|THE LUMINARIES OF MARIENBAD
by Barbara F. Lefcowitz
"I am Josef Goebbels. . .I, too, took the
waters at. . ."
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
Americas greatest contribution to the world were video games, preferably those that
mixed violence with hardcore sex. They giggled whenever I told them thats 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
its 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? Im definitely not in that mythic Marienbad
whose architecture is an artifact of the imagination, but in the old Czech spa town where
theyre 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; Im much too hung up on
the past. Still I cant help it. They also think Im 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 methough Im far from
being an observant Jew. I understand German fairly well, so I know all theyre
talking about are their aches and pains, money, family, weather, stray dogs. Sometimes I
try to initiate a conversation, Im not sure why, but then they cut me off. Perhaps
Im using some Yiddish words? They hate me. Maybe Im more paranoid than I
realize? (To quote my Croatian friend Stefan, whose favorite expression is Nema
Problemano problemeven 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 Marys
Gas: It comes out from the depth of the Earth, a remarkable atavism of volcanic acts in
the Tertiary which erupts from the Earths heart . . Eruptions of Marys 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 couldnt
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 hes 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
He spotted me as Jewish right off, I dont know
how, asked me why I was reading Kunderas Farewell Waltz instead of Faye
Kellermans 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 hes back in Dubrovnik. Hed probably tell Arnold Lutz to fuck
off, right from the git-go, as my Slovakian students would say, courtesy of the previous
On July 12 theyre having one of those
"folkloric" evenings, dancers in "traditional " costumes, some cute
little games with the audience. Schmaltz, Schlag, Scheisse. Ive seen them all over
the world and you can scarcely tell the difference between folkloric Thai and, say,
Acadian. But Lutzs mother asked me to accompany her son. Seems she cant stay
up late, "please go with my Arnold because he doesnt like to be alone with
Germans." How could I refuse such a sweet old lady? Didnt 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. Amitys 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 Id never see again. Besides, there
was something oddly comical about the whole thing.
Lutz, though, was enraged because R and A didnt
choose him: "Who gets a part? Not me, not you. The Nazis, thats 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. Hed 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 movies secret Vichy messages and its link with
the old spa town where we were staying. I actually began to look forward to
tomorrows folkloric dancers: better than no distraction from Lutz except dumplings
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. Theres 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 its the Schutz
Staffelwhich 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" andin what Lutz said was an obvious effort to mollify the inhabitants of
all anti-Semitic nations within missile-rangea 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
So much for folklore, except for that old beerhall
song where everyone puts arms around another and sings Ein, Zwei, Sofort. . .With
Lutzs arm on my right side and a yodelers on my left, we joined in. Yes, I
admit I like the song, along with some other oom-pa-pah music from the . . . the . .
.1940s. 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! Youre 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? WHERES HIMMLER? YOU CAME HERE TOO! YOU FORGET ALREADY?
Ja, Ja from the audience: WHERES 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 spas
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.
"Dont 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."
" Im going home," said Dvorak, humming
the refrain from his New World Symphony, composed when he visited America. Going home,
going home/ Im a-going home . . . Even Freud added something about America being
a gigantic mistake. What a kick. . .I couldnt 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 60s 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 wasnt positive. And certainly Lutz, back next to me, was sure it was
the real thing though Hitler could nowhere be foundthat 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 couldnt 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 couldnt 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 couldnt make out any details. No wonder he had worn
that thick T-shirt with the orange birds! But I didnt care any more. A put-on, an
entertainment, in other words a lie, a pretensewith 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 spas guards brought an end to the
pool party well past midnight, I couldnt 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? Im tight with one of
"Of course, Your Majesty. Maybe my new friend the
professor will come, too. Let me introduce Lady Diana. Shed make a good queen, even
though shes Jewish, ha, ha." I shook Berties 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 wasnt 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 pays
not bad and you get to meet a lot of interesting peoplenot 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 Im a crazy, but didnt 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 Problemaas demonstrated most clearly by Rick
and Amity. Yet even Nietzsche, who happened to pass by, didnt 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. Sharons my secret lover,"
"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 Masters 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
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 its 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 mustno exceptionsmatch the newly revised
Outcome Assessment Standards decreed by the State:
ENTRY TOPIC: Role of Women and Minorities in Huckleberry Finn.
EXIT TOPIC: Same
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 colleges 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
Im 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 didnt 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 Im 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
"Now whos accusing whom?" she said.
"Get a lawyer if you think were violating Affirmative Action."
"Not worth it. I can always find a job
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
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. Hadnt 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 myselfthough my script was not as amusing as "Walpurgisnacht" when it
came to black humor. [OK, Barbara, admit you found Arnold amusingeven the
audiences 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 Im still ambivalent about what
happened. Especially about the compromises with language, my own, Lutzs, the
audiences. 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 "Whos Afraid of the Big Bad
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
wouldnt 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 Ill soon be leaving but for
where I do not know.
Oh well, Id probably find the film too folkloric
for my taste anyway.