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Chapter Nine

                                          Translation: Daria Zalewska


Greetings from the New Wrocław Ghetto

Speaking from her home in Wroclaw in southwestern Poland, Ms. Tokarczuk also referenced President Trump’s plan to build a wall on the United States border with Mexico. “Twelve years ago there was no mention of the idea of walls or borders, which were originally adopted by totalitarian systems,” she said. “Back then I must admit that I was sure that we had put totalitarianism behind us.

– From a review of Olga Tokarczuk’s book, “Flights,” by Tobias Grey, New York Times, August 9, 2018.

Olga Tokarczuk's press conference at La luz in 2006

From the day that I signed the lease agreement, I attempted to engage my Landlord in the business. I even proposed to her a minority ownership, which she rejected without a moment of contemplation. Once I made the entire building available to her, for a press conference, announcing the publication of her latest novel, just as I had done for Polish artists, film directors and other literary figures, including Olga Tokarczuk. In the summer of 2007, I found out that the city provided public funding to restore registered historical buildings. For this purpose, I arranged a meeting between my Landlord and Wroclaw City Council Vice-President, Jacek Ossowski. Upon visiting the tower, Mr. Ossowski 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 didn’t own it, and as the tenant I had no legal authority to apply to the city for funding.

Within a short walk from the tower, were two “milk bars” that were packed every day. Both were located on a busy street with easy visibility and lots of walk-in traffic. Baszta was sandwiched between them, hidden by enormous tenement apartment buildings, lacking direct access from the street and with no such support whatsoever from the city. 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 end of the reign of Poland’s SLD (Democratic Left Alliance) Party, also known as the “reformed Communist Party.” I began to wonder whether my Landlord was one of the SLD party faithful.

The support that kept my dream alive came from a heartbreaking source: my sister, who had recently died from cancer. It was an inheritance she left, to my parents and myself, that gave me one last reason – and the means – to roll the dice.

In the spring of 2008, during one of my Landlord’s infrequent appearances in Wrocław, I also managed to arrange a meeting at the tower with her and the director of the Conservatory of Historical Buildings. It was at that meeting that the director demanded she submit an architectural plan to restore the roof and the walls, and to reopen the blocked passage through the medieval fortification wall that is attached to the tower, which would have immediately solved the enormous problems concerning its accessibility. My vision included, after the passage through the wall would be reopened, the creation of a summer outdoor garden on the side of the wall, facing the street. I already had set up an outdoor drinking and eating space on the inside of the wall, next to the tower’s door, but it could not be seen from the street and no one passing by knew of its existence. With the old passage reopened, people walking or driving by would easily be able to see customers at tables outside that they stumbled upon by chance. Even with guide books, it was often challenging for foreigners to find their way to the tower.

Perhaps I was crazy, but I believed I was onto something great.

Presuming that the major impediments to safe and easy access to the tower would be removed, the Landlord finally agreed to extend the term of the lease to ten years, but at a much higher monthly rent. She further insisted that I complete the interior restoration job, which had been impossible for me to take on three years earlier, but which I could now agree to, thanks to the inheritance I had received. In kind, the Landlord agreed to restore the tower’s exterior, something the city demanded she do anyway. There was only one thing that justified taking this enormous risk: I needed the longer-term lease to bring in a desperately needed partner to invest in and help run the business. I had no doubt I would find someone because many people had previously expressed interest; however, the 5-year lease I had, which was slowly expiring, was not considered a safe investment risk.

Perhaps I was crazy, but I believed I was onto something great, even though I had not yet conceived of the spectacular restoration of the roof to be made of glass. I was absolutely convinced that – given the talent of my new head chef, a new, fully functioning kitchen, properly restored building, the outdoor garden facing the street and easy access to the tower’s only door – I would attract many customers. I was also certain that finding a suitable Polish partner, who knew the ropes of doing business in his post-communist country, would make a world of difference and perhaps allow me to not only sleep peacefully again once in awhile, but to return to my greater life’s purpose as an artist.


The Wrocław Ghetto

During five months of installing a new kitchen, ventilation and electrical system, the business remained closed and no income was earned, while I continued to pay the rent at a new much higher price, according to our new agreement. Still, nothing at all had been done to restore the tower’s exterior or repair the badly deteriorating roof. On the day the restaurant opened, the neighbor next door congratulated me by installing a huge construction fence made of steel that was strategically placed to block the passage through his parking lot to the tower’s door. Another celebratory moment had been rewarded with a sinister gift. Instead of having a new direct access point through the medieval fortification wall, now the only barely reasonable access from Kraińskiego Street no longer existed. Horrified, my first thought was that after all of the painstaking labor and cost in making a major second interior restoration within three years of leasing the tower, even all of the footwork to obtain permits for a new summer garden was as good as flushed down the toilet. I realized that it would take a magician to find the the door of my newly opened restaurant.

I visualized the inscription on my gravestone after the roof caved in: “P.T.R.” (Pay the Rent).

Why did this happen just after all these months of restoration and just in time to ruin the reopening of my business?

What I didn’t know was that the neighbor was livid that still nothing had been done to repair the roof after tiles had fallen and crashed onto his parking lot around 18 months earlier. Still, what had motivated him to wait so long to take action? Why did he not say a word to me beforehand? Could this seemingly diabolical timing have merely been a star-struck coincidence?

As usual, at the time, my Landlord was doing her Bieguni escape thing abroad. One of my stipulations in signing the new lease extension had been that someone must legally represent her in her absence. She appointed her thoughtful boyfriend, Ślimak, as her legal proxy, who shrugged off the latest nuisance as not their problem. “It’s your business,” he said, as if her obligation to restore her property had never been an issue or responsibility. Still, that did not stop him from demanding that the rent be paid on time.

I visualized an inscription on my gravestone after the roof caved in: P.T.R. (Pay the Rent)

This was just too incredible, coming 64 years after the uprising of Jewish prisoners, trapped inside of the Warsaw Ghetto, and almost 20 years after the Berlin Wall was torn down. My beautiful new restaurant, which now served not only rare exquisite world cuisine but so many artistic, cultural, educational and humanistic purposes, was suddenly trapped behind a bizarre combination of a new heavy metal fence and the remains of the red brick wall, erected in the 13th-century. This was by no means the sort of 21st-century hybrid of hi-tech and medieval architecture that I had intended. It was surreal, that in the year 2008 – already four years after Poland had formally become an EU member and as the global economy was crashing – that right in the heart of “The Meeting Place,” Abrams’ Tower became imprisoned inside of what I called:

The New Wrocław Ghetto.


Another development I didn’t know about: just weeks after the reopening of the mortally crippled new restaurant, the ownership of one of the country’s most widely-read daily newspapers awarded my poor dear Landlord with a sizable sum, in recognition of her latest novel. The prize money would have been more than enough to cover the costs of restoring the tower’s roof, just as I was investing about the same amount in a second restoration of its interior, during my brief period of tenancy.

No matter, my gamble seemed to pay off when, despite the blockage of the entrance, a stubborn Krakow wine distributor’s representative found the way to the restaurant, through a back street. He instantly fell in love with the fusion cuisine and started coming in for lunch regularly. He was so impressed, that he brought his boss from Krakow, who said that the food was better than that of his own head 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 to meet with him: 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 during its then final stages of construction. His ambition was to make Abrams’ Tower the distribution point for his wines across the western part of Poland known as Lower Silesia. However, when he sent his architects from Warsaw to visit the tower, their first reaction was that nothing could be done, unless the blockage of the entrance was solved. I saw the light at the tunnel’s end when they proposed a major restoration plan, that the businessman offered to fund, including a new, beautifully decorated and illuminated passage designed to easily attract customers.

My aim was to arrange a meeting between this man, the Landlord and the city mayor in order to create a consortium of private and public funding for the complete restoration of the tower. However, progress all depended on one still missing element: the architectural plan demanded by the Conservatory for Historical Buildings, which was to include the new entrance through the medieval fortification wall. It became urgently critical to show such a plan to my prospective partner. However, Ślimak refused to provide me with a copy, unless I paid the delinquent rent in full.

2008 entrance concept by architect Krzysztof Kobielski

Only after my lawyer made threats, Ślimak sent me the architectural plan. It was then that I learned the Landlord had fired the architect before the completion of the plan, and that the director of the Conservatory had refused to review an unfinished proposal. Once again, a potential business partner fled without another word having been spoken. The biggest fish by far had slipped off of the hook. Not long after, I had no choice, but to let go of my well-paid talented new head chef, as few people could find the tower’s door.

My Landlord did not show one iota of appreciation for the second costly investment I had made in her property, nor for the introduction I had arranged with the city council’s Vice-President, or for the investors I had brought to the table. She never expressed a hint of concern about the neighbor’s blatant act of sabotage towards my business or any respect for the demands of the department of historical buildings, regarding her legal obligation to restore her property’s exterior.

Instead, having just received a big cash award for her latest book, she bought an apartment in one of the city’s most lucrative real estate zones, one short block off the nearby Market Square, while she continued her lectures and flighty book writing.

Click here for Chapter Ten: Banderole Ransom