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Chapter Six

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The Ghosts in Flight

On Halloween of 2009, London’s Guardian newspaper published an article that described Wrocław as a ghost town. The article even alluded to a myth that Baszta is ghost-infested and that I was a prime witness:

When the Red Army laid siege to Wroclaw in 1945, the Nazi high command turned the city into a fortress, using the Gothic torture chambers under Partisan Hill as their headquarters. Screams are said to haunt the corridors, although the only ones I heard emanated from the blondes who now use the spot for clubbing. Prowokacja, it’s called, and you need plenty of bling to get in. Instead, I got my ghoulish kicks in Abrams’ Tower, a bar in a medieval fortification on the fringe of the old town with dim lighting and arty prints on the bare brick walls. Over wine, I chatted with the Californian owner, Frederick, an artist turned restaurateur. “I’m convinced this place is haunted,” he said. “The ghost is known to the old regulars, back when this place was decorated with lots of antique sewing machines. One night all the pedals and wheels on the machines started whirring and spinning on their own.” Just as he finished his sentence, a picture clinging to the wall thumped to the ground.

Here is the link to the entire article:

“Wrocław, Poland’s ghost town,” The Guardian, October 30, 2009

Halloween Party 2009

Nothing was more spooky than post-communist Polish bureaucracy, which haunted me with frightful surprises on a daily basis, ranging from unannounced visits by inspectors to the instigation of contrived crises, while my ghost Landlord was plotting secret ambitions for usage of the tower’s off-limits attic.


While I found myself facing the endless troubles of being a foreigner, spooked Poles were being driven away from their country at an alarming rate. In 2004, shortly after Poland’s admission to the EU, my mother sent me an article from the Los Angeles Times describing what caused well-educated graduates to flee. A 21-year-old, who had recently finished his studies at the Warsaw School of Economics, spoke of his father’s traumatic attempts to start a private medical clinic in a smaller Polish city. Locals had castigated him, falsely branding him a criminal. As I repeatedly learned, this easily happens to someone attempting to create an independent private enterprise in a society that had outlawed doing so for decades.

Nor were only young Poles or artists escaping from such purgatory. Preston Smith, the former American publisher and editor of a now defunct English-language magazine called “Poland Monthly,” fled as well. From his website’s biography (which has apparently since been removed from the web:

Smith has paid a high price for investigative writing. Over 2004-2006 his apartment was ransacked. He was also physically assaulted, repeatedly threatened (as was his wife), as well as wrongly investigated by police and prosecutors (who later dropped trumped-up accusations against him). In 2006 he was called to serve as a witness in three ongoing investigations by Polish prosecutors, as well as for a Polish Parliamentary Committee. That same year the European Federation of International Journalists condemned a gag order (which was later overturned) against Smith while also awarding him a grant to fight questionable proceedings against him.

This no longer found text is verified by the following article that was published by Krakow’s Local Life at the time that these incidents occurred: “US Journalist Harassed.

The most salient point of this article: “Unfortunately, frivolous lawsuits are quite common in Poland,” would become my own nightmare, which, as in Smith’s case, finally drove me from the country.

Some of Smith’s most memorable journalism, included stories of kidnappings of businesspeople, rampant prostitution, devastating poverty in Polish villages and institutional scandals. One story concerned an American Marine who sought a means of feeding impoverished children in a small town where the only factory that hired local workers had closed down during the new era of privatization. He met with government officials in Warsaw, but no one would assist him. The article conjectured that the government did not want to bring attention to a national embarrassment at a time when Poland was anticipating admittance into the EU. He subsequently devised a way to convince corporate business owners to make donations that would be tax write-offs. Crazy as it may seem, as he succeeded in saving the lives of these children, locals turned on him, dismissing his efforts as an act of self-aggrandizement.

The Fall of Communism and the country’s fast transition to capitalism provoked pathological envies and jealousies which had become suppressed during the communist era, when ambition and individual initiative was not only unrewarded but often punished. Some who succeeded became millionaires overnight. It especially helped to have nepotistic, post-Communist Party connections as industries and raw resources were sold off to the West. The Harvard-educated American economist, Jeffrey Sachs, who was hired by the new Solidarity Party-led government, played a major role in what he called, “Shock Therapy Capitalism.” In the early days of free enterprise, a breakdown of the old bureaucracy and the institution of a new legal system of dubious merit provided a rare window of opportunity to start almost any kind of business. It just as easily provided a golden opportunity to those who had no qualms to lie, cheat and steal. It also made anyone easy prey, who attempted to do anything without inside connections.

Poles I met in my restaurant, who were visiting home after living abroad for many years, told me that they no longer recognized their own people.

I had Polish friends, who in the early 1990s, started small businesses, which became successes. Since the old bureaucracy had collapsed, for that rare moment in time, selling widgets manufactured in Taiwan could have resulted in a bonanza. Once a newly orchestrated systematic mafia of former apparatchiks had become reestablished as institutional and business leaders, many of these independent entrepreneurs walked, one-by-one, into booby traps. As naive as I had been, their fate confirmed that no one was immune.

The story of Michał, who led my journey down the unthinkable rabbit hole of filing to prosecute the Wrocław media festival director, was a case in point. When he returned with his family from Australia in the early ’90s, he harbored lofty ambitions to take advantage of the new free enterprise system. Michał built and rented small kiosks on a plot of land in front of his home at the outskirts of Wrocław, where his tenants sold fresh produce, shoes, clothes, cosmetics and other assorted goods one would find at a flea market. One day, they organized against him and collectively withheld paying rent. In reaction, he welded shut the metal door frames of their kiosks, built a tall chicken wire fence surrounding his property and hired private security guards. The tenants picketed outside with protest signs, creating a local nightly TV news spectacle.

The rap I heard on Michał ran the gamut. Add it all up and, in summary, he was characterized as a capitalist pig from the west exploiting poor merchants, while confiscating their possessions with the help of KGB guards.

Poles I knew bought into the propaganda that was being fed to them. They could not understand why I spent time with this demonic exploitative traitor, but I suppose it would have made more sense later, when the rumors swirled about my phantom prostitution business.

All I knew was that Michał behaved like a true new friend, who displayed the spirit of hospitality that Poles were known for. The capitalist pig helped me transport furniture to my first apartment, invited me to his family’s home for Christmas dinner and attended my art events in Wrocław.

The kiosk war ended, when Michał discovered that in a Machiavellian plot, his own lawyer had turned his tenants against him. This motivated him to file criminal charges against the lawyer for engaging in a gross conflict-of-interest, at the same time that he insisted on helping me do the same against the media festival director. And, we both lost, except that, as I luckily did not lose the copyright to my intellectual property, the tenants slowly paid back the withheld rent. 

Michał found out from this affair that his conniving lawyer had been a member of the Communist Party, as was the prosecutor, and that they had been friends. Repeatedly, Michał asked me afterward why on earth I had chosen to live in his screwy country. My only answer came from a joke I heard as a boy and could never forget, that was cited by comedian, Danny Thomas, on the Ed Sullivan show:

“My grandmother back in Russia was an amazing woman,” Thomas said. “She was a widow, who with no help raised and provided for her ten children. Yet, she never complained! And do you know why? She was too pooped to talk!”

By then, I was too pooped to leave!


The radical differences between the winners and losers changed the spirit of Poles completely. Solidarity lost not only its clout but in 2001 an across-the-board election defeat spelled the end of the movement as a vital political entity. According to The New York Times, the party was “decimated by infighting and political scandals.”  As I had predicted, the new spirit of “Samoobsługa” was winning out.

Poles I met in my restaurant, who were visiting home after living abroad for many years, told me that they no longer recognized their own people. An expatriate, whom I was getting to know from afar by e-mail, had been living in London for several years. She planned to come back for good to her native city of Wrocław. Like my head chef, she had gained invaluable professional experience in the UK, in the food service industry, qualifications that were impossible for me to come by locally, and I agreed to hire her as my manager. For more than two months, I eagerly awaited her arrival. Three days passed after her plane had landed and I still had received no word from her, nor was she reachable by phone. Another ghost in flight, she e-mailed me the next day that she got back on a plane to London, unable to tolerate another day in her native land. 

When briefly back in town, my flighty ghost Landlord was quick to criticize me for a constant turnover of my ghost staff. Every summer I lost almost all of my employees, most of them students, as nearly everyone, just like her, took off for abroad. In Poland, working as a waiter or bartender is usually a student’s short-term occupation. In Wrocław, with seven universities, finding workers who would have any loyalty to the business was about as likely as luring Michael Jordon out of retirement to play for the Wrocław basketball team.

From a study published by the Migration Policy Institute from September 1, 2010:

[Poland’s] accession to the European Union in May 2004, coupled with unrestricted entry to EU Member States the United Kingdom and Ireland, caused one of the biggest emigration flows in Poland’s postwar history, and the country became one of the largest exporters of labor within the enlarged European Union. In addition to a decreasing birth rate, migration accounted for a real reduction in Poland’s population over the past decade.

Here is the entire study: “EU Membership Highlights Poland’s Migration Challenges”

When I opened La luz in 2006, my preliminary goal was to pull off something that would do justice to the name symbolizing “the light” or “enlightenment.” I planned to present a series of seminars offered by inspirational teachers, authors and psychologists. Regularly young Poles would say to me, “I see no perspective.” A direct translation from Polish, this meant that they had no hope for a future that would allow them to fulfill personal dreams or aspirations. My goal was to offer some exposure, to give them some sense of purpose and hope. If young Poles were to continue to patronize my business, I wanted to offer them something more meaningful than their usual daily escapism through beer and vodka consumption. I arranged for a lineup of speakers, the most intriguing among them a young woman who taught juggling as a means of establishing internal balance in one’s life. Unfortunately, my workers saw no merit in balance. They insisted that beer consumption and becoming off-balance was a more sellable solution. It also required no special training.

Selling beer was the end-all solution to anything and everything in the minds of many Poles. I placed an ad seeking someone who would help me to promote and organize this speakers’ program but, as my staff had warned me, no one was interested.

Many such too-pooped-to-talk moments were to come.


Ever present were the ghosts of Poland’s past, even haunting me from far away, right across the street from where I grew up in West Los Angeles. My mother would occasionally call and speak of seeing her neighbor, Mike Moskowitz, outside, who was a Polish concentration camp survivor. Each time they bumped into each other, he asked my mother the same question that Michał and many Poles constantly asked: Why on earth would a Californian, particularly of Jewish ancestry, want to live in Poland?

In 2016 I interviewed Moskowitz, who described the harrowing tale of being the only survivor of his family and how he managed to migrate to southern California, where he met his Catholic Mexican wife, while taking an English language class at Hamilton High School, in Los Angeles, the same school that I attended many years later. What makes his story of survival even more remarkable is that he grew up in the town of Kielce, which is infamous for the pogrom that led to the murder of over 40 Jews, a year after the end of WWII. He describes in the following excerpts of the interview, among other incredible dangers he survived, the immense risk of returning to his home at that time.

As Moskowitz spoke of not being able to feel hate despite all he had barely lived through, I did my best to block out the negative voices of those who could not understand why I made Poland my home over 50 years later. Often I encountered cynicism from American Jews back home, as I witnessed new Jewish communities once again blossoming in Poland. No matter what hardships I endured, I felt great pride in participating in the revival of a country that was haunted by a terrible history. Never did I feel it was right to blame anyone for the acts of others long ago, merely because of an association due to nationality or race, particularly young people who were not even alive during the time of the Holocaust. I further defended Poles against misconceptions some had in the west that the Nazi concentration camps were Polish. This was a mistaken choice of words that once got President Obama in hot water. Frequently I reminded people that so many Poles perished as well and that many had protected Polish Jews at the risk of their own lives. My best friend during my last few years in Poland happened to be a German, who worked for the nearby German consulate. He was there when I most needed a friend. Also, I can never express enough thanks to a few devout Catholic Poles, who were supportive in my darkest of moments. No matter the odds I faced, I could not betray those voices, who said that I must not give up on what I had given my life to.

As for the ghosts of Wrocław’s most recent past, the spirit of Jerzy Ryba was always in the back of my mind. He was the man who had first invited me to Poland on that fateful historical day in the spring of 1989, and who would tragically die in a car accident several years later. Two Poles told me that he was the greatest man they had ever known, and it surprised me to discover that so few Poles had ever heard of him.

So many hidden secrets have been kept in the unknown ghost town of Wrocław, Poland.

Click here for Chapter Seven: A Sense of Self Worth