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Chapter Seventeen


Red-Headed Justice

As we waited in the lobby at the start of the first court date, my Landlord’s lawyer and her boyfriend, Ślimak, proposed to my attorney a laughable settlement. They would forgo a petty penalty for late rent payments if I would accept their demand to pay all back rents and vacate the tower. If not, I would be held liable for upcoming months that would transpire during the court case. My lawyer suggested I should accept their magnanimous offer, for there was no guarantee that I would win. Not giving it a second thought, I decided to turn the offer down and to literally go for broke. I knew that if I gave up after coming this far, I would never be able to look at myself in the mirror again. I was committed to my vision, knowing that if I quit, no one else would fulfill my dream of creating magnificence in the restoration of Baszta and that my ultimate destined purpose in Poland would never be fulfilled. It became instantly clear at that moment that were I to lose, I would be on my way back home shortly after. This was the final roll of the dice.

One thing was tremendously gratifying: to learn through the trial to what extent I had supportive friends in Wrocław. Over the next two years, a long procession of witnesses, all but three of them Polish, testified on my behalf. One after the next, they confirmed the dire condition of the roof, the blocked access to the tower’s door, the overall catastrophic damage to my business, and the outright refusal of my Landlord to cooperate in good faith. I provided evidence of the demand of the neighbor, who had blocked the main entrance to the tower, that its roof must be repaired. Submitted with my attorney’s letter in response to the Landlord’s complaint, was a written letter from the director of the Conservatory of Historical Buildings confirming that my Landlord never even applied for the construction permit that she was obliged to obtain. I gave the judge two written testimonies from inspectors confirming the roof’s dangerous condition. Among my witnesses were: the owner of several popular restaurants and bars in the city, who had proposed a partnership with me, a professional Polish restaurant consultant who had spent more than 30 years in the US, a former manager, my most talented head chef, a head bartender and a few esteemed customers. The latter included: a former director of Wrocław City Hall’s Department of Culture, a head honcho of an enormous multinational corporation and a dignitary of the Wrocław German Consulate. 

The court case degenerated into something of an incongruously clichéd mythology of an entrapped rich American cash cow victimizing a poor Polish globe-trotting sacred cow.

Interestingly, the only witness I asked to appear in court who refused, was my former young Jewish partner, whose father had been director of the city’s small Jewish community. In 2005, when I began having nightmares as the new tenant, he offered me protection. He said he knew that a foreigner would encounter many difficulties and wanted to help me, particularly since my family was Jewish. Several times it had been suggested that I seek support from the local Jewish community. I had never before in my life depended on the identity of my family heritage and did not wish to then, but this was no time to be picky. I was in desperate need of help during the arduous process of obtaining the necessary construction permits and he unquestionably helped me overcome incredible obstacles. In exchange for his help, I gave him a 15% interest in the business, which he later returned to me as my business had been decimated, thus cleverly relieving himself of any responsibility in company liabilities.

Then came another shock at yet another celebratory moment, this time with the official reopening of the just-restored city synagogue. During the ceremony, my young Jewish friend, who had come to me to protect a foreigner from evil deeds, made a remarkable confession: that he was afraid to alienate 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, Ślimak, who wore many hats, including as her building maintenance man and restaurant economics expert. What a perfect jack-of-all-trades role, for someone who had no clue about any of it. 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 concerning its illegal intent for residential purposes, she comically argued that the new attic apartment – which would include a kitchen, bathroom with a shower and terrace – was just an office. Meanwhile, her lawyer had the audacity to claim that there was nothing wrong with the roof and that it had been properly repaired. Ślimak went on, declaring that I was just making a big fuss over his petty late rent penalties, while I was presumably earning fantastic profits. “Why else would [I] 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 originally invested in purchasing Baszta.

Several critical documents in my possession, including yearly income statistics from my accountant that concretely refuted the various fantastic claims and accusations, were not allowed as evidence. The court case degenerated into something of an incongruously clichéd mythology of a rich American cash cow victimizing a poor Polish sacred cow. That she happened to also be a poor globe-trotting, real estate investing, sacred cow was not allowed into the record of my testimony either, nor would the judge allow me to utter a word about the fact that her only witness/legal representative also happened to be her much younger live-in boyfriend. Neither the facts of my imprisonment, in a grossly one-sided deal that left me as a tenant entrapped with the owner’s full responsibility, yet without her authority to do anything about it, nor my Landlord’s impoverished new lifestyle of world travel and attendant gross neglect of her newly-purchased piece of real estate, were considered as part of the equation.

As if a mystery novel that had sprouted from my Landlord’s lurid literary imagination, the two roof inspectors, who had been called as witnesses, mysteriously disappeared. One of them was presumed to be dead. As a result, their written statements were rendered legally irrelevant. The judge refused my lawyer’s request to appoint another inspector until she belatedly accepted the photos I had taken, showing the roof’s terrible condition and Ślimak’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.” 

My immediate reaction was, “Eureka! I am vindicated!”…or so I thought, the trickery far from over…

There is a particular Polish word that is most instructive: kombinować (pronounced: com-be-no-vach). Poles say this word cannot be translated. It refers to a form of conniving for the sake of survival, referring to commonly learned tactics that were imperative to master during the communist era. The same sort of cynical adaptation of the free market is described in the book “Culture Shock! Ukraine.” Amazingly, reviews of the book back when it was published at the turn of the millennium claimed that it was dated, as if such backward, corrupt practices were no longer commonplace, not even in Ukraine. A decade later, in a Polish city selected to soon be a European Culture Capital, my puppeteer ghost Landlord lurking in the shadows was but one of so many Poles I depended on, who turned out to be masters of kombinować.

The mother of invention has always called to me as I have overcome several severe obstacles at various times in my life. I think back to my exhibition in 1991, in a gallery that had no electricity and no one could make large prints from my slide film. 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, and that now everything had come to a head of either win big or go home. 

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

Curiously, the judge, a fairly pretty dark-haired woman, likely no older than 35, had just recently dyed her hair an intense, gaudy 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!…long enough, at least, for me to breathe a sigh of relief.

Did they think I was an American Santa Claus of Eastern European Jewish ancestry?

Then she rattled off a long list of costs – that were all my responsibility! Completely numbed, I asked my court translator to confirm what I was hearing. I, the tenant, was responsible for the full restoration of the roof, she declared, and I had to pay all back rent on top of stiff penalties for late payment. I also had to pay for all of the lawyers, the court fees and my translator. Oh, and not to mention the court janitor, concierge as well as the upkeep of the judge’s orange hair for the next 25 years.

Her brilliant, garbled justification consumed many pages of text, of course, in Polish language. From what I was able to discern, it boiled down to the fact that my architect’s project in 2005 listed my limited liability company’s name as the investor. Not only had I been tricked into believing that the non-refundable investment in interior restoration would be very simple and inexpensive, but I became liable for full restoration of the entire building! Nevermind that this was thanks to an architectural project detailing an enormous full building restoration that I never asked for! God only knows whether my architect (who in 2005 had threatened to close down my business for not agreeing to her project) and Landlord were secretly plotting this together way back then? And where was my young Jewish friend/protector/former business partner, who had negotiated all of these details for me, when most desperately needed?

Among documents in my possession that the judge had refused to be submitted was the architect’s unfinished proposal made three years later at the demand of the conservatory, which states that the Landlord was the principal investor. More curious was the fact that the subsequent 2009 architectural project, including the attic apartment, does not name any investor, yet it was accepted belatedly by the court 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 insisted that my Landlord was the investor. They even dared to contend that it was she who was adamant about restoring the tower in its entirety and that I had been the one holding things back, because my restaurant was inconveniently 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 fantastic advice I had received and which had given me new confidence in the Polish legal system? How ironic, as I reflected on the businessman from Pakistan, who said that had I attempted my business in Warsaw I would be eaten alive and advised that I should open it in Wrocław instead!

I was not getting any younger – how many more years would I waste, how many long trips would I have to make to another city for every court appearance?


Instantly I was overcome by both bitter and precious memories. 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. When I was just beginning my business in 2005, more than one had warned me: “They will take from you everything you have!” I heard my first manager screaming hysterically, “She’s using you to restore her building and then she will kick you out!” The ghosts of negativity whom I had ignored – from American Jews to the Auschwitz survivor living across the street from where I was raised – were swirling around in my head. I could hear amidst this cacophony, my elderly father yelling in my ear on the phone to throw in the towel. I heard my mother crying after she sent me all of the inheritance money my sister had left to us upon her death from cancer in 2007. All of it paid for building the new kitchen, while my dirt poor Landlord romped around the world and wrote about flying like a free bird, while buying more real estate, just as she was lucratively awarded by the Polish media, which never once uttered a single word about Abrams’ Tower. 

I thought of the long lonely rides on dirty, noisy trains in 1989, during the domino collapse of Communism throughout Central Europe. I recalled being escorted my second night in Poland into an attic in the south east corner of the country, where a high-minded discussion postulated the nation’s cultural future. I thought of becoming committed for sixteen years to this evolution in the spirit of cultural exchange, only to become immersed in a battle over an abandoned, haunted attic on the opposite side of the country. I knew at that moment that a slice of that future was about to depart with me.

I shed a tear over the beautiful moments throughout all of the negativity and doubt, which kept me inspired and determined to overcome the never-ending adversity that I encountered. In particular were memories of customers whose lives were inspired by virtue of experiencing that magical place and atmosphere, despite obstacles that made it seem impossible. 

Those sentiments were captured during interviews I had conducted on camera with various customers. Here are a few spontaneous, candid conversations concerning their reactions to Abrams’ Tower and to the difficulties they faced to find its door:

Among my most precious memories is one of a young man, who came to the door late one afternoon in 2005, when I was only days away from opening the business for the first time. He asked me if he could reserve a table that evening because it was the anniversary of when he met his girlfriend there exactly one year earlier, just around the time when the previous business folded. I told him that everything was ready to go inside, but that I did not yet have the legal permission to make any sales. At the instigation of two of my female employees who were on their way home, I decided to risk my hide with the law for the sake of romance, even though I would be without any help to serve the amorous couple. An hour later, the boyfriend returned with a big bouquet of red roses and I let him in so he could strategically place them upstairs, to prepare for his chivalrous plan of action. Then he left again to pick up his girl. While waiting, I put on a CD containing a collection of romantic music. When the couple arrived, I escorted them to the top floor and served them a bottle of wine. Back downstairs, I sat alone by the bar and read a magazine. Around half an hour later, he came down by himself and presented me with a pleasant surprise: an elegantly packaged bottle of sparkling wine! To my further astonishment, just as he went back upstairs, in walked another couple, the girl already holding a red rose in her hand. At least some of Baszta’s former customers had not completely forgotten the place. I sent them upstairs, served them wine as well, sauntered back downstairs and once again sat by myself with a magazine in hand. At least another half an hour had gone by, when the first couple came down, both wearing long winter coats. As they walked out, he said to me: “I proposed marriage to her, and she accepted!”

Over the years, I heard stories from customers who had met the love of their life inside the tower. A musician who performed at La luz several times, told me that it is where he met his wife. There was another customer who is impossible to forget. She flew with her husband from Ireland to Wrocław for a weekend getaway, but they became trapped for an entire week when a terrible storm back home closed down airports. They became so mesmerized by the place that almost every day they visited Abrams’ Tower just after the friendly neighbor had impeded access to the building through his parking lot. The Irishwoman said to me something precious that remains etched in my memory: 

“We had to climb over the wall, but it was well worth the effort!”

Back in medieval times, anyone who tried to climb the wall was attempting to invade the city. Centuries later, visitors were motivated to spend their foreign-earned money on food of foreign origins, prepared by foreign-educated natives, working for the foreign tenant of a native owner of the building, who was usually traveling abroad.

Among the most memorable evenings were those when such true adventurers invited me to sit down with them. If anything made me the most proud of what I had achieved, it was realizing that it was often the types of travelers who would never let obstacles stand in their way, who took great risks and aspired to do great things in their lives, who would leap over a wall, jump through hoops of fire or climb a tall mountain if it so inspired them to discover unusual, off-the-beaten-path treasures. For me, this was natural. For many years, I had been one of them – it is why I leased Baszta. Who else would have endured anything so crazy?



There was one couple who had arrived late one evening from South Africa and couldn’t find another restaurant that was open so late. The kitchen had already closed, my staff already gone, but I could not allow them to starve, so I managed to whip up something by myself. My reward was a fascinating evening with a man who had made a documentary capturing true stories of Poles who protected Jews during WWII.

There were other visits by individuals who had a profound interest in the catastrophic era of the Nazi occupation, including a group of students from the US who came to Poland to do research on the subject. One evening, a Dutchman who claimed to be one of the two top world authorities on the subject of the Holocaust, invited me to sit with him and his friend, a man who for 16 years had been a guide at Auschwitz.

None of them, nor anyone else, would ever enjoy the spectacular plan I had devised for the full restoration of the tower and its haunted attic. Nor would Wrocław architect, Mirosław Przylecki, who had restored Baszta after World War II.

Shortly before his passing at age 91, I interviewed him with the help of one of my waitresses, who asked him questions in Polish. I showed Przylecki framed prints of these images exhibited on the walls of the tower’s interior just before Abrams’ Tower closed for good, to which he seemed quite pleased, while conveying his doubts:

                                                       Translation: Iwona Kajko

This was the bitter end of a great cultural exchange experiment, that started as a three-month visit to Poland over two decades earlier.

Click here for Chapter Eighteen: Failed Uprising