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I pray that we do not return like ghosts who hate the world, cannot understand it, and are unable to live in it. I pray that we do not change from prisoners into prison guards.

– From a letter written in prison by Adam Michnik, June 1985

When in 1989 I first discovered Michnik’s book “Letters from Prison,” in Santa Monica’s public library, I had no idea that he played such a vital role in the developments that led to Poland’s first free elections since 1945 – on the fateful day that Jerzy Ryba invited me to Poland. It’s one of the many bitter ironies of my tale that while the term “ghost writer” is commonly known, I wonder whether Michnik was ever aware of a highly regarded Polish writer wearing the invisible hat of a ghost Landlord. More than that, I wonder if he ever knew that the Wrocław branch of his newspaper suppressed and censored the truth about her role, as the owner of a ghost-infested medieval guard tower. For that matter, did he know of the relationship between the tower and the valuable prizes his newspaper has awarded to her?

This painful irony haunts me still, given that his letters written in prison were critical in convincing me to accept Ryba’s invitation to Poland. His open-book-philosophy of non-violent revolution was a profound inspiration that motivated me to risk becoming a witness to, as well as playing a small role in, the dramatic transformation that would spread throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

Equally ironic, in retrospect, is that Michnik’s published writings over those years have helped me make sense of my ordeals. Twenty-two years after he wrote the above words during his incarceration and just over two years since I had leased Baszta, as a free man, he wrote an article, which precisely reflects the extreme dichotomy I came to experience firsthand. Published by “Project Syndicate, The World’s Opinion Page,” he summed things up as follows:

Today, two Polands confront each other: A Poland of suspicion, fear, and revenge is fighting a Poland of hope, courage, and dialogue…
Poland’s revolution brought civil rights along with increased criminality, a market economy along with failed enterprises and high unemployment, and the formation of a dynamic middle-class along with increased income inequality. It opened Poland to Europe, but also brought a fear of foreigners and an invasion of Western mass culture. 

Jeffrey Sachs was the mastermind of ‘Shock Therapy Capitalism,’ which played a central role in Poland’s emergence from the ruins of the Communist era. Perhaps it should also not be surprising that he neglected to acknowledge the dark side of the nation’s liberation.

Those words written in 2007 clairvoyantly reflect the unsettling political climate of Poland today. More startling, is to what extent his words quoted above also reflect the US, as I have found it, after having lived abroad for a quarter of a century. Not only has xenophobia been the key factor that swept a new administration into power in Poland, but in the US, racist and anti-foreigner resentment, fear and hatred has been dangerously fueled by the presidential candidacy and electoral victory of Donald Trump. This coincides with a profound reaction from the political right, concerning what is perceived to be a moral bankruptcy associated with liberalized mass culture.

A key difference is that Poland’s relatively small middle-class has grown from nothing since 1989, whereas the enormous middle-class of the US has radically diminished. Yet, at the same time, the real moral crisis in both countries is an ever increasing income inequality syndrome that has fueled mass discontent.

It thus does not surprise me that an American economist, Jeffrey Sachs, was the mastermind of “Shock Therapy Capitalism,” which played a central role in Poland’s emergence from the ruins of the Communist era. Perhaps it should also not be surprising that he neglected to acknowledge the dark side of the nation’s liberation. Looking through rose-colored glasses, Sachs saluted Poland in June of 2014, upon the 25th anniversary of the country’s first free election since 1945. Like President Obama, he held up Poland’s transformation as a lesson – and not only for Ukraine, as illustrated in a self-congratulatory article he wrote in June 2014, for the Financial Times, assessing Poland’s “success story:

Since Poland returned to democracy 25 years ago, the country’s economic and political development has been astounding. Today Poland is a prosperous, dynamic and democratic society. Yet the leaders will make the most of their visit if they understand the deeper lessons of Poland’s remarkable recovery after 1989 and apply those lessons elsewhere, including vis-à-vis Ukraine and Russia. Here is the full article:

Poland’s Return to Europe: Lessons for Ukraine, Russia and the West

Michnik was not alone in recognizing, as far back as 2007, the root cause of a dangerously ever-widening gap between the rich and poor from Poland to the US, that Sachs played the central role of nurturing in Michnik’s country. In her book, “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” Naomi Klein addressed Sach’s participation in the society’s transformation from Solidarity (Solidarność) to Self-Service (Samoobsługa). Most of a polarizing debate, particularly in the US, simplistically revolves around the virtues and vices of Capitalism vs Socialism, while making no distinction between its contemporary form, as practiced in Western Europe, and as related to Stalinist Communism. Klein’s in-depth analysis dissected the harmful consequences of Sach’s “Shock Therapy Capitalism,” which she equates with “neoliberalism.”

In April 0f 2016, a detailed article on the subject, from a historical perspective, was published in The Guardian and it starts by pointing out that few even people know what “neoliberialism” is:

Its anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power. It has played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises: the financial meltdown of 2007‑8, the offshoring of wealth and power…the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump. But we respond to these crises as if they emerge in isolation, apparently unaware that they have all been either catalysed or exacerbated by the same coherent philosophy; a philosophy that has – or had – a name. What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly? Here is the entire article:

Neoliberalism: the ideology at the root of all our problems

What is “neoliberalism?” According to The Free Dictionary, it is: 

A political theory of the late 1900s holding that personal liberty is maximized by limiting government interference in the operation of free markets.

Limiting government interference would have seemed to be ideal, given the endless bureaucratic obstacles I faced and the high taxes that restaurant owners sought every way of evading for the sake of survival. However, it would not have alleviated the conditions that created a climate, where a relative handful of individuals became wealthy and the vast majority of the populace remained dirt poor.

What came of the secret high-minded discussion I attended in an attic my second night in Poland in 1989, concerning the country’s cultural future, that was sponsored by key individuals in Solidarity’s artistic underground, is echoed by Klein during an interview conducted in 2007:

The real legacy of neoliberalism is the story of the income gap. It destroyed the tools that narrowed the gap between rich and poor…Solidarity never got a chance to enact its real economic programme in Poland before those dreams were betrayed with Shock Therapy.

The entire interview is reproduced on Klein’s website:

After Shock, Oscar Reyes, Red Pepper Magazine

What Sachs also completely dismissed is an unusual compromise that was made with the Communist Party, when Poland held its first election in 1989. The reason for this is that only one-third of the Parliament (called the “Sejm“) was up for election. Solidarity won a landslide minority victory, which would seem to be an oxymoron. Nevertheless, the stunning victory of the Solidarity Party forced the appointment of Solidarity leader Tadeusz Mazowiecki, as the new Prime Minister. It has been argued that his greatest failure was that he did not purge the system of Communists, many of whom still held positions throughout the bureaucracy and judicial system. In stark contrast, the transformations taking place in nearby Eastern Germany and the Czech Republic, which followed their liberation from communist tyranny, proceeded through the purging (Lustration) of former Communist Party members.

The comparative history of this transformation throughout the countries of Central Europe is described here:

The Politics of Memory in Post-Communist Europe: A Comparative Analysis, September 2006

Numerous books and articles have glorified Poland’s rise from its ashes, however, few of them tell the whole truth, which, in compact form, is more objectively analyzed by an article from Radio Free Europe:

…former Communist dignitaries found themselves among the main beneficiaries of Poland’s post-communist transformation, since they not only avoided retribution for their past misdeeds, but were also able to return to power later after reinventing themselves as social democrats.

Moreover, retaining their political ties, fortunes, and leverage from the communist period, these Communist dignitaries were the first to benefit from the privatization process launched in 1990. In other words, former Communists easily became capitalists, while many rank-and-file Solidarity members were plunged into poverty after the Fall of Communism.

The full article is here:

Poland Remains Divided Over Legacy of 1989 Solidarity Revolution, June 3, 2009

Sachs has argued that there was no other choice at the time of historical transformation, that major heart surgery was required and that it cannot be performed without leaving scars. However, there have been extreme consequences due to the fact that many of the scars have never healed.

In 2007, Michnik addressed a growing polarization within his society for Project Syndicate, entitled “The Other Poland,”

Every revolution has two phases. First comes a struggle for freedom, then a struggle for power. The first makes the human spirit soar and brings out the best in people. The second unleashes the worst: envy, intrigue, greed, suspicion, and the urge for revenge.

Worrying signs are everywhere: the authority of the courts is undermined, the independence of the Constitutional Tribunal is attacked, the civil service corrupted, and prosecutors are politicized. Everyday social life is being repressively regulated.

It was the first phase that became the source of my inspiration, for I had witnessed the remarkable nonviolent revolution firsthand. As the graphic pieces I produced in 1989 and my film “Samoobsługa” demonstrate, I nevertheless had great concern for what would become of a society that was held together by the spirit of Solidarity, which was to be replaced by a sudden switch to an American economist’s custom-designed bombardment of shock and awe, sink or swim Social Darwinism. Because I experienced the exhilaration of the first phase, no different from many Poles, I was ill-prepared for the devastating consequences of the second part of the equation. For those playing God in ivory towers, who engage in theoretical social engineering, this may not be so easy to understand.

Michnik was not the only Pole to point out that most of those who fought to end the Stalinist stranglehold on the country were the losers – whereas often the new capitalist winners were those who previously had clout in the Communist Party.

As I see things, the reason for this growth and why Wrocław won the 2016 title is largely circumstantial. I quickly recognized during my first visit in 1989 that the city was perfectly situated between Eastern and Western Europe. That, by default, made it a prime location for luring a slew of multinational business headquarters, making Wrocław a prime candidate to be eligible for EU support.

No question the economic growth of Ukraine cannot be compared with that of Poland, though I conjecture that this too can largely be attributed to Poland’s unique geographical position between East and West and massive economic assistance from the EU. The same positioning that had led to its partition in the past, had become a major economic advantage in the age of globalization, which ultimately has caused intense reactions to what is perceived to be another type of foreign invasion. At the time that the 2008 recession hit, Poland was growing rapidly, with enormous funding coming from the EU, and a newly developing middle class was fueling a rapid expansion of consumerism.

Bloomberg Businessweek analyzed this phenomenon as such:

The country benefited from an infusion of foreign assistance at the precise moment other EU members were getting clobbered by the financial crisis. The story of the Polish miracle is a testament to the importance of prudent policymaking—but it’s just as much about luck.

So, what from this can both East and West learn from Poland?

For one, Michnik was not the only Pole to point out that most of those who fought to end the Stalinist stranglehold on the country were the losers – whereas, paradoxically, the new capitalist winners were often those who previously had clout in the Communist Party. I am certain that this is not what Sachs had intended and I do not doubt that this helps explain why Jerzy Ryba, who was a hero of the Solidarity era, died without even a street being renamed after him.

I fail to grasp what Western Europe can learn from Poland’s rapid growth beyond the fact that an American economist’s neoliberal socio-economic engineering experiment helped foster the destructive income inequality that that has resulted in widespread consequences. For that matter, it might have a lot to do with Brexit, for if Polish workers weren’t still working for peanuts, they wouldn’t have flocked in mass to the UK.

As for the US, Mitt Romney’s visit to Poland during the 2012 presidential campaign reflected a distressful myopia. Running on a creed of big business and small government, he boasted of its economic success, while failing to note that the country’s rapidly improved infrastructure has a direct correlation to EU funding and government planning, as opposed to massive privatization that Romney favored.

 Poland’s lesson for both East and West, as Sachs’ saw it, surely did not take into account the 106 billion Euros that are now being invested in the country up until 2020, for everything from science to innovation, to urban and rural development.

A case in point, at this time, the EU invested in instilling a high-speed train network connecting all of Poland’s major cities. By contrast, in California a fight has raged over the funding a single new bullet train line between the north and south, with scarce support coming from the federal government. As I have seen clearly, in many respects the US has fallen behind much of the developed world, while conservatives resort to ridiculous scare tactics that virtually any government-funded social services are a Communist plot to push the country down the slippery slope to becoming another Venezuela.

The shortfalls of this EU investment, however, is that it has not alleviated the enormous income inequality resulting from the Shock Therapy privatization that occurred following Poland’s first free elections in 1989.

This article on Romney’s visit addresses the disconnect of American neoliberal fantasy from Poland’s socio-economic reality:

Romney Praises Poland’s Economy, Where Government Plays A Larger Role Than The US

What drove my doctor, who owned a small private medical clinic, the recently graduated son of a man who tried to open one, the publisher/editor of Poland Monthly magazine, many of my managers, assistants, chefs and waiters and finally myself out of Poland, was the strange dichotomy of a new free-enterprise society that simultaneously remained in the clutches of a corrupt, debilitating post-communist bureaucracy. Even my Landlord, for all of her proclaimed love of her country, had a hard time staying in it, as she constantly traveled abroad.

Poles often said to me: ‘We need 20 to 50 years,’ to which I always answered, ‘Who has the time to wait?’

In conjunction with the 25 year anniversary in June of 2014 of Poland’s first free elections, Professor David Ost from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, was interviewed by Adam Leszczynski of Adam Michnik’s newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza. Ost, the author of the book “Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics,” has been writing about events in Poland since the 1990s. In this interview he commented:

In Poland after 1989, class disappeared from public discourse because the new authorities feared a social explosion. Wishing to avoid mass protests, they understood they needed to provide an answer to the feelings of insecurity caused by job losses and plant bankruptcies. This answer was the new ideology, according to which: “Each individual must rely on his own energy and strength. If you cannot succeed, you’re a loser.”

In other words, he confirmed the vision I graphically expressed back in 1996, that the consciousness of mutual support represented by Solidarity during the 1980s had become replaced by dog-eat-dog Social Darwinism, or in milk bar cafeteria terms, Samoobsługa (Self-Service). For those who became disenchanted and embittered, the scapegoats they would hone in on were predictable. Ost went on:

Ever since about 1992, the right has increasingly become the voice of the excluded, all the time providing the most absurd yet dangerous prescriptions, saying that things are bad because Poland is ruled by “alien elements”…

Poland really had an opportunity to build a system based more on widespread participation. During the first “Solidarity” period, people participated in governing, were active in unions, and thought a great deal about public matters.

The belief in individualism, the new mantra about individuals now having to take matters into their own hands – these demolished something that Poland already had.

At the end of the Communist era in 1989, Poland had a unique opportunity to rebuild itself on a new model of societal cooperation. However, Poland’s new partially elected government failed to purge the system of Communist administrators, while simultaneously buying into a radically opposite American concept of privatization that quickly divided the society into one of “haves” and “have-nots.” Average salaries in Poland are still far below Western countries. It remains to be seen whether EU funding will continue to become a windfall for those profiting from nepotistic relationships, a corrupt legal system, dubious real estate acquisitions and bureaucratic terrorism. Poles often said to me: “We need 20 to 50 years,” to which I always answered, “Who has the time to wait?”

Just in August 2014, Donald Tusk, Prime Minister of Poland, was selected to become the new President of the European Council. Even the Prime Minister left his country for a better opportunity in the West!


For Poles who are not afraid to explore foreign spices and risk upsetting their queasy stomachs, discovering the ways of foreign cultures can be a good thing. When author Salmon Rushdie was asked why he moved from London to New York, he replied:

The thing that always attracted me to New York was the sense of being in a place where a lot of people had a lot of stories not unlike mine. Everybody comes from somewhere else. Everyone’s got a Polish grandmother, some kind of metamorphosis in their family circumstances. That’s a very big thing – the experience of not living where you started. It changes you in all kinds of ways.

Whereas the Polish owner of Wrocław’s first attempt at a “Mexican” restaurant believes otherwise, there is no such thing as ethnically weak stomachs. It is weak minds that are easily conditioned to believe what one can stomach.

It also gives those who are willing to venture outside the communities of one’s nationality the chance to discover the often amazing wonders of multiculturalism from its expression in all kinds of realms, from the arts to cuisine.

I strongly believe that it is important for people to recognize and carry on the cultural traditions of their heritage. At the same time, it is a great shame when someone proclaims that only their indigenous cuisine is the best, that their way of life, their God, their sense of morals and rules of conduct are superior to or more correct than all others. Some moral differences are irreconcilable, however, there are lessons to be learned from everyone and everywhere. Being open to the wonders of the world and this life we have on earth can inspire us, if only we are willing to explore our differences with mutual respect.

What I attempted to bring to Poland as an invited guest in the spirit of cultural exchange, was the best of what I knew that Poles had been denied during decades of totalitarian rule. Much of this would not have been possible had I not found a Polish chef who had developed both his knowledge and talents abroad. It astounded me how many Poles continued to insist on the mediocrity and the extremely limited choices that had been the hallmark of the scarcity of the Communist era.

Whereas the Polish owner of Wrocław’s first attempt at a “Mexican” restaurant believes otherwise, there is no such thing as ethnically weak stomachs. It is weak minds that are easily conditioned to believe what one can stomach. My former Landlord, a self-proclaimed vegetarian, once wrote of having difficulties finding quality vegetarian cuisine in her native home. Her narrow ambitions so blinded her that she never once took advantage of the delicious vegetarian dishes that were on Abrams’ Tower’s menu.

As Olga Tokarczuk wrote of Poles rediscovering a sense of self-worth, Adam Michnik optimistically wrote: “I believe that Poles will once again defend their right to be treated with dignity.” Jonathan Owen’s video interview in Chapter Twenty makes it quite clear why this chip, that so many Poles carry on their shoulders, is a direct reflection – if not a self-perpetuating cause – of the crippling nature of their history. Meanwhile, what I worked so diligently to contribute to the 2016 Culture Capital of Europe, is now in the midst of being reborn with me back in LA.

Engaged in the challenging process of regaining my own sense of self-worth ever since, in the spirit of La luz and Abrams’ Tower – which lasted in the 2016 European Cultural Capital from 2005 until 2011 – I plan to utilize Abrams’ Tower West similarly as a “Meeting Place” that is open to all cultures, races and nationalities. It seems that there could be no better time, given the tragic polarization of our day, creating barriers between nationalities, cultures and religions. Xenophobia does not belong in Poland nor in any country – especially not in the US, a nation made up mostly of immigrants and where, in fact, millions of Poles, and millions of Americans who had or have Polish grandmothers, are proud citizens. 

Click here for Epilogue: Painting Pretty Pictures Over Hatred