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Chapter FIVE edit

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So this is how it is, fancy stained glass next to cow shit.from the film, Ida

On April 15, 2010, an op-ed by Polish author, Olga Tokarczuk, appeared in the New York Times concerning the mysterious plane crash in Russia’s Katyn forest that killed the Polish president and some of the country’s military and political leaders.  That they were on their way to the site of a Soviet massacre of Polish officers during WWII is a terrible irony. Her concluding commentary making this tragedy into a symbolic statement about the lingering ghosts of Polish history is quite another:

I am sick of building our common identity around funeral marches and failed uprisings. I dream of Poland becoming a modern society that is defined not by the crippling nature of history, but by our individual achievements, a sense of our own self-worth and ideas for the future.

At that time I was fighting a fortress of resistance in Wrocław while aiming to catapult a badly deteriorating 13th century ghost infested guard tower into the 21st century. Of all people, leading the the resistance was my landlord, who also just so happened to be a highly regarded Polish author, her obsessive ambition in the name of self worth being to mortally cripple my grand ambitions. One would have naturally concluded that we shared the same sense of purpose when I became her chosen tenant. She was a writer, I an artist and she had claimed to have selected me among many candidates due to my artistic plans for her most rare new architectural acquisition.

Yet, Tokarczuk’s harsh commentary about her country could not have possibly reflected anything more acrimonious than the fact that six days before the publication of her New York Times op-ed, I received an eviction notice from my landlord. The transparently malicious act of passive aggressive harassment was legally unenforceable because the results of a court case that my landlord had instigated in justifying the eviction was still pending. By no means was it coincidental that on that same day I hosted an opening reception for an international Mexican artist residing in Berlin, Guillermo Roel, who I personally invited to Poland. It was just as telling that despite extensive promotion, the local mass media ignored the event. I pondered what this said about Wrocław, whereas the Mexican Ambassador in the capital city of Warsaw sent me a congratulatory letter:

The Mexican Ambassador’s letter

This spooky act of intimidation was doubly shocking given that Wrocław was busy promoting itself as “The Meeting Place,” a booming multicultural urban center. Were they afraid of a stampede of immigrant Mexican bandidos? On top of that, at the same time the city was a candidate to win an annual distinction of becoming a European Culture Capital for the year 2016. It was further not as if Roel and I were neophytes in Europe for he had lived in Paris, Barcelona and Berlin whereas I had lived for many years in Paris and Barcelona.

What had inspired me to participate in the astonishing growth I had seen firsthand since the country’s liberation in 1989 was slowly coming to an incomprehensibly disillusioning end. Around two years later I left Poland in the same cloud of secrecy that kept my landlord’s identity as a real estate investor under cover. Most eerily similar to Ms. Tokarczuk, my former landlord, who was known for her mythological writing style, also proved to be a master of creating a mythology about her own life. Since portraying herself as a poor Polish woman the first day that we met, she managed to hide from the public the truth about her one monthly source of income during the prior few years. As Olga Tokarczuk most amusingly revealed in a Radio Free Europe interview only two months after publication of her New York Times op-ed, being a well traveled Polish literary star was not the easiest path to economic security. Nor was it as convenient as hoped for my landlord to depend on the regular receipt of rent payments while traveling far and wide without concern for her recently purchased property, which was falling into critical disrepair.

The eviction notice arrived in the mail three months after  the was filed by my landlord in hopes of recovering several months of unpaid rent. Half of a year before that, a letter written by my lawyer in my name demanded from her a full reimbursement of my investments in her property and in the investments I had made in my business. The reason my lawyer stated in my defense was that the consequences of her failure to respond to the dangerously deteriorating condition of the tower’s roof and to make critical improvements as demanded of her in 2008 by the city’s conservatory for historical buildings was disastrous to my business. Aside from paying half of one minor patchwork roof repair, she completely ignored a pending catastrophe. Three years earlier the neighbor made demands of her to repair the roof after pieces of it fell into his adjoining parking lot below. Two years earlier the director of the conservatory of historical buildings made formal demands of her to completely restore the roof and the tower’s exterior. This included reopening a passage to its door through a medieval fortification wall attached to the tower that for many years had been closed. While she failed to act, I continued to make major investments on the tower’s interior restoration, which would ultimately be for her financial benefit.

The media hush up was so pervasive that after an American journalist of Polish heritage named Lisa Romanienko asked me during a local radio station interview why my landlord did not wish for her ownership of Baszta to be known, the station’s management banished the recording and fired her. In a celebratory moment, Romanienko confessed this to me when she appeared at the Mexican artist’s reception on the same day that I received the eviction notice in the mail.

Having been asked the same question countless times since then, I believe that the reasons are several, beginning with the nepotistic ways that resources and property ownership have often fallen into private hands in the wake of the communist era. This perhaps helps answer a larger question I have frequently been asked: how was it possible for a private person to own such a historical landmark?


Along with all else that was kept a secret in the purported new era of free enterprise and free democratic expression are the futuristic architectural renderings in the background slide presentation of this page that I commissioned from Wrocław architect, Tomasz Szenk. These drawings and those shown on the following page further illustrates a concept that I conveyed to him which was intended to solve a myriad of problems pertaining to space, allure and most of all the location of the building. (More is said about these drawings in Chapter Six). Baszta was only a seven minute walk from the heart of the city center and a stone’s throw from touristic Ostrów Tumski (Cathedral Island). Even so, there were serious obstacles to its accessibility, starting with the gateway through the medieval fortress wall that is attached to the tower, which for unknown reasons had been filled in with bricks many years ago.

In my mind, the idea I had devised was completely logical. In 2011, the largest city in western Poland, which has become a center for the headquarters of many multinational businesses, won the the 2016 European Culture Capital title. The timing could not have appeared to be more fortuitous. The rare specialization of my professional background seemed to perfectly match this one-in-a-million opportunity that had fallen into the palm of my hand: to propose a unique futuristic revival of a neglected precious symbol of Wrocław’s medieval origins during a period of dynamic urban redevelopment. This included the gentrification of a beautiful central city market square known as “Rynek” (pronounced: Rih-neck), renovation of the opera house, train station, synagogue and Ostrów Tumski. Shortly after I left Poland in 2012, construction of a new football stadium and Wrocław’s first bona fide skyscraper were completed.

Great art requires a bold vision

From a visionary artist’s perspective, I saw the potential of Wrocław the first time I visited the city in 1989 when I photographed some of its decayed buildings. After leaving Poland in ’89, I went to great lengths during travel in western Europe to expose the decayed conditions I had seen. I quickly recognized Wrocław’s unique position situated almost equidistant between Warsaw to the east, Berlin to the west and Prague down south. Foreign businessmen also began to visualize what I did of the city’s enormous potential. Having worked and closely associated with architects for many years, associations with specific cities immediately come to mind for one reason above all others: unique expressions of monumental architecture. This is the case from the fantasy architecture of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona to the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, to name a few obvious examples. Often such monumental undertakings happen to be towers and in recent times a few that have become symbols of major urban centers have incorporated dramatic glass structures. One of them is the glass dome of Berlin’s Reichstag, just three hours away from Wrocław by car. Another striking case in point is I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid in Paris.

It was also obvious to me that such undertakings cannot be achieved without anticipating enormous resistance to ideas for the future and that this is nothing specific to only Poland. At first even the New York Times was against the Statue of Liberty. Likewise, at first a large majority of the French populace reacted negatively to the Louvre Pyramid. My idea somewhat unconsciously reflected an homage to Pei, whose battle, which I had read about while living in Paris at that time, kept me fighting on with an inbred Californian spirit of open minded optimism no matter what anyone thought or said.

Cover of Glass Art magazine, 1976

by Wilhelm Buschulte

Having worked for many years as an architectural glass artist and as the former editor of a magazine about contemporary glas art, I was fascinated by contemporary architectural applications of glass in historical buildings. Such a phenomenon occurred after the Second World War in towns surrounding Cologne and Dusseldorf. Enormous stained glass windows the likes of which no one had ever before seen were installed in numerous public buildings. The spirit was essentially the same as what motivated Olga Tokarczuk’s expressed frustrations: aesthetic modernization was the direct outcome of a will to distance a war torn country from its dreadfully morbid past. Photographs of these dramatic stained glass artworks were first exposed internationally in the magazine that I had edited. During my first visit to Europe in 1979 I met one of the artists, Wilhelm Buschulte, and I photographed some of his monumental architectural stained glass compositions, which had received little recognition even in Germany. As an old cover of “Glass Art” magazine depicts, the same can be said of Ludwig Schaffrath, who became quite famous among glass artists and architects in the U.S.

Stained glass ceiling, Embassy Suite Hotel, Indianapolis, by Frederick Abrams

Aside from my specialized background, in my veins was the blood of my grandfather, Myron Abrams, a building contractor of Polish heritage. It only seemed natural to aspire to make the most of this once in a lifetime destined opportunity that had fallen into my hands through a series of seemingly serendipitous circumstances. Yet, no matter how often I heard oohs and aahs from those to whom I showed these architectural renderings, I was repeatedly confronted with the same doubts about altering the look of a historical monument. To this I repeatedly answered:

Such battles were long since fought and won elsewhere in Europe. Poland today is a European Union member and for an unknown city to be recognized by the outer world requires bold thinking.

Shortly before his passing, I interviewed ninety-one year old Wrocław architect, Mirosław Przylecki, who restored Baszta after World War II. With help of a waitress who asked him questions in Polish language, I showed Przylecki framed prints of these images that were exhibited on the walls of the tower’s interior just before Abrams’ Tower closed for good:

                                                       Translation: Iwona Kajko

It seemed senseless that there would be such resistance since I was the only one who had any ambition or will to do something about a historical landmark that was rotting to its core. Nor was there much of a choice given that my wanderlust landlord was traveling abroad most of the time and that she had clearly decided to invest all of her energies and resources elsewhere. Being the sole owner of a restaurant in a redeveloping foreign economy is one thing; it’s another to be abandoned by the landlord with the albatross of a disintegrating 13th century roof hovering ominously over one’s head. Meanwhile, with historical buildings being restored, new construction emerging across the city’s landscape, new western style shopping malls and corporate brand name businesses spreading like a cancer, Abrams’ Tower was dying a slow, painful death.


The building’s porous roof in dire need of major restoration became the central battleground as I faced debilitating bureaucratic practices still unchanged since the darkest days of communism. It boggled my mind that no one seemed to recognize cause and effect, that in a capitalist jungle one must earn money in order to pay the bills, salaries and so forth. I could visualize my gravestone to be inscribed after the roof caved in: “P.T.R.” (Pay the Rent). As each patchwork roof repair only briefly postponed the inevitable, a complete restoration was the only solution. With limited means at my disposal as a tenant, I did my best to assist my impoverished globe trotting ghost landlord to raise the necessary funding. In each and every case, she did her best to see that this would never happen, that is, as long as I was her guinea pig tenant.

Various investors I had attracted proposed to me a partnership. One by one she frightened them away. The first in line was a Pole who had lived in New York for fifteen years and he flew to Wrocław to formalize our partnership. A meeting together with the landlord cost me the funding I needed to finish the restoration. One of the hard lessons that cost me dearly was that time in Europe, and particularly in a former communist country, moves much slower. The five year lease I had signed was not long enough to recoup our investment and begin making profits, my partner-to-never-be rightly said, but she refused to extend its duration. He then met a restaurant owner who told him that no foreigner could last in his business for longer than six months. He was the first of several Poles I met, who lived abroad harboring hopes of cashing in on their country’s new free enterprise economy, yet, who became quickly spooked upon a brief visit, then got back onto a plane without waving goodbye.

Most peculiarly, the only people the landlord ever seemed to take seriously were ambitious Polish managers I had hired, who had no money to invest and no stakes in the business. If there was any spying going on, I eventually learned through my workers of the private liaisons she had with them.

Unsolicited art exhibition in the stairwell

Banderole and beer inspection

Meanwhile, bureaucratic institutions were targeting my business with one frivolous accusation after the next. I was twice fined due to baseless investigations into fictitious illegal alcohol sales. Despite no proof beyond pathetically weak circumstantial evidence, there was no means of contesting the penalties. During one tax office control, inspectors found stamps called “banderoles” missing from a few wine bottles. Importers themselves had to apply glue to the elongated stamps which came with no adhesive. Depending on which glue they chose, some of them easily fell off. No matter, inspectors found a few missing banderoles which was considered to be sufficient evidence. This alone was enough to conclude that I had smuggled alcohol across the border without paying tariffs. During another control it was alleged that water was being somehow mixed into kegs of beer, an old communist era trick that I would never have dreamed of or known how to do. The inspector said that someone had called them on the phone and made this accusation. This stunned me for I was the proud seller of an award winning unpasteurized Polish beer that was hard to find in Wrocław. Most bars and restaurants sold the same brand names and bribes offered by the distributors were usually tied to such agreements. The inspectors taped, signed and stamped a jar containing beer that was poured from a keg, took it to a lab and found that nothing was wrong with it. In this one instance they could not come up with an excuse to penalize me. One of the inspectors confessed afterward that she wished she could manage my business to protect me from people like herself. The most frightening of all such incidents almost landed me in prison when inspectors discovered clever wiring of my electrical system aimed to cut down on my monthly bills, another post-communist tactic that I had never heard of.

Eventually I lived in terror of who would next enter the door, when things got so ugly that the tower was attacked in my absence by neo-Nazi vandalism. As assaults on my business became a pattern, my constantly traveling landlord either acted naive or became hostile when I bothered her with what she haughtily reacted to as if I was disturbing her over trivial, tiring nuisances.

While my life had become a daily torment of dealing with attitudes and practices born in the old corrupt communist system, many young people began to obtain fairly well paid positions, by Polish standards, working for multinational corporations which were springing up everywhere. Foreigners who ran them lived in bubbles of comfort in new condos, going to work in modern offices in new buildings, precious little of which existed for most of the first ten years that I lived in Poland. Most who arrived during this new era of globalization had no notion of what life was like for most Poles or for foreigners such as myself who had no alternative other than to depend on the locals in numerous ways for daily survival. Consumerism and a greater degree of freedom to express oneself, to congregate and to travel has without question changed the lives of much of the populace. Yet, while on the surface the differences today between Ukraine and Poland are huge, I find another bitter irony in president Obama’s lecturing to Ukrainians on the success of Poland’s free enterprise economy. Passages of a book published in 1999 called, “Culture Shock! Ukraine,” that I had picked up in a Los Angeles bookstore while visiting home in 2001, precisely describes the depressing side of Poland I came to know years later. Written by American Meredith Dalton from Austin, Texas, her words struck me right in the gut:

For over seventy years, the Soviet system infected most citizens with the notion that capitalism is about grabbing, cheating, and wheeling and dealing. Some foreign investors avoid types of businesses requiring storefronts, for example restaurants. One prominent European entrepreneur (in the true sense of the word) announced in late 1998 that he was throwing in the towel after seven strong years in Ukraine. Relentless corruption had finally exhausted his patience. Visibility invites the tax inspectorates in search of trumped up fines and bribes. One friend who sells used car parts was fined because the time stamped on his cash register receipts was not adjusted for daylight savings time. Westerners are perceived as wealthy thus money should be no object to them.

Only Abrams’ Tower had no storefront. With no civic help or any from my landlord, I searched for every imaginable solution to the problem that many first time visitors could not even find my restaurant. Still, its invisibility from street traffic in no way stopped civil servants representing the corrupt practices of a post-communist bureaucracy from finding their way inside. Nor did it stop them from acts of intimidation and harassment. Among my greatest fears was that losing one’s alcohol sales licenses was as good as a kiss of death.


Olga Tokarczuk's press conference at La luz in 2006

From the day we met I attempted to engage my landlord in the business. I even proposed to her a minority ownership, which she rejected. Once I provided the entire building to her for a press conference announcing the publication of her latest novel, just as I had done for Polish artists, film directors and literary figures, including Olga Tokarczuk. In the summer of 2007 I learned that the city provided public funding to restore registered historical buildings and for this purpose I personally arranged a meeting between her and the vice-president of the Wroclaw City Council. As with every effort I made for our mutual benefit, it went nowhere once out of my hands. Upon visiting the tower, the vice-president said to me: “Your problem is that you have a medieval building trapped inside of a communist neighborhood.” Only, communism was supposed to have been long over. The tower was private property, I did not own it and I alone could not apply to the city for funding. One night a taxi driver who took me home said to me that the tower itself had a communist history. Its sale occurred both shortly after Poland joined the EU and shortly before the fall of the reign of Poland’s SLD (Democratic Left Alliance) Party, also known as the “reformed communist party.” My landlord’s utter lack of supportive free enterprise sensibility had me contemplating whether she was one of them.

2008 entrance concept by architect Krzysztof Kobielski

Closed entrance through the medieval wall

In the spring of 2008, during one of my landlord’s infrequent appearances in Wrocław, I also managed to arrange a meeting at Baszta with her and the director of the conservatory of historical buildings. The director demanded that she hire an architect to design a project to restore the roof, the walls and to reopen the blocked passage through the medieval fortification wall attached to the tower. Without it, the only existing halfway reasonable access from the street required walking all the way around the tower from the opposite side to reach the door. This also meant passing through the parking lot of the neighbor who over a year earlier had demanded that the roof be repaired and then through the “communist” neighborhood’s courtyard. After the reopening of the wall’s passage, I planned to establish a summer outdoor garden on the side of the wall facing the street. I already had one on the inside of the wall next to the tower’s door, which was problematic for many reasons, one being that it could not be seen from the street and therefore no one passing by knew that it was there. Once the old passage would be reopened, passers by would easily see customers eating and drinking at tables outside and become immediately aware of the bar and restaurant that otherwise was very difficult to recognize by chance.

As was always the case when requiring anything from the convoluted bureaucracy, I spent weeks with an assistant visiting various municipal offices to obtain necessary permits for the garden. On this presumption, that the major impediments to safe and easy access to my business would be resolved, finally the landlord agreed to extend the duration of the lease, but at a much higher monthly rent. There was only one motivation in my mind: I was certain that then I would find a desperately needed partner to invest in and help run the business, the short termed lease having proven to be the prime obstacle. The landlord said she would take care of the exterior restoration with a bank loan and I agreed on a handshake to in turn invest in a second costly interior restoration, naively calculating that the formal demands of the conservatory would hold her legally bound to her end of the bargain.

Once again faced with unanticipated bureaucratic nightmares upon installing a new kitchen, upgraded electrical system and other costly improvements, the second restoration took five long months. During this time the restaurant remained closed. As in 2005, this meant surviving for a long period of time without income while making investments in renovating leased property. The first time, with the aid of two lawyers, I persuaded the landlord to reduce the rent cost until the opening of the business. However, this time she adamantly refused. Perhaps I was crazy but I knew I was onto something great. I had absolutely no doubt that with the talent of my new head chef, a new fully functioning kitchen, properly restored building, outdoor garden facing the street and easy access to the tower’s door that I would attract both many customers and a suitable Polish partner who knew the ropes of doing business in Poland.

The Wrocław Ghetto

Yet, by the time the restaurant reopened, no exterior work had been done. Shockingly, on the day that the newly remodeled business had begun with an ambitious new fusion menu, the neighbor next door congratulated me with a huge metal construction fence blocking the passage through his parking lot to the tower’s door. It seemed as if all celebratory moments were to be rewarded with such thoughtful gifts. Instead of having a new direct access through the wall, the only existing access from the nearby street was blockaded. This also meant that all of the footwork to obtain permits for a new summer garden was as good as flushed down the toilet while the garden on the inside of the wall became useless as well.

Unknown to me, the neighbor was livid that still nothing had been done to repair the roof after tiles had fallen into his parking lot one and a half years earlier. Why the fence was installed exactly at that time, just after all of the investment and work was completed on the interior, seemed to be conspiratorial.

As usual, just as back then, my landlord was traveling abroad. One of my stipulations in signing the new lease extension was that someone must represent her in her absence. I might as well have chosen a fox to watch the chicken coop. Her boyfriend, who she chose to act as her legal proxy, said that it was not their problem, it was my business and that they did not care. Yet, that did not stop him from demanding the rent payment.

Warsaw Old Town 1944 Uprising Exhibition, 2004

Many times I have reflected on the jubilation during my first visit to Poland in the fall of 1989 when the Berlin Wall was torn down. I think of the big beautiful synagogue restored across town by Bente Kahan, a Norwegian performing artist. It serves as a major contribution to a revival of Polish Jewish communities that was emerging from Warsaw to Krakow to Wrocław. I visited the Jewish quarter in Krakow many times and in 2004 took photos of a memorial outdoor exhibition in Warsaw in homage to the 1944 Uprising. Yet, what seemed surreal, in the year 2008, four years after Poland had formally become an EU member, right in the heart of “The Meeting Place,” Abrams’ Tower became imprisoned inside of what I called:

“The New Wrocław Ghetto”.

Also unknown to me, just weeks after reopening the restaurant the ownership of one of the country’s most widely read daily newspapers glorified my literary star landlord with a lucrative monetary award for her latest novel. It alone would have been more than enough to cover the costs of restoring the tower’s roof while I was investing about the same in a second restoration of its interior within the first three years of my tenancy. My gamble seemed to pay off because even despite the blockage of the entrance, a Krakow wine distributor’s representative found the way to the restaurant through a back street, he fell in love with the new cuisine and he started coming regularly for lunch. He was so impressed that he brought his boss from Krakow to the restaurant who said that the food was better than that of his own chef of a new restaurant and wine shop he was about to open in the center of Warsaw. He subsequently proposed a partnership and three times I was invited by him to meetings, once in the city of Katowice, where he owned an enormous document archive business, once to Krakow where we met at a wine fair and once in Warsaw where I saw his new restaurant. His ambition was to make Abrams’ Tower the distribution point for his wines across western Poland. Then he sent his architects from Warsaw to visit the tower and their first reaction was that nothing would be possible unless the problem of entrance to the tower could be solved. They then proposed a major restoration plan that he offered to fund, including a beautiful new entrance to attract customers.

My aim was to arrange a meeting between this man, the landlord and City Hall. However, all depended on one missing element: the architectural project demanded by the conservatory for historical buildings that was to include the new entrance through the wall. It became urgently critical to show the project to my prospective partner, however, the landlord’s boyfriend refused to provide me with a copy unless the rent was paid in full. His act of extortion enraged me for it had become impossible to deliver on time due the loss of business caused by the landlord’s gross negligence of her property. When my lawyer made threats he finally sent me the project. No end to surprises, then I learned that the landlord had fired the architect before its completion and the director of the conservatory refused to review it. Once again, an unannounced disappearance, the biggest fish by far slipped off of the hook. Not long after my talented new head chef was also gone.

Showing not one iota of appreciation for the second major investment I had just made in her property, the introduction I had arranged with the city council’s VP, the investors I brought to the table, nor a hint of concern regarding the neighbor’s blatant act of sabotage, respect for the demands of the department of historical buildings or her legal obligation to restore her property’s exterior, my poor writer/landlord who had just received a big cash award from the ownership of the country’s largest circulated daily newspaper, bought an apartment just outside of the city’s most lucrative real estate of Rynek (Market Square).


Also unknown to me, my manager at that time had become chums with the landlord while he was allegedly secretly destroying my relationships with the neighbors, thus provoking the owner of the parking lot to erect the fence that ultimately destroyed my business. This was according to a manager who succeeded him:  

He proved to be a real smooth operator, a confidence man and I made the fatal mistake of personally introducing him to my landlord, who fell for him hook, line and sinker. This was quite a surprise since, also coincidentally just like Olga Tokarczuk, she was not just a fiction writer but a psychologist. Her blind allegiance to the guy became evident after he almost killed himself and his sister on Christmas day in a head on car collision after a night of heavy drinking. She wrote to me by email, and I quote her verbatim:  

This sounds very bad – I get use to him and to his way of thinking. I am very sorry but since Baszta is once again in troubles without [him] I cannot even think about renovation. To start this huge project we have to be in absolutely safe position.

It was as if on top of all else I was the reckless driver and that he was the one who had signed the lease, paid the rent and invested in her property.


Her words only made me more stubbornly resolute, yet this was also by no means the first or the last example of internal mutiny engineered by workers I had hired. Finding anyone at any skilled position in my business who was both qualified and could be trusted was a complete crapshoot. Few of them who grew up in communist times had any idea about quality service standards, which many were learning for the first time upon working in the UK. Even so, few of those who returned home were motivated due to the fact that they could easily earn as much as four times the pay for the same work abroad. I read that before Poland joined the EU that the owner of one of the most classy restaurants in Warsaw received hundreds of job applications each time he placed an announcement, but afterwards they dwindled down to only a few. Finding anyone older than student age who wanted such a job, was qualified and spoke English was even more difficult and extremely problematic because once someone turned twenty-six, the income taxes employers had to pay went up exponentially. Secondly, many of my customers were foreigners and this meant that it was essential to hire workers who were proficient in English. Until the end of the communist dictatorship, Poles were forced to learn Russian in school. Only later did learning English become popular. At that point in time, few Poles over thirty outside of Warsaw spoke more than rudimentary English and with a dearth of options, more than once I had no choice but to put my business in the hands of a student manager. A restaurant cannot stop if a manager leaves while waiting to find a replacement and training is always required. I always tried to remain optimistic, hoping that next hiring would be better and once in a blue moon I was lucky. Yet, no matter what I did, workers would pick up and leave Poland at the drop of a hat. 

Two years after signing the lease, in early 2007 I took my first one week vacation to visit friends where I had previously lived in Barcelona. The first night I was away I received a shocking phone text informing me that the sanitation department had closed down the kitchen. The entire vacation was turned upside down as I tried from afar to make sense of what had happened. Living in fear of bureaucratic extortion became a way of life but this was a manufactured false alarm. It was a plot orchestrated by someone inside of my business. When the cat is away the mice come out to play and when I returned unannounced I found beer on sale for a dirt cheap price. My student workers went along with a plot to return Baszta to what had killed the business under the prior student ownership.

Perhaps the biggest secret kept from me when signing the lease was that the past owners had lost their alcohol sales permits. From what I heard, they had angered the neighbors by throwing loud late night parties. Changing the menu in the end to sell beer must have been a last ditch effort to attract as many students as possible. Many Poles I both met and hired lived under the same simplistic delusion that inexpensive beer sales was the all-in-one answer to everything.

No one would have signed the lease were they informed about this, as it alone set me up in a most devious way from the outset for failure. By law, applying for alcohol sales permits came only after construction was completed and approved. Out of anger at the prior ownership, the neighbors voted against allowing me to obtain the permits. It took much persuading, visits to various offices and appealing for support from several sources within the city before the permits were finally granted. In every case I had to explain that I was not planning on opening another pub full of drunken students and that I had serious cultural ambitions. When I informed the landlord of this, who as usual was traveling, she acted surprised while offering no support, knowing all along that she was protected by the terms of the sale of the tower no matter what came of my business within the first year of my tenancy. Had I been forced to abandon the tower she would have kept every improvement I made in her property. On top of this, she would receive a return from the seller of around one-fifth of what she paid to purchase Baszta.

As almost everyone knows, alcoholism is an enormous problem in the former Eastern Bloc countries. I could do nothing to explain to some of my own staff that I was only able to obtain alcohol sales licenses by promising that I would not sell beer at dirt cheap prices aimed at attracting throngs of students. Many of them refused to listen. They knew better. To them I was an ignorant foreigner. Disrespect for my authority repeatedly resulted in disastrous consequences. Not once but twice I lost my wine shop sales permits because an assistant did not heed my expressed urgency that it must be paid for to the city by a strictly established deadline. I learned what to expect when one day I visited the office that grants the permits as a young female bar manager who I knew walked out crying. Alcohol permit payments were made three times yearly. I learned from her that the insanely rigid penalty for being one day late was to lose a permit for nine months. The first time it happened to me my assistant was crying for an entire week but she refused to tell me why. I asked her if someone had died or if she had lost her boyfriend but she would not answer me. Finally she confessed that she did not believe me and she went to pay one day late. Since that day I went there myself in almost every case, but sometimes I had to face so many urgent matters at once that my head was spinning. The second time it happened my own manager refused to believe me after he called the office himself and was given the wrong information. Even someone working in the city office which grants the permits did not know the difference between a wine bar license and one for a wine shop. The office clerk told him that he only had to pay for it once, whereas I had two separate wine sales licenses. In both cases I lost not just the right to make wine shop sales but partnerships with wine  distributors who planned on managing the shop.


Lost entrances, lost summer gardens, lost partners, lost alcohol sales permits, false investigations, a conspiratorially closed kitchen, the roof falling apart, what else could someone sabotage? There seemed to be no limit to variety of creative ways that almost anyone could cripple my business by malicious intent or by simple negligence. Facing fabricated bureaucratic accusations was not only common but so were unavoidable run ins with the law. Among the list of fears I lived with daily was any behavior that would anger the neighbors. For the sake of my business’ survival, I was sometimes forced to play the mean boss. One unforgettable private party was another case in point. I was unable to stop someone who had rented the tower for one evening from cranking up the music volume. Each time I asked him to turn it down he did and each time I left the room he would turn it up again. When I finally reached the boiling point he replied that he could do whatever he wanted because he had paid for usage of the building for that evening. Only minutes later, just as feared, policemen came and said that if it were to happen again I would be arrested and put in jail because I was a foreigner. Apparently that I was responsible for giving Poles jobs and paying ghastly taxes was of minor significance.

The highly popularized extortion games were played by not just the bureaucracy or the landlord but by workers, students or simply anyone. Several times someone brought something of petty value inside of the building, claimed that it had disappeared and attempted to hold me responsible. Once a very old microwave oven was lent for a private party. The lender delivered it in a box and later she claimed that when she opened the box after taking it back home that it was the wrong color and did not match her newly painted kitchen wall. No matter it matched the photo and serial number on the box, she demanded I buy her a new one. In two completely separate instances students who I invited to exhibit their drawings in the restaurant claimed that one of them was missing from the wall. Then they demanded that I pay ridiculous sums for their precious little artworks. Exhibitions I sponsored for serious professional artists included around ten to twelve artworks that were accompanied with a price list. Sometimes, however, I exhibited artwork of students from a nearby art academy. In both cases of bogus claims made on me for missing artworks, countless small drawings covered the walls and there were no plans to sell them. The second time this happened, as a personal indictment, the student’s boyfriend demanded I pay up or he would call the police. As just compensation, I offered him a banderole that had fallen off of a wine bottle.

So went the spirit of cultural exchange that inspired me to visit Poland in 1989 by invitation.


While donating the walls of my business to other artists, there was no time to make use of my own business to promote my own work. One day I found a forum on a student website filled with shocking slander aimed at my person. One comment said that I was just pretending to be an artist while exploiting students. Another with four names attached to it said: “Poland for Poles. Frederick for America. Go home!” In a post-communist, ninety-five percent Catholic society, sleaze and doing business had become synonymous. Even small art galleries and cultural institutions received government funding, something in rare supply in the U.S. As a foreigner from outside of the EU, by law I had to apply for a Polish limited liabilities business permit. This meant incredible accounting costs and a ridiculous amount of detailed paperwork. Whereas in the U.S. tax filings are yearly, in Poland the process is monthly. On top of this, by virtue of having a limited liabilities company, I was treated as if my tiny business was a large corporate operation. Most of the work my managers or assistants did pertained to this. Often they had no time to tend to critical daily business matters. Plus, there was a terrible personal cost to me, for to many young Poles I was just another sleazy businessman, just like my Polish friend who owned and rented kiosks was branded a notorious traitor after his own lawyer had royally screwed him over. 

From talking to young Poles I frequently learned of incredible prejudices that had been passed down to them. Many had been brainwashed by their elders, usually of the generation of my landlord, who was in her late forties. When radio journalist Lisa Romanienko asked me why my landlord did not want her identity revealed, this is what I diplomatically told her:

“I won’t say all that I think but I suspect that she does not want her fans to know because there is a myth held over from the communist era that people in the arts in particular are not supposed to be engaged in business.”

In contrast to the many surprises that I did not know, the history of my prior experience was completely unknown as well. No one had a clue of the historical implications of my time spent in Poland as an artist in residence. For example, here are excerpts of an interview that I have never before shown that was broadcast in November of 1989 on TV Wrocław. The host of the show, Zbigniew Makarewicz, had just been elected president of the newly legalized Polish Artists’ Association. It was the first such broadcast and I was the first guest when Poland was in its baby stages of liberation:

Two decades later, as the owner of Abrams’ Tower, I waited in vain for the right moment to make use of Baszta for a big artistic statement. It had everything to do with the background images on this page. The tower and what I made with it had become what I hoped to be my greatest artwork, one with an economic, civic, cultural and social function. When all was said and done, one of my unrealized art exhibition fantasies was to make wallpaper out of the mountains of bureaucratic and legal documents in my possession. Despite the digital age, I am utterly convinced that the greatest byproduct of both Polish business and life is paper.


A main reason I came to Europe can be traced back to a review of my first ever solo exhibition. It was multimedia installation presented in 1986 sponsored by the University of Southern California. The reviewer, then a curator of the Long Beach Museum of Art, concluded:

This installation starts from the premise that all systems in this world are interrelated and interdependent – a fundamental truth which Eastern philosophy is based upon and which scientists have only recently begun to recognize. In bringing these issues to the fore, Abrams’ installation offers an important opportunity to reflect upon the current state of world affairs.

There is nothing quite like moral priests who are also pedophiles or sleazy businessmen cleverly disguised as worldly writers and artists! However, whereas the critic’s words were most flattering, this is hardly why someone might question their credibility, which I think I can objectively do by myself. At that juncture of my life I had never ventured outside of North America other than for a three month visit of France and Germany. The curator’s support was so strong that she gave me direct referrals to some of the top art institutions in New York, London and Paris where I spent my time from 1986 to ’88. Whereas by no means could I say that I had the worldly experience to live up to her bold published pronouncement, it was shocking to discover that neither her words nor the content of my work was ever addressed by any other art critic, gallery director or curator I had encountered outside of academia. What I discovered from L.A. to N.Y. to western Europe was that the art world had for the most part become a superficial high brow artist/art dealer/art collector star making system. In order to sell it would be much more convenient to manipulate popular slogans, buzz words, easily recognizable iconographic images and brand name logos. Andy Warhol led the way by reproducing prints of Campbell’s soup cans and famous portraits. It was a brilliant idea in its time, yet one which later in a hyper charged commercialized atmosphere became a formula for trivializing ambitions to make great art. After my exhibition of computer assist drawings at Tom Solomon’s gallery, I showed him my most ambitious work made years before that had been three years in the making. He responded with but one unforgettable reaction: “An artist cannot make a masterpiece before one is famous.”

By contrast, in the midst of a non-violent revolution in Poland, I encountered a refreshingly divergent attitude, one sadly short lived as was the spirit of Solidarity. For a brief moment in history artists were revered for the revolutionary role that they played. Orange Alternative is now an important part of Wrocław’s history from the period of the volatile 1980s. Of course, it was a playwright who spearheaded “The Velvet Revolution” in neighboring Czechoslovakia.

However, once Poland had began to become westernized, the spirit of the people radically changed. Through every dark moment I would face, I rationalized to myself that this was my schooling as both an observer and participant engaged in history in the making. To decipher and to make use of such in-the-trenches experience became the source of my artistic exploration. (see here an interview from 2010 about my art world background).


Whether the threats to my ambitions came from inside or out, there was no place to hide and no respite. Derelicts who congregated in the post-communist courtyard during the warm weather season became a constant hazard, often harassing my female workers and customers. One of them threatened to kill my talented head chef when I first hired him. Twice the cash box was stolen from behind the bar when the business had been closed. Finally I installed an expensive alarm system, but this did nothing to curtail the many insidious ways that nonstop thievery continued unabated.

Finally the only solution to student mutiny was to do something radical: to change the age and economic demographic of my business to what was originally intended. There was but one simple way to do this: raise prices. I was idealistic in the beginning, not able or willing to sell beer for dirt cheap but still offering food and drink that was affordable to a wide spectrum of customers. However, I could not control the student dominated atmosphere, hence, when La luz gave way to Abrams Tower, it became a place aimed mainly at business class customers and tourists. Raising the price of a beer just a little was all that was required to do the trick. However, the repercussions were many. Plus, the neighborhood posed a far more grave dilemma to well heeled visitors in search of good wine and high standard fusion cuisine. They were also far more critical of comfort issues which were hindered ways by the deteriorating roof’s condition, which made proper heating during the coldest days of winter almost impossible.

Occasionally I interviewed customers on camera. Here are a few spontaneous, candid conversations concerning their reactions to Abrams’ Tower:

It was telling that Polish newspapers and magazines published numerous articles about La luz, but not one was ever written about Abrams’ Tower. Aside from what was clearly a scandalous cover up, I believe that another fundamental reason is that Wrocław did not have a single professional food critic and few Poles knew anything about most of the cuisine we served. Conversely, as the local media turned its back, the restaurant garnered more and more exceptional recognition abroad. The reaction of my landlord? “I kind of like the derelict atmosphere,” she once said.


As a continuing predicament was to locate quality workers, I tried hiring foreigners. Soon I began understanding why I was under suspicion whenever I smiled at Polish women. It became a cliché and regularly people asked me if I chose to live in Poland because of Polish girls. I cannot verify this, however, the British historian, Norman Davies, who married one, was once known to have said that the greatest Polish export is its women. Most of the foreign men in Wrocław I encountered who were not hired by international companies, consulates or embassies before ever setting foot in the city, were there for only one reason. A man with no other purpose or ambition in life than to pursue a woman living in a poor country and attempt to develop a life there proved repeatedly to be a very sketchy kind of character. An American from Florida I briefly hired turned out to be a dangerous binge drinker. One day he was seen walking around the populous Market Square (Rynek) rather tipsy, carrying a glass of beer in his hand and telling Polish girls that he was a rock star. Another American who proposed a partnership was not just a heavy drinker but a compulsive gambler, which tends to go hand in hand. One late Saturday evening he allegedly walked behind the bar when no one was watching and all of that day’s cash earnings mysteriously disappeared. I came to conclude that Poland attracts such characters, not only for its women but also for its culture of excessive alcohol consumption. One evening I received a phone call from the U.S. asking me about my new Dutch bartender, who also came to live in Wrocław for the sake of a woman. Somehow he stole the information from one of my personal credit cards and purchased a slew of bar supplies for himself from a company in Florida. Many Polish women I came to know watched their men like I had never seen before and for good reason, because so many of them regularly drank to excess. I knew of one British restaurant owner in Warsaw who locked his bar inside of an enormous cage whenever the business was closed. God only knows how much alcohol I lost when I was not on the premises. 


Laws still operative from the communist times that protected workers’ rights enabled them to get away with murder. They could have robbed a bank when on vacation on the other side of Poland and I would have been held under suspicion. As another glorious form of extortion, three different managers I hired used the excuse of a serious illness or accident that in no way was connected to or caused by my business, to force me to pay them for months of not working. One was the manager who had a terrible car accident on Christmas day. Whether or not coincidental, strangely in all three cases they had had private contacts with my landlord. Whether or not coincidental, all three of them threatened blackmail if I fired them. One even threatened violence.

The last one sat at home collecting monthly income due to a leg injury incurred late at night while dancing at a private party. Yet, for the next three months he managed to climb the stairs of the tower with the dubious prop of a cane to receive his salary from me. When I finally tricked him into a one day legal window of opportunity to dismiss him, he made the usual threats I came to expect: to call city inspectors. Poles themselves warned me not to hire a woman manager for she might use me to get paid for maternity leave. At least this never came to pass.

The labyrinth

With Ryba’s memory forever in mind, despite a relentless assault, I masochistically continued to pursue my vision. I tried everything I could think of to somehow keep the business afloat. My master chef was no longer and few people found the tower’s door. Many of the higher class demographic Abrams’ Tower attracted dared not hazard entering once they saw the dire conditions outside of the tower. The only possibility for new customers to find the way was by discovering remote passages through nearby tenement apartments. I tried posting signs outside that were quickly vandalized. I started up a lunch time catering business that floundered. I experimented with using the building just for parties and cultural events and opening only on weekends. I tried staying open as a late night club serving “global tapas” and made hookah available. It was this or face bankruptcy procedures that my accountant warned me would be brutal. With many contractual commitments still to fulfill, I figured that reducing costs to a bare minimum was the only chance I had. Meanwhile, I prayed for the court case to be decided in my favor.

I tried to keep the faith when a young Polish prosecutor told me that the legal system had evolved since Poland joined the EU and that it had become one of the least corrupt departments of the government. She was far too young to have been a communist party member. A friend, whose husband was a court judge, said not to worry, that if I just told my story in court everything would turn out hunky dory. This gave me the impetus to not abandon the ship. Yet, always in the back of my mind was the nagging doubt that a fair trial was possible. I was wary of being the one to sue my  landlord who was clearly being protected by the mass media, though others urged me to do so before she went on the offense. Plus, I was warned that a court case in Poland would last for years.

From far away on the other side of the continent things appeared much different when the most bitter of all ironies occurred. In April of 2011 the London Guardian published an article of readers’ comments that featured Abrams’ Tower as the first place to visit in Poland. Yet, just two months later I finally had to close it down for good, just as Wrocław was about to be selected the 2016 Culture Capital of Europe.

Was it a coincidence that at this time I not only lost my alcohol permits but my legal residency and that the court’s verdict was imminent? The date was set for April. I felt quite certain at that point that I would win because the judge had belatedly accepted photos I had taken of holes in the roof after my landlord’s lawyer claimed that a recent repair of the roof (that amounted to what looked like a piece of paper in the place of a fallen tile) had been adequate. However, half of a year would pass before the inspector saw the roof and completed an analysis of the tower’s condition. Meanwhile, another devastating bureaucratic axe fell on my head…

By law as the foreign CEO of a Polish corporation it was my duty to apply for a yearly residency and for a work permit. Anyone from a country outside of the EU would have to endure a several months long labyrinth in order to obtain these required documents. The amount of paperwork and office crawling was staggering and like the alcohol department, there was zero room for error. Each year applying for, filling and obtaining the same documents was necessary. Each time it took months to complete and the amount of time devoured was often terribly risky for my business. Invariably, I would go to the many offices with my manager or assistant, which sometimes took up entire days. This was while there was usually a mountain of other bureaucratic details to tend to, aside from contending with almost daily crises and emergencies which had become the norm. Then, of course, as if the last consideration, there was the small inconvenience of a restaurant to operate.

After five long years of this annual torment, it was finally possible to apply for a five year long residency. When making one of countless trips to the residency office I met with someone who did this professionally for one of the foreign owned corporate headquarters. I had never known such luxury. This time I was put through even more rigorous investigations and interrogations then ever before resulting in a friendly rejection from Warsaw. The reason? The same assistant who three years before had paid for my wine shop license one day late was two weeks late in starting the yearly administrative residency and work permit process. Because of the discovery of her long ago negligence, despite having gone through this unbelievably tedious procedure for five years straight and despite the fact that I was granted the permit each time, the residency was denied.

For me this was the final indignity. The woman in charge of my case had only one priority in mind: that I was hiring Polish workers and God knows, I had hired and trained more than I could possibly remember, including bums from the courtyard. Yet, it was a young Polish employee’s delinquency at one brief moment over five years of time which basically meant I had no ability to continue hiring anybody.

I came to call this, “Polish logic.”


There is an old saying that is a hybrid of English and Polish language, which most Poles learned during the communist era even if they knew no other English. It sums up a destructively pessimistic philosophy I faced that Olga Tokarczuk had condemned in her New York Times op-ed piece:

Life is brutal and full of zasadzkas…and sometimes kopas w dupas.

Zasadzka (pronounced: Zah sahd skuh) means “trap” or “ambush.” The letter “s” is the usual plural suffix in English, however, the letter “i” depicts the plural form in Polish: zasadzki. Kopas w dupas means: “a kick in the ass.”

The final zasadzka was the court case over unpaid rent that dragged on from January of 2010 until December of 2011. Not once did my ghost landlord make an appearance. Another frivolous eviction notice arrived, once again long before the court case had been decided. This time my landlord had a doozy of a justification. She claimed that she was in urgent need to begin restoration and my restaurant inside of the tower was an impediment. This also defied logic since her sole legal obligation was to restore the tower’s exterior. Apparently it had been forgotten that both her sales contract and our lease contract both stipulated that the building could only be used for commercial gastronomic purposes.

The ghost's new apartment

However, the writing was on the wall when her idea for the future became crystal clear in December of 2009, one month before I was hit with the lawsuit. One day an architect showed up without forewarning to take some measurements, for what, I had no idea. The latest secret kept from me, the building’s zoning had been changed to include residential installations. One would think that someone would have sent the tenant a notice in the mail? The new architect must not have known my landlord’s true intentions when she voluntarily emailed me copies of her project. What it revealed was both the city’s and my landlord’s covert ambitions, beginning with the installation of an apartment inside of the attic. The restaurant had become just a slight inconvenience, because there was no means of entering the attic without walking through it. Likewise, there had been no halfway direct access to the tower’s door other than passing through the neighbor’s parking lot, that is, until he blocked it and then the only way was through tenement apartment building passages and/or land owned by the city.

As one lawyer said to me, “People were free to go anywhere during communist times. Now they are free to construct fences.”

Stunned, by email I requested a meeting with my landlord, who as usual was traveling. Once again the extortion card was played as she refused my request unless I deposited into her bank account all overdue rent payments. I replied that I adamantly would never and could never do this but that once again I had attracted an interested investor and perhaps we could work things out. Days later the court papers arrived in the mail.

A review in the New York Times of the film, “Ida,” which takes place in Poland during the early 1960’s, speaks of “when Poland’s Communist government used judicial terror (among other methods) to consolidate its power and eliminate its enemies.” I learned that nothing had changed and that “enemies” were conveniently invented.


Waiting in the lobby prior to the first court date, my landlord’s lawyer and boyfriend proposed to my lawyer a settlement. I found it extraordinary that rather than offer an enticement, it was presented as another endearing threat: either I accept their demand to pay all back rents and vacate the building or I would be held liable as well for all rents unpaid during the course of the court case. My lawyer then told me that perhaps I should accept their offer for there was no guarantee that I would win. At that moment I decided to turn down their offer and go for broke for several reasons:

1) I had come this far and win or lose, I would never be able to look at myself in the mirror if I had quit without a fight

2) On principle alone I could not allow myself to fall for their royal scam

3) I knew I was in the right and I wanted to know firsthand what a Polish court case would be like. I wanted to know firsthand whether the system was no longer corrupted, as I had been told was the case several times by Poles who claimed to have inside knowledge and experience

4) I was unwilling to give up on my future vision for the tower unless and until I knew that it was absolutely hopeless

5) I also knew that should I lose the case, and as I had no significant assets in Poland, that their greedy attempts to milk me for all I had was already tapped out. Secondly, I was protected by the Polish liabilities company that as a foreigner by law I was obligated to create. The only assets I had in the company’s name were negligible. The only other recourse would be for the landlord to sue me all over again personally, God knows how much more time in court to be lost.

6) I also knew that if I lost my life in Poland was over and if nothing else I would have quite a story to tell!

Alas, I did have some supportive Polish friends and over the next two years a long procession of witnesses, all but three of them Polish, testified in my behalf. One after the next they confirmed the dire condition of the roof, blocked access to the tower’s door, catastrophic damage to my business and outright refusal of my landlord to cooperate in good faith. I provided evidence of the demand of the neighbor who blocked the main entrance to the tower to repair the roof. I submitted a written letter from the director of the conservatory of historical buildings confirming that my landlord never even applied for a construction permit that was demanded of her. I gave the judge two written letters from inspectors confirming the roof’s dangerous condition. Among my witnesses were: the owner of several popular restaurants and bars in the city who also had proposed to me a partnership all for naught, a professional Polish restaurant consultant who had lived for over thirty years in the U.S., a former manager, head chef, head bartender and a few esteemed customers. They included a former director of Wrocław City Hall’s Department of Culture, a British head honcho of one of the largest foreign owned corporate headquarters in the city and a dignitary of the Wrocław German Consulate. 

Most interestingly, the only witness I asked to appear in court who refused was a young Polish Jew. He had deep connections with the city’s small Jewish community and in 2005 when I began having nightmares as the new tenant, he offered to me protection. He said he knew that a foreigner would encounter major difficulties and wanted to help me, particularly since my family origins were Jewish. Several times it had been suggested that I seek support from the local Jewish community, however, I have never played this card and did not wish to then. Nevertheless, I was in desperate need of help when I was fighting windmills attempting to obtain necessary construction permits. Unquestionably, he helped overcome incredible obstacles I faced one after the next. Yet, another shock during a ceremonious moment, this time the celebration of the reopening of the synagogue after major restoration, he made an incredible confession: that he feared being on the wrong side of my landlord due to her social standing in Wrocław.

Official court photos of the roof inside the attic

Hiding behind the people doing the dirty work for her, my ghost landlord had only one witness: her boyfriend. On top of this he served as her building maintenance man and restaurant economics expert. Yet, he had no clue about either. One of her two lawyers presented to the court the landlord’s new architectural plan including permits received for its construction. When I voiced my objection to its intent, she comically argued that the new attic apartment including a kitchen, bathroom and terrace was just an office. Her lawyer argued that nothing was wrong with the roof and claimed that it had been properly repaired. Her boyfriend went one even better, declaring that I was just making a big fuss over petty late rent penalties while earning fantastic profits. “Why else would he have signed the extension of the contract?” he rhetorically asked. Never mind that by then I had lost far more money than my landlord had invested in purchasing Baszta. Several critical documents in my possession were not allowed as evidence which concretely refuted the various fantastic claims and accusations. The case degenerated into something of an incongruously clichéd mythology of an entrapped rich American cash cow victimizing a poor globe trotting, real estate investing Polish sacred cow. Neither the facts of my imprisonment nor my poor landlord’s new lifestyle of world travel and gross neglect of her newly purchased real estate was considered by the judge as part of the equation.

As if a mystery novel of my landlord’s lurid literary imagination, the two inspectors of the roof who were called as witnesses mysteriously disappeared. One of them was presumed to be dead. This rendered their written statements legally irrelevant. The court judge had refused my lawyer’s request to appoint another one until she belatedly accepted the photos I submitted showing the roof’s terrible condition and my landlord’s boyfriend’s bogus roof repair. Finally, the court appointed an inspector, at my expense, to assess the building’s condition. The moment I opened the attic’s trap door and beams of light peered through the roof’s broken tiles, he said, “I don’t need to see more.” 

Eureka! I was vindicated!…or so I thought…

However, the trickery was far from over.

There is a particular Polish word that is most instructive: kombinować (pronounced: comb-e-no-vach). Poles say this word cannot be translated. It refers to a form of conniving for the sake of survival, commonly learned tactics which were imperative to master during the communist era. This is precisely the same sort of cynical adaptation of free enterprise described in the book, “Culture Shock! Ukraine.” What is even more revealing about this is reviews of the book back when it was published at the turn of the century claiming that it was dated, as if such backward corrupt practices were no longer commonplace even in Ukraine. Yet, so many years later in a Polish city selected to soon be a European Culture Capital, my puppeteer ghost landlord eerily lurking in the shadows was but one of so many Poles I depended on who were kombinować masters.

Necessity being the mother of invention, I think back to my exhibition in 1991 in a gallery that had no electricity, that no one could make large prints from my slide film and how I overcame such severe limitations. I used to joke about what I called “good kombinować” versus “bad kombinować,” like good witches versus bad witches. All I know is that it amazed many Poles that I lasted nearly six years as opposed to six months, but finally my time was up. 

As I waited with my lawyer and personal court interpreter outside of the courtroom to hear the verdict, my landlord’s boyfriend approached us, gleefully shaking our hands. My heart sunk as it was obvious that somehow he already knew the verdict. Just when we were about to enter, my lawyer said that he worried that the case all boiled down to one sentence in a Polish language contract that had twice been amended. “Why had he said nothing about it during the prior two years?” I asked myself. Was this all just a money making theatre play for everyone at my expense?

Peculiarly, the judge, a fairly pretty dark haired woman likely no older than thirty-five, had dyed her hair an intense orange color. “Was this good judgment?” I asked myself. I knew that I was in big trouble.

But then she said that the roof required major repair. Hurray! In the end the truth prevailed!…for long enough to take my breath.

Then she rattled off a long list of costs, all my responsibility, she said. Completely numbed, I asked my court translator to confirm what I was hearing. I, the tenant, was responsible for roof, she said, and that I will have to pay for all back rents with heavy penalties attached to them. I also will have to pay for all of the lawyers, for the court fees, for my translator and for upkeep of the judge’s orange hair for the next twenty-five years.

Her brilliant justification was garbled in many pages of text. From what I basically was able to discern from this, it boiled down to the fact that my architect’s project in 2005 listed my limited liability company’s name as the investor. Having been tricked into believing that my agreed to nonrefundable investment in interior restoration would be very simple, inexpensive and that I could open my business quickly, in the final analysis, I was held responsible for the entire building!

By Polish law, as I was to learn, even a small renovation of a historical building required a complete architectural plan covering every detail. Yet, the judge refused my request to submit the architect’s unfinished project made three years later at the demand of the conservatory, which states that the landlord was the investor. More interestingly, the project from 2009 including the attic apartment does not name the investor, yet it was accepted belatedly as evidence. Most incredible of all, while the landlord’s lawyers and boyfriend/witness/roof repairman/restaurant economics expert testified that the roof was fine, they also claimed prior to the date of announcing the verdict that she was the investor. They even stooped so low as to claim that it was she who was trying hard to restore the tower and that I had been the one standing in the way!

Poles said to me, “Go to Warsaw and appeal. There you will receive a fair hearing.”Was I to believe this after all of the prior horrible advice I had received? Plus, I was not getting younger and how many more years of my precious life would I waste, how many long trips to another city for every court appearance?

Every negative word I ever heard ringed in my head, from Poles who had left their country and many who hadn’t but bitterly wished that they could. More than one had forewarned me: “They will take from you everything you have!” I heard my first manager in 2005 screaming hysterically, “She’s using you to restore her building and then she will kick you out!” I heard the cynical disbelief of American Jews and of the Auschwitz survivor living across the street from where I was raised. I heard my elderly father yelling in my ear many times on the phone to throw in the towel. I heard my mother crying when she sent me all of the inheritance money my sister had left to us when she died of cancer in 2007. All of it paid for building Abrams’ Tower’s new kitchen, while my landlord romped around the world and bought other real estate. 

Then, just three weeks later and four days before Christmas, I returned home to a small folded piece of paper squeezed into a crevice in my apartment door. It was a notice from a court appointed collector demanding to pay up in full. Even this, according to two lawyers, was odd since I had not even had an opportunity yet to make an appeal. Did they think I was an American Santa Claus of Eastern European Jewish ancestry? Did they just assume that I had returned to my family’s roots to toss free goodies to everyone? It seemed that they felt it was owed to them as entitlement, like the derelicts in the courtyard who insisted that Baszta was theirs.

Another memory resurfaced. A language translator, who had lived in New York for twelve years driving a taxi described to me what his country had turned into through his eyes. Upon returning home everyone expected him to foot every bill because in their minds he had become a rich American. He told me of an American of Polish heritage who had a big collection of Polish art that he had protected from the Nazis during WWII. After Poland’s liberation in 1989 he offered the country his collection but was told that it would not be accepted unless he invested to build a new museum for its permanent exhibition.

From that moment on, I went into hiding, sleeping in the dead of winter in a friend’s art studio without hot water. In the middle of the night I would sneak back into my apartment to scan thousands of documents and take a hot shower. In stealth mode I moved out everything I could from both the restaurant and my apartment and put it into storage, most of it which would be lost forever. I then sent about ten boxes of irreplaceable personal items back to my elderly parents in Los Angeles.

While moving things I sold a few of the more valuable items that paid for my ticket home and carried all I could with me onto the plane. Until I got safely on board, time had stopped in the crippling past of Polish history.


One month after the collector’s notice was left on the door I was back in L.A. It was the first time I that I had seen my feeble parents since before I started my business. The risk of leaving had been so great that my father told me to stay to protect my business when my sister was dying of cancer in 2007. For the following year, recuperating back in laid back suburban West L.A., lounging in the sun with the leaves of a palm tree lightly swaying overhead in a pastel blue sky, I asked myself existential questions like: did any of this ever really happen? Was it perhaps just an alternative reality Disneyland E ticket ride? (When I was a boy, an “E” ticket allowed entry to the most expensive attractions.) At the same time I thought, “I am an escaped prisoner of war! Where’s the fanfare? Where can I find a Veteran’s Administration post-xenophobe/commie trauma treatment center?!” But I couldn’t even find anybody who had ever heard of Wrocław.

Soon enough I would confirm that, in fact, it had been all too real. Exactly one year after returning home I flew to London to make a presentation of my artwork at a historical conference. Afterward I risked sneaking back to revisit Wrocław during the coldest month of the year. Fearing that the frozen ghosts of my icicled memories might apprehend me at the airport, instead I found the remains of another failed uprising…

Click here for Chapter Six: Canceled Future

July 2014