, say, Acadian. But Lutz’s mother asked me to accompany her son. Seems she can’t stay up late, "please go with my Arnold because he doesn’t like to be alone with Germans." How could I refuse such a sweet old lady? Didn’t realize I looked that old . . . hell, I've only just crossed the threshold into my 40's . . . Two other Americans here, expats named Rick and Amity from Santa Cruz. Amity’s willowy and blonde and speaks in the interrogative, like all young women from California. Rick is kind of cute if you like freckles. They make publicity videos of European resorts and sell them to American tourist agencies. Of course they plan to shoot the folkloric events and have recruited some of the German spa guests to take part. Each will dress up like one of the famous people who visited here, then proceed to endorse the salubrious waters of Marienbad by saying "I came to take the waters at Marienbad," in quick shots that will resemble the post 9/11 infomercials where a collage of black, pink, yellow, old, young, and disabled faces appeared and said one after the other, "I am an American" with an emphasis on the word "I."
      I thought the project was crass, if not downright dishonest, with its pitch for the unity of America and Europe despite recent tensions. But I said nothing. Why bother to criticize people I’d never see again. Besides, there was something oddly comical about the whole thing.
      Lutz, though, was enraged because R and A didn’t choose him: "Who gets a part? Not me, not you. The Nazis, that’s who." Christ, he reminds me of my late Super Jew Uncle Morris, who thought any goy was either a Cossack or a member of the SS. He’d die if he knew I was staying so close to the German border.
July 11, 2003
      Lutz kept talking to me all through dinner. How many spa guests, let alone Americans, could cite even one fact about Nietzsche or Goethe or Gogol or Franz Joseph.? I confessed to not knowing the answer, tried to concentrate on my dumplings. Did anyone at the Thermal Hotel
      know that two of the luminaries, Freud and Mahler, were Jewish? Though personally he preferred Romberg to Mahler and Freud nowadays was a subject for cartoonists. And would I believe that so far I was the only guest to recognize the name of that "boring" French movie, Last Year at Marienbad? I said I could believe it. Of course the French were the worst anti-Semites in Europe. Later, he promised, he would explain to me the movie’s secret Vichy messages and its link with the old spa town where we were staying. I actually began to look forward to tomorrow’s folkloric dancers: better than no distraction from Lutz except dumplings and beer.
July 12, 2003
      Precisely on time out stomped the dancers. Blonde, of course, and wearing identical embroidered aprons over their dirndl skirts and peasant blouses with billowing white sleeves and drawstring necklines. Such blouses were once popular in America. There’s a photo of me wearing one and looking grumpy, I must have been about 6 or 7.
      Stomp, whirl , thump, plunk, circle, stomp. I think the name of the dance is the Schuhplattler though Lutz says it’s the Schutz Staffel—which I just happen to know was the actual name of the SS. He finds his joke terribly funny. Thank god the dancers’ wooden shoes thumped out his laughter.
      Next a garlanded chorus singing the "Lorelei" way off key, followed by the theme song from "The Sound of Music" and—in what Lutz said was an obvious effort to mollify the inhabitants of all anti-Semitic nations within missile-range—a rousing demonstration of Swiss yodeling by a troop of portly old men wearing lederhosen and carrying large steins. The audience cheered and Lutz gave forth his own yodel. Luckily at that moment a gust of wind knocked a stein from one of the yodelers’ hands, the stein crash-landing on the edge of the stage. I found the whole business so funny I was relieved when the Germans laughed too.
      So much for folklore, except for that old beerhall song where everyone puts arms around another and sings Ein, Zwei, Sofort. . .With Lutz’s arm on my right side and a yodeler’s on my left, we joined in. Yes, I admit I like the song, along with some other oom-pa-pah music from the . . . the . . .1940’s. Weimar Republic?
      Then Rick and Amity announced the start of the publicity video, what an honor it was to make a film in Marienbad, etc. A man wearing a sign that said Chopin and dressed in a tuxedo so tight it made his cock bulge crossed the stage, pretended to jump into a makeshift pool, said "I took the waters at Marienbad," then quickly left, forcing a few delicate coughs, while somewhere in the background a cassette played the first two measures of the Prelude in A minor. Light applause. Next up was" Liszt," looking absolutely rakish in a red wig. He said the requisite line in Hungarian as well as German and English, tossed a rose to a young lady in the audience whose deeply cleaved breasts leapt from her halter top, did his pool thing and vanished to a lusty version of his Valse Obliee. More light applause. And so on, luminaries climbing onto the stage like baseball players coming to the plate in a prearranged batting order intelligible only to the directors, since Albert Schweitzer preceded both Gogol and Heine. I was nearly asleep from boredom when suddenly it happened:
      "Dvorak" having done his thing, Lutz climbed onto the stage and shouted "I am Josef Goebbels. I, too, took the waters at . . ." . He repeated his speech in German and then, lifting my hand, added: "This lovely young woman is my wife Magda . . ."
      At first the audience was too stunned to respond. But soon they began to chant MAGDA, MAGDA ! ordering me on stage. I pretended not to understand though I feared they would lift me forcefully. Boos and catcalls, the Teutonic/Bohemian versions of Bronx cheers. When I failed to respond someone shouted "We know who you are, you little Jewess! You’re Anne Frank! " Thank god for Nietzsche, who gently told me to "chill out. " The Emperor Franz Joseph unsuccessfully struggled to wrest the microphone from Lutz, who kept ranting: COME ON, GOERING, WHERE ARE YOU? WHERE’S HIMMLER? YOU CAME HERE TOO! YOU FORGET ALREADY?
      Ja, Ja from the audience: WHERE’S EVA BRAUN? WE WANT EVA! WE WANT EVA! Cheers, stamping of feet, rhythmic clapping. Lutz said I should pretend I was Eva but despite the generous quantity of beer I had drunk at dinner, all I could manage was a whisper that I was Barbara Lefcowitz from Brooklyn. "I guess improvisational theater is not your schtick, Bubele," Wagner said.
      I wanted to hide behind the statue of the spa’s founding father. But that would only attract more attention. Besides, I admit I was getting more curious about the Teutonic sense of frivolity. Lutz himself was now laughing. Yes, laughing along with Wagner and Goethe as they gave him high-fives, followed by the rest of the cast. "Enough of the Holocaust," someone shouted from the audience. "Don’t you Jews have anything else on your minds?"
      "Yes, money," Lutz answered. "Money and power. Today Israel, Tomorrow the World." And he laughed some more, joined by the no longer startled audience.
      Soon everyone, including spa guests and a few people from town, was roaring and clapping and stamping their feet. Since I was sitting in front I could hear clearly the words of my new pal, Nietzsche : "Thus spake the boorish American Jew. . .But Never Forget, my friends. Never Forget that Christians are no different. Because of religion, man has been a manifold, mendacious, artificial and opaque animal throughout the course of history. . ."
      "Faustian," said Goethe. "I should have gone to Italy."
      " I’m going home," said Dvorak, humming the refrain from his New World Symphony, composed when he visited America. Going home, going home/ I’m a-going home . . . Even Freud added something about America being a gigantic mistake. What a kick. . .I couldn’t imagine such intellectually subtle antics back home. When a battalion of pashas and shahs surrounded Lutz and were about to carry him off I actually felt sad. But King Edward VII , known as Bertie to his many intimates, spoke up and, as if on cue, Lutz left the stage on his own.
      "Peace, peace." The King raised his fingers in a 60’s style peace sign, but turned one of them the wrong way, so according to international body language he was saying fuck you. "Peace. We must respect our American cousins, men and women who lack our centuries of cultural breeding. . ."
      He quickly lost his audience when a woman representing the late Czech opera star Ema Destinova strutted on stage and announced she was Brunhilde. Cheers. Wagner, of course, followed, declaring himself Siegfried. And the Schuhplattler girls decided they were Valkyries. Soon everyone was rushing on stage, shouting, singing, drinking beer from a barrel that was supposed to be another folkloric prop; yodeling; fencing with walking sticks; even raising hands in what I assumed was a parody of the Nazi salute. But I wasn’t positive. And certainly Lutz, back next to me, was sure it was the real thing though Hitler could nowhere be found—that is, until a slim man with slicked black hair and a cardboard mustache marched towards the stage.
      Pandemonium. Someone tried to stop the man but was blocked by several women dressed as witches. Ah, so it was Walpurgisnacht. How could I have forgotten? One of the women, the heftiest, stripped off her costume and mounted a broom, presumably to capture the putative Hitler, but he had escaped into the hills and nobody cared about him anymore. With broom-mounted witches leaping high over my head, I realized the boundary between folkloric and libidinal lunacy had been crossed, so it was no surprise when the evening turned into an old-fashioned pool party, naked bodies plunging into the thermal bath, cavorting and singing and, yes, indulging in varieties of sexual play, much of it below the surface but still visible.
      Ema Destinova, the Czech opera star, her stoutly dignified figure now totally nude down to her ringlets of auburn pubic hair, began to remove my skirt and blouse. But that far I couldn’t go. . .I insisted on removing my clothes myself before entering the pool, which amused Mahler and Freud in particular. The two Jews, as Lutz would have said, except he was busy stripping. The two Jews who refused to participate, who preferred to sit on a ledge and observe.
      I guess it was the sight of Lutz in the raw except for his chest, which was covered by a towel, that finally made me realize the whole thing was a carefully planned put-on.
      I couldn’t refrain from swimming towards him, lifting the towel and peeking at his chest. Yes, there was a large tattoo, but he so quickly covered it up again I couldn’t make out any details. No wonder he had worn that thick T-shirt with the orange birds! But I didn’t care any more. A put-on, an entertainment, in other words a lie, a pretense—with the cooperation of Rick and Amity and Lutz himself. What a fool I was for not figuring it out earlier. But then I would have returned to my room and spent the evening reading Kundera. . .
      Even after the spa’s guards brought an end to the pool party well past midnight, I couldn’t get rid of Lutz. Over yet more beer he told me I should follow in his footsteps. The card he handed me said: DR. ALPHONSE ETIENNE KOBASCHEVSKY (PROFESSIONAL PROVOCATEUR), Baltimore, Maryland.
      " Jolly well," said King Edward VII. "How about doing an anti-royalist performance at Windsor? I’m tight with one of the butlers."
      "Of course, Your Majesty. Maybe my new friend the professor will come, too. Let me introduce Lady Diana. She’d make a good queen, even though she’s Jewish, ha, ha." I shook Bertie’s hand and introduced myself as Princess Anne, adding that Lutz sometimes mixes up his princesses. I also said that I was originally from Brooklyn but when I wasn’t teaching overseas I now lived in Ohio. "Fine place," the King replied. He and Lutz huddled to make plans for Windsor, but not before Lutz again advised me to become a professional provocateur. The pay’s not bad and you get to meet a lot of interesting people—not only Nazis but commies and pinkos and racists and gays of all kinds . . .whatever crazies have to be shaken up. And it always worked: Not that I’m a crazy, but didn’t I feel shaken up?
      I felt confused. No, the right word is intrigued. Intrigued by all that Eurocynicism, the lies, theatrics, subterfuges, the sense that nothing mattered anymore, Nema Problema—as demonstrated most clearly by Rick and Amity. Yet even Nietzsche, who happened to pass by, didn’t think nullity was the answer. God was dead, long live Dionysius and his atheistic Ubermensch. Who might even be a Jew for all that matters nowadays. Seen any good movies lately? What did I think of Ariel Sharon? Did I think he was acting like a Nazi?
      "Be careful. Sharon’s my secret lover," I said.
      "Ja. I know many women are attracted to fascists. Like your Sylvia Plath once wrote about her Dad. ‘The boot in the face.. .’ How does the rest of it go?"
      "Never heard of her," I lied. How could Nietzsche possibly know that I had written my Master’s thesis on Plath?
      Somewhere in the distance people were again singing that beerhall song. I wanted to link arms with them and sing Ein, Zwei, Sofort, but it was late and I had to pack so I could make the first train to Prague and catch my flight home.
      Had I made a fool of myself, had I betrayed my people, found the hated Germans too amusing? Should I have kept my clothes on, should I have told the King my real name instead of playing along? Probably yes. But it’s time to let go. Tomorrow I can leave it all behind, half a continent plus an entire ocean behind.
September 23, 2003
Already I wish I were back in Europe. Julia, Head of the English Division, announced today the grading standards for entry and exit writing assignments of all students, which must—no exceptions—match the newly revised Outcome Assessment Standards decreed by the State:

ENTRY TOPIC: Role of Women and Minorities in Huckleberry Finn.
LENGTH: 600 words
PENALTIES: Minus 5 points for each shift of focus from assignment, no matter how "creative"; minus 10 points for each violation of political correctness; minus 2 points for each word that exceeds or falls short of word limit.

      I and a few others protested vigorously, but Julia said there was no choice. Anyone failing to conform would risk non-renewal of his or her contract. Then, looking straight at me, she added, "That would also mean no more teaching in the college’s programs abroad." Period.
Journal, October 4, 2003
      I decided to sabotage the test. Why not? Anything so rigid and heavy-handed deserves to be sabotaged. Links, Rechts, Achtung! So I gave all my students extra points where the rules demanded penalties, even snuck in extra points for flashes of creativity. Doubt if the grading committee will catch me, but admit I’m anxious. Maybe I could say I did it as a joke? Pull an Arnold Lutz prank? Shock them by saying even the Germans flout imposed structures nowadays, to say nothing of the French who never pay their taxes? Got an e-mail from Stefan today. He loves the ESOL program in Bratislava: no textbooks, no tests, just lots of conversation. They meet at cafes and go on all evening drinking too much Pilsner.
November 1, 2003
Julia summoned me to her office this morning. I had seriously violated the rules of both the school and the state. Did I realize what that meant? I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,
      so I bit my lip hard. Not only had the committee discovered my ruse, but she herself and the Dean corroborated it. She went on to say that such an act was a major ethical lapse, a serious crime in the "outside world." I denied everything, told her the accusation was obviously an attempt to get rid of me. Thank god I kept myself from adding "because I’m Jewish," though Julia had frequently been caught making anti-Semitic remarks American-style, like referring to Jews as "New Yorkers" and putting down Jewish writers as too obsessed with the "damn Holocaust."
      "Now who’s accusing whom?" she said. "Get a lawyer if you think we’re violating Affirmative Action."
      "Not worth it. I can always find a job abroad."
      Most graciously, she informed me that the college would give me until the end of the semester to arrange other employment. I thanked her for the charitable offer, but doubt she saw through the irony. Walked off humming Ein, Zwei, Sofort for some reason . . . sans linked arms.
March 20, 2004
Pressures of job hunting have kept me from writing except scrawled notes for poems and stories. But yesterday I found a spa magazine at the local gym, which, of course, made me think about Arnold Lutz and the events of last summer.
      Actually, I never did get the skinny on Lutz. Was he really a Jew or just an opportunistic Jew in drag? A former Nazi? Most likely just another schmuck who wanders the world looking to exploit his schmuckiness.
      Then why am I still curious about him? As I think back, I must have found his masks, his bad theatrics, appealing despite my distaste for him. After all, why not pretend to be everything? A good way to avoid the possibility, make that pretense, that you are nothing. At the very least, a way to attract attention, a fleeting admiration. Scripts, nothing but scripts. Scripts full of lies. A cynical disregard for those shreds of beauty, truth, and moral responsibility not yet engulfed by the maws of modern history. Hey, wait a minute. Hadn’t my sabotaging of the state mandated test been the equivalent of a lie, a disregard for my alleged responsibilities, then lying about it to Julia on top of that?
      I began to laugh. At Julia, at my obedient colleagues, at myself—though my script was not as amusing as "Walpurgisnacht" when it came to black humor. [OK, Barbara, admit you found Arnold amusing—even the audience’s scripted calls for Magda Goebbels and Eva Braun. Even if tasteless, at least they were not so damn self-righteously literal, like the State Outcome Assessment Standards for Student Writing. Even to a Jew.]
      Ah yes, I see I’m still ambivalent about what happened. Especially about the compromises with language, my own, Lutz’s, the audience’s. How along with the state of Ohio we were exploiting words’ wonderful but dangerous capacities for expansion, their convoluted historical shifts: Hello: Old High German halon, summons to a ferryman; OF ha lou, for loup, wolf. A codename for Hitler, whose favorite song was "Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?"
April 27, 2004
      A letter from Lutz, postmarked Baltimore. He told me the video, now entitled "This Year at Marienbad," had been adapted into one of those "artsy-fartsy" movies they show in artsy-fartsy theaters. I must see it. I myself was not in it but he and the King had a long scene. At first I thought that I wouldn’t see it even if it crashed through my window. Enough conflations of fantasy and reality. Then I decided I certainly would see it if I could find such a theater anywhere near this fucking little Ohio town. Which I’ll soon be leaving— but for where I do not know.
      Oh well, I’d probably find the film too folkloric for my taste anyway.

© Barbara F. Lefcowitz 2004

This story may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

author bio

Barbara F. Lefcowitz, who lives in Bethesda, Maryland, has published eight collections of poetry, the most recent, PHOTO, BOMB, RED CHAIR, was published in spring, 2004. She has published poems, stories, and essays in over 500 journals, including TBR, and has won writing prizes and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others. A fervent Europhile, she travels abroad as much as possible and is also a visual artist.
contact the author


issue 42: May - June 2004 

Short Fiction

Oscar Casares: RG
Ron Butlin: Colours
Kathryn Simmonds: This Little Piggy
Bruce Henricksen: The Celebrated Stripper...

Barbara F. Lefcowitz: The Luminaries of Marienbad
Neale de Sousa: Dromedary

picks from back issues
Frederick Barthelme: Driver
Dorothy Speak: The View from Here


Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald
answers to last issue’s quiz
19th-Century English Literature

Book Reviews

The Gravedigger’s Story by Ged Simmons
The Hollywood Dodo by Geoff Nicholson
Handsome Harry by James Carlos Blake
In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami
Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin by Marion Meade

Regular Features

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

Home | Submission info | Spanish | Catalan | French | Audio | e-m@il www.Barcelonareview.com