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Chapter 1

 

Strange Cursed Destiny

A Danish friend, who has lived in Poland since shortly after its nonviolent revolution led to liberation in 1989, was freaking out on Facebook over the pending reelection of right-wing president, Anrdzej Duda, who had just days before met with Donald Trump at the White House, as the two gave a press conference, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and protesting across the United States, in the name of Black Lives Matter. My own worries about what was occurring similarly in the US had been no different.

There’s nothing like an appropriate time for a photo op of the white supremacist leader of an evangelical-driven political party of law and order, seen together with the leader of the Law and Justice Party, of one of the whitest and most biblically-dominated countries on earth, as Trump had also become engaged in the fight of his life to be reelected.

I’m surprised they weren’t both holding up Bibles in tandem.

No disrespect intended regarding one’s personal religious faith, the US Constitution, and democracy itself, was founded on the principle of the separation of church and state.

The grave dangers foreseen by my expatriate friend echoed fears of a crackdown on the very freedoms that those, who live in Poland, have enjoyed since the country broke away from Stalin’s lingering grip, which was the beginning of the demise of the Soviet Union.

I am no stranger to any of this, for I flew from my native home of Los Angeles to Poland in the fall of 1989, as the country’s Solidarity Party dissidents ignited a chain reaction that swept across Central Europe. For me personally, this resulted in an unimaginable life-changing experience, which perhaps helps explain how this dangerous political development came about.

While I was there on a 45-day VISA, playwright Vaclav Havel inspired the “Velvet Revolution” in neighboring Czechoslovakia (now broken into Czech Republic and Slovakia), the Berlin Wall was torn down in November and Romania’s communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were executed on Christmas Day.

What I can only in retrospect explain as my strange destiny, I was invited at that dramatic historical moment by a leader of an underground movement of politically activist artists known as “Orange Alternative,” based in Poland’s 4th largest city, Wrocław (pronounced Vrots-Wahf), who few people know had played a consequential role in the eventual toppling of the USSR.

Jerzy Ryba, who had won the Solidarity Party’s annual award for cultural planning throughout the country, was sent to the US by the US Consulate based in the city of Poznan, on a mission of cultural exchange. His aim was to invite American artists to tour his country and I was the only one who took up his challenge, under circumstances that he informed me would not be easy. We met in a downtown LA artist’s loft, where he presented to me a video documentary of the activities of Orange Alternative. The one scene permanently etched in my memory depicted a large group of people dressed in orange and wearing tall orange cones on their heads, who danced and sang in the street, while slapping the sides of police wagons, that made them sway back and forth. Members of the national guard, who were standing around, couldn’t help but laugh. I thought to myself: “This is fantastic! A humorously artistic revolution!”

How since then things have changed, both for the better and worse! What came of accepting Ryba’s invitation is light years beyond anything I had bargained for and haunts me to this day, over three decades later.

It is no accident that the first stop Trump made on his maiden visit to Europe, upon becoming president, was to Warsaw, not long after a radical right-wing government swept into power and Duda became Poland’s president. In the year 2020, both Poland and the US found themselves on an ominously paralleling course of undergoing an assault on their respective democratic institutions.

The number one target, in both instances, has been their legal systems, which is a fundamental key to how dictators rise to power.

In the US, repeatedly the more recent Republican Party-appointed members of the Supreme Court have sided with lawsuits that have enabled the right-wing to win elections, despite receiving a minority of the popular vote. It is for this reason that war monger, George W Bush, and not environmentalist, Al Gore, became the 43rd US president in 2000 and helped elect Trump in 2016, by weakening the Voting Rights Act, which opened the door for individual states to pass various draconian voter suppression laws.

Also in the throes of a takeover of their Supreme Court, Poland, which is the most dominantly Catholic country of the Western Hemisphere, has the most strict anti-abortion laws in Europe. In 2016, the year after Duda came into power, it took a massive strike of 30,000 women throughout the country to stop the new government from banning abortion outright, with no exceptions. A new draconian law passed by the court in late 2020 drove driven women into the streets again.

I said to my Danish friend that the new leader of Poland, like Trump, has succeeded both by fanning the flames of xenophobia that I had known all too well and by exploiting the corruption conveniently blamed on the political opposition, that ultimately drove me home.

Here, in the US, Trump targeted the “elitist deep state” and his promised remedy was “draining the swamp,” which instead he expanded to the size of an ocean. In Poland, the rallying cry of the right-wing was to bring down the “arrogant elitists,” combined with an appeal to nationalist pro-family values, whereas in announcing his candidacy, Trump railed about the dangers of “Mexican rapists,” promised to build a wall to keep them locked out and placed on the high courts anti-abortion justices.

As in the US, older, more poorly educated voters living in rural areas and villages were the key demographic that led to a right-wing victory. Duda’s opponent, the mayor of Warsaw, won decisively in Poland’s larger cities, but lost by a slim margin overall. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the urban vote by 24 percent, lost the suburban vote by 5 percent and lost the rural vote by a whopping 31 percent.

Following Trump’s visit to Warsaw and in light of his overt bromance with Vladimir Putin, relations between the US and Eastern Europe since the disbanding of the USSR in 1991 certainly did not evolve in a way that anyone might have anticipated. In fact, I don’t think that most people recognize the reality of changes that slowly happen. As Mussolini said, “If you pluck a chicken one feather at a time, people don’t really notice.”

What I also said to my Danish friend is that a lot of people on the left have been assaulted by the right, as historically has so often happened to artists and intellectuals. In the US, athletes who get on their knees in silent acts of protest and scientists trying to help save humanity from self-destruction have been added to the mix as traitors to God and country.

My Danish friend knew all too well who and what I was indirectly referring to, for so seemingly inexplicably, and tragically, the very reason that I left Poland is directly connected to Polish author, Olga Tokarczuk, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, just a few years after she was under siege by her country’s right-wing and the same year that Duda became Poland’s president.

I knew that when by a stroke of fate I was invited to tour Poland in 1989, during a dramatic historical moment, that I would have quite a story to tell. Never could I have fathomed that a little over two decades later, Olga Tokarczuk would drive me out of her country in 2012, only for herself to become the target of vicious assaults on her person, just three years later, resulting in death threats and demands to permanently leave her homeland.

Back in my own homeland, slowly recovering from a heartbreaking end to the completely unplanned extensive period of time that I had lived in her country, that lasted for an unimaginably long sixteen years, it was even more staggering that she had become personally attacked for what she said after winning Poland’s most prestigious literary prize, the Nike Award.

Her latest book focused on the life of a Jewish man in the 18th century, who had been imprisoned in a Polish monastery for thirteen years. From an article in the New Yorker, Olga Tokarczuk’s Novels Against Nationalism, published on July 29, 2019:

Tokarczuk relishes her role as a challenger of orthodoxies, and in an interview after the book won the Nike Award she urged her fellow-citizens to acknowledge the darker elements of the nation’s past. “We have come up with this history of Poland as an open, tolerant country,” she said. “Yet we committed horrendous acts as colonizers, as a national majority that suppressed the minority, as slaveowners, and as the murderers of Jews.” (“Colonizers” was a reference to the resettlement of Poles in Ukraine; “slaveowners,” to serfdom.) Her e-mail in-box and Facebook page were promptly flooded with messages accusing her of treason. “The only justice for these lies is death,” one person wrote. Others called for her to be expelled from Poland.

To have learned of this after Tokarczuk and her boyfriend, Grzegorz Zygadło, had driven me out of Poland a few years earlier, after having dedicated my life to contributing in many ways to the country’s multicultural rebirth, felt like pouring cyanide on a wound that was far from healed.

On top of all else I had become engaged in since Poland’s liberation, I was arguably the main source of her income, which had provided her with the freedom to travel extensively and to write this award-winning novel, while I had become trapped and enslaved, not for thirteen years, but for six years, which was more than long enough, in a haunted, deteriorating medieval tower that few people know to this day that she has owned. She has also kept it a closely guarded secret, with an awful lot of help.

“Baszta” (Guard Tower) 2005

In fact, Tokarczuk was just one of countless Poles I came to know personally, who spent most of their time outside of Poland during the period that I was her tenant, from December of 2005 until November of 2011. A post-communism mass migration ultimately had debilitating impact on the very purpose behind why I was invited to Poland and that had kept me there for a huge chunk of my adult life.

Learning years later of the theme of the book she was writing, during the period of time that my rent payments had been helping fund her lifestyle, and of the controversy, in which she had become embroiled, was especially stupefying, given that my family heritage is of Eastern European Jewry. One of my grandfathers was the son of Polish Jewish immigrants.

What, I pondered, motivated her to write this book, while I suffered in purgatory as her tenant? Was it meant as a cover for the corruption that had forced me to escape like a fugitive on the run? Was it her elaborate way of purging her demons, in lieu of confessing to a priest in church? Did she have an epiphany of Jewish guilt?

I had learned, while living in Poland, to what extent many Poles were extremely sensitive to being linked to Nazi atrocities, in any way, shape or form. No way would I have ever set foot in the country were I holding Poles responsible for the long ago horrors of Nazism. I felt no differently, when I spent time in Germany, for who alive had anything to do with Hitler’s madness that suckered in so many people, just as Trump and other dictators elsewhere do today to their own countrymen and women? Where is the line drawn between collective guilt and individual determination?

I have resisted group thinking all of my life, which is essential for me to express myself as an artist and it is precisely what inspired my first visit to Poland.

Likewise, never was there a thought in my mind that I was owed anything special from Poles or Germans. In fact, appreciation of my Jewish heritage meant far more to those who invited me to Poland than it did to myself. I had already lived in two dominantly Catholic countries, France and Spain and as I had no religious upbringing and was neither observing or practicing any particular religion, it had very little to do with my reasons for living in Europe, beyond having a usual curiosity concerning European cultural history.

Perhaps had I been raised more strictly with respect to my inherited religion, I would not have been as open-minded and tolerant. Often in retrospect I have asked myself, “Was the entire reason for my strange destiny to learn some hard lessons and to process them by virtue of my artistic skills?”

Sadly, sensitivities over inherited history repeatedly impact human beings in destructively unpredictable ways. Once president Obama experienced a vehement backlash, when he misspoke of “Polish concentration camps.” An older Polish friend was adamant, once when we spoke, about American media sometimes making this mistake. Poles see themselves as victims of the Nazi regime, and rightfully so. In this light, some Poles reacted vehemently, when Jews sought return of lost property decades after the end of the war had ended. This also was the furthest thing from my mind.

Nevertheless, I faced neo-Nazism during my time in Poland and there are well-documented incidents of Polish Jews, who were murdered by Poles both during and after WWII, an ugly truth that many Poles have vehemently tried to sweep under a carpet, as Tokarczuk painfully found out.

In fact, I grew up across the street from a Polish Jew, Mike Moskowitz, who survived imprisonment in the Nazi concentration camps as a boy. More than once, when I was living in Poland, my mother, who still lived directly across from his home, told me that she had bumped into him in the street, and each time he reiterated that he could not imagine why I had chosen to live in Poland. A few years after returning home, I interviewed him, not long before he died. He spoke to me of the horror of a pogrom against Jews that occurred after the war ended in the south-central city of Kielce, where he had lived. He said that he wanted to return to see his home after the war but had he done so, he would have been killed. Here is an abbreviated segment of our conversation:

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