The River Also Remembers

Barbara Lefcowitz


Everyone agreed it was the hottest summer they could remember.

So instead of working on our film script about Polish-Jewish affairs at the end of the century my friend Pyotr and I, along with everyone else in Poland, sought the coldest available swimming water. Preferably a river with a swift current, but even a lake would do despite the likelihood its waters would by now be warm as borscht.

"Not too crowded," Pyotr said, braking his ancient Fiat on a rock-strewn dirt road that led to a river whose name he mentioned but I quickly forgot despite my efforts once and for all to learn Polish. "Good place to make picnic and swim. But they have only small ovens here. OK?"

In any other country the word oven would mean just that, a place to bake bread or roast meat, no associations with the cremation of bodies removed from the gas chambers. Of course all that happened more than a half century ago, but I couldn't stop myself from saying that in Poland the connotations of the word oven made me uneasy. Just a bit too much--

Pyotr shook his head. "You're a bit too much."

His smile was grim, the cut smile of a Jack O'Lantern -- though part of Pyotr's charm, that continental charm I found so alluring, was the lilt of his frequent good-natured laughter, often at his own expense or that of his fellow Poles.

"Sorry. By the way, I think you must mean grill, not oven. A place to roast hot dogs. We can warm up some of those pierogies Mrs. Glowinski made."

In a mock-ceremonious manner usually reserved for parodies of former Party officials or writers suffused with their self-importance, Pyotr begged my pardon for his lapse in English. He wasn't perfect, in case I'd forgotten. What did I expect from a dumb Polish guy? Make that goy. You think I'm like you, a smart Jew with a yiddische kopf --even though you're a woman?

To reach the grills we had to walk through thick pine and birch. Pyotr said nothing. I began reciting Frost's "Birches."

"Know that poem? 'When I see birches/swing from left to right. . .' "

"Of course. Who doesn't? Even dumb Poles who roast Jews in ovens."

I clamped my lips together to avoid commenting.

I'd first met Pyotr at an international writers' conference in upstate New York about eight years ago. He was quite well know for a shockingly erotic underground novel and his translations into Polish of Henry Miller's most lurid work. But unlike most of the other writers flashing their accents at the slightest chance to hit upon some agent who might satisfy that most supreme desire of the contemporary European or Asian writer --publication in English -- he was remarkably unpretentious. I think one of the reasons he sought me out was because at the time I was just beginning to publish, so in my company it was safe to make fun of all the snobs and fakes. "The -- how you say -- ego tripsters?" I didn't bother to correct him. Actually, his English was quite good, with just enough British edge to make whatever he said sound highly intelligent. Which, indeed, he was: not only intelligent but exceptionally informed about music and cinema and classical sculpture and architecture and astronomy; politics and literature, of course; philosophy and the history of mystical erotic rituals; and especially informed about all aspects of Judaism, despite his Polish Catholic background, which included a few German Catholic roots just for variety. He was the only person I ever believed when he said he'd actually read the entire Talmud. Even the few rabbis I'd met probably had only read parts. And I could barely get through the Hebrew alphabet.

We spent most of the conference drinking cheap wine at a local pub, skipping the lectures and parties, the besieged publishers and agents, groupies who pretended they knew every stylish French novel of the day and middle-aged ladies who were too shy to admit they'd actually tried to read some of those novels.

Though Pyotr and I never made love that weekend, we did end up sharing a room the last night and staying up until dawn.

"Many people in my family lived outside Krakow," he told me. "Not far from Oswiecim. It makes me cry to think that my cousins and uncles helped kill Jews."

At first I was stunned, expecting he would tell me how his family had risked their lives to hide and save Jews. I even said that probably a few had at least made an effort, right?

"No. Of this I am sure. They were stupid peasants. My father's family especially. I could kill some of them to this day, like my Uncle Marek. That's why never I go to Krakow."

More important than his writing was that he, Pyotr, atone for the crimes of his family against the Jews. When I asked him how he planned to do so, he said nothing, though I sensed that just because I happened to be Jewish I fit into his vague but passionately expressed commitment to what he called his 'mission'.

"Even if it means losing my life."

"What do you mean by that?"

At first I protested when he said, gently to be sure, that I was terribly naive, typically American even though a Jew. Naive to think anti-Semitism had vanished like a cloud from Poland and most other European countries. But he was enchanted, as he put it, with my desire to learn. So the following summer, 1989, I made my first trip to Poland, arriving on June 4, the very day Solidarnosz triumphed at the polls over the communists.

When we finally reached the river it was so hot I couldn't wait to strip off my clothes and get wet, never mind the pierogies and the gawking children. Or even the fat women with magenta hair who made taunting remarks Pyotr refused to translate, but which I could tell from my limited knowledge of Polish were aimed at that "crazy American woman" who swam topless even though they themselves did so without a blush, huge breasts with fat blue nipples rising and sinking like sacks of grain.

"How dare they taunt me just because I'm American?"

Pyotr just smiled, again that thin smile, which made me feel even more paranoid, as if they also knew I was Jewish despite my blonde hair. So I tried again: "Is there something odd about me?" He said not to worry, these were stupid peasant women who laughed any anyone they didn't know, then added, "If you think it's because they know you're Jewish, it's no problem any more. No problem. Just get in the water."

Pyotr was a strong swimmer and he was soon way ahead of me despite the river's swift cross-current. The last thing I remember him saying was something about reeds, about not getting tangled up. But I was a competent swimmer and felt nothing that resembled tangles; rather, I kept slipping on the muddy bottom which pulled and sucked at my feet. Yet no one else seemed to have this problem. Perhaps I had entered at a particularly slippery point. Pyotr himself had taken his first plunge further up the riverbank, but it couldn't have been anything deliberate -- he happened to run into an old friend from his Solidarnosz days, a bland little man who didn't know how to swim but would be happy to look after our clothes and the food and whatever else was likely to be stolen. I should say Pyotr's clothes, because though he asked me to join my clothes with his, I decided that nobody in the world could possibly want to steal my baggy old shorts and Chicago Bulls tee-shirt, even in post-communist Poland, so I just left them on a rock.

Finally I felt only the ice cold water under my feet and began to swim my most accomplished stroke, a version of the crawl that allowed me to keep my face out of the water and which I'd mastered many years ago at summer camp in order to achieve a Red Cross Junior Lifesaver certificate plus the privilege of sewing onto my bathing suit a special patch publicizing my skills. Also an excuse never to have to submerge my face in water and put up with all that sniffling and snorting, stinging red eyes I'd have to rub so they'd turn even redder.

Probably had I the guts to put my face into that Polish river, I would never have noticed the black flecks on the surface, at first more like grains of pepper, then larger, the size of snowflakes. Some sort of insect? Swimming as fast as I could I tried to get beyond them but they appeared not only to be following me but spreading out in all directions so the water itself resembled thickly pigmented black paint.

Except for a young boy there was nobody else in that part of the river. When I tried to ask him about the black things, he gave me an odd look -- probably he didn't know any English -- and kept swimming, all kinds of fancy strokes and even surface-diving so for a few seconds I thought he'd disappeared completely. I had lost sight of Pyotr. And none of the fat ladies dared swim out this far. The water was splendidly cold yet somehow I still felt hot, especially my arms, which by now were covered with whatever these black flakes were...

And then I knew. In fact, I was surprised it had taken me so long to figure out that I was swimming through the dumped ashes of Jews who'd been cremated in the ovens of Auschwitz, Birkenau, Belzec, Treblinka, Chelmno, Sobibor more than 50 years ago -- it didn't matter that this particular river was many miles and years away from any of those places. Didn't all rivers run into one another and isn't time itself a flowing river?

Her name was Liselotte. Never Lisa, never Lottie. Liselotte Herzfeld and she was ugly, a round chunk of a girl with frizzy hair but despite her accent at the top of our 7th grade English class. One day the teacher read her story out loud so all of us could hear about the transports a word up till then we thought meant trucks or streetcars but people screamed and bled from smashing whatever window-glass they could find on these transports sometimes pushing a small child through the shattering rather than letting him ride further east to the Polish border. The way Liselotte used the word camps had nothing to do with those camps with Indian names where we learned to swim and play tennis and nothing I could write afterwards could in any way rival what Liselotte wrote from her heart no matter at times how awkwardly phrased, as if she were still speaking German and her whole body bleeding splinters of glass , somebody picking her up from the railroad tracks she couldn't remember how many hours she lay there bleeding but a woman washed off her pain and fed her freshly baked bread with a jam made from dark red berries--

Rising from another surface dive the young Polish boy laughed and said something I couldn't understand though I think he was trying to say something in English. Something that sounded like grass or was it glass. . .Then he swam off for good, with no fear of the black water which he may not even have noticed. And soon the air, too, turned black; my instinct was to try to float, to look up at the blackening air rather than into the water so at least I could breathe the blackness. Finally I managed to float despite a tendency to turn onto my left side.

Like Ophelia, I sang for a while or perhaps I only dreamt that I was singing those old Yiddish lullabies of my grandmothers and great-grandmothers and all those faces greeting me out of the blackness. Certainly not all of them could have been ancestors, especially the gaunt ones, their eyes flakes of snow before it hits the ground; and the stout red-faced men laughing between gulps of slivovitz, playing cards, what they sang more boisterous than lullabies before the words faded into what I took to be the Sh'ema and the men, now slender and Christ-like, put on pale blue rabbinical robes. But soon the Chagallian images made me feel more seasick than the waves of the accelerating current.

What did I care about those ancestors I had barely known as a child except to mock them and avoid as much as I could their grating accents and sour smells. Now new faces tumbled out of the many books I had read about the Holocaust, Sonderkommandos of Jews originally from the ghettos of Warsaw or Vilna stuffing themselves with bread stolen from the bundles of those newly arrived at Auschwitz, letting the crumbs fall on the yellow stars they were still forced to wear on their shirts even after not merely helping the SS shove Jewish bodies into the gas chambers but actually performing such tasks on their own to spare the Nazi guards such odious lapses in taste. One woman with a shaved head was especially persistent, yanking gold from the teeth of the dead with rusty pliers. At one point she leered in my direction and held up a huge emerald surrounded by a halo of small diamonds which she had just plucked from a dead mouth. I, too, would have access to such jewels, she promised -- if only my arms were strong enough.

I must at that point have begun to swim again or at least try to outwit the current with my arms instead of letting myself be borne along its black waters. It was the reeds that woke me up, thick strands twisted around my arms and legs and neck. How in the world, given the warnings of both Pyotr and the young boy, I had let myself float towards them made no difference now. The harder I tried to extricate myself the more I was convinced I would die right then and there, strangled by the reeds in an ice cold Polish river whose name I didn't even know. . .the reeds rapidly multiplying and closing in, my body now too exhausted to push back. What few sounds I could make resembled the cawing of crows. . .probably the vultures were already licking their chops, as it were, for the feast my body would very soon provide. The Polish vultures, whatever their names...

Was that really Pyotr along with the other men pushing me further down so if the reeds themselves didn't kill me the river water would do the trick?

Zyd, zyd, you're a Jew and we're going to get rid of you right now..

"What the hell are you saying?" I managed to ask him.

"Stop struggling so much," Pyotr said. "It makes it harder to get you out."

It took a few days to recover sufficiently from my bruises to rejoin Pyotr in his study where he was entering our latest additions to the film script on his balky old computer.

"You think in this scene the girl must make love to the Polish guy?"

"No," I answered. "It's not necessary. Too obvious. Since it's already clear that she loves him as much as she's loved any man."


Then I said that if it would help get the film produced, OK. But only for that reason might we reconsider and include a short flashy sex scene.

"Yes. And the actress who plays the Jewish girl must be wearing only a golden star that barely covers her --what do you call it?-- her bush? "

I forced myself to laugh.

Although the heat wave hadn't lifted, this time we weren't tempted to disrupt our collaboration and head for the nearest ice-cold river. Pyotr led me to his enormous hand-carved bed which, like most of his furniture, he'd inherited from his German grandparents. We embraced under the heavy quilt that he always used no matter the season.

"Will this help the script, too?" I asked.

"Oh, definitely, " he said with his thin Polish-German grin. Suddenly I saw his eyes fill with black water and I just couldn't bear making love to him. Silly, I suppose. But I couldn't, at least not yet.

© 1999 Barbara Lefcowitz

Barbara F. Lefcowitz lives in Bethesda, Maryland, U.S.A. She has published six books of poetry and a novel; individual poems, stories, and essays have appeared in over 350 journals and she has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others. She is also a visual artist and English professor and travels widely.

e-mail Barbara Lefcowitz: [email protected]

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