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Chapter 13

 

Ghosts in a Kangaroo Court and Tests of Human Character

Luckily, I found a lawyer who charged me a fraction of what I would have paid for legal representation in the States and my translator was a friend, who did the same, otherwise I would have been in the same situation as I was after I signed the toxic agreement in 2005: failed before I even started. Still, the cards were stacked against me from the start and voices ringing in head said that nothing was about to change my fate. I worried that the court case would never be fair.

Just as others had convinced me that Tokarczuk was an honest, highly moral woman, twice I was told that the Polish court system in these times was honest, once by a friend, who was the wife of a judge, another time by a customer, who was a young prosecutor. Both said to me that I had nothing to worry about if I just told my story. The same sort of glowing advice I heard about Tokarczuk that led me down a disastrous path had left me extremely skeptical.

Still, there was something I was committed to fighting for, so fully aware that this chance would never come again, I rolled the dice. I told myself that I had to go for broke. Either I would win and realize a stunning full renovation of Baszta or my life in Poland was at its end.

I came to the first session of court armed with a briefcase stuffed with documents, including the one which I had hoped and believed would be most crucial: the letter from the department of historical buildings sent to Tokarczuk around two years earlier, demanding that she restore the tower’s roof. I also submitted letters from two different inspectors, who confirmed the terrible condition of the roof, photos of actual holes in the roof and the architectural plans, which stated that its condition was beyond repair.

The court case lasted, as I feared, for almost two years. Not once did Tokarczuk appear. It then dawned on me who was the ghost of Baszta!

Representing her was her lawyer and boyfriend, Zygadło, who appeared as disheveled as if he were either a drunkard from her novel or from Baszta’s courtyard.

Over many months I brought to court fourteen different witnesses to testify, including my former head chef and manager, who were there when the neighbor blocked the entrance to the courtyard, a member of the local German Consulate, who was my most frequent customer, the former director of culture of the city of Wrocław, who had invited me to perform for her international media festival at Warsaw’s Centre for Contemporary Art and who also happened to be a civil engineer, plus the owner of a few restaurants, which were staples in the city.

Tokarczuk had just one witness, who was also her all-in-one gopher, manager and boyfriend.

Amazingly, every single individual, who I asked, agreed to testify, except for Jacob, the son of the director of the city’s Jewish community, who had proposed to protect me from the horrors I might endure as a foreigner. He had long since handed back to me his small percentage of the business, for fear that he might be held liable for financial losses. At a symbolically extraordinary moment, as we both attended a massive celebration of a just finished renovation of the city’s synagogue, Jacob confessed that he would not appear in court, for fear of being on poor terms with Tokarczuk!

Apparently, I was being haunted by more ghosts than I knew.

At that ceremony for the newly renovated synagogue, I met a 90-year old woman, who had flown all the way from New York. She had once lived in Wrocław, then known as Breslau, the fourth largest city in Germany, until it became a part of Poland after the war. She had tears in her eyes, as she conveyed to me what this moment had meant to her. Jacob, who was about 25, made me wonder, if his cowardly betrayal was any indication, what kind of kombinować Jews survived the Nazis and chose to stay in Poland?

Much of Breslau was demolished by Hitler. So was 75% of Baszta. I could not help but ponder, how many Jews sacrificed their own to save themselves and how many non-Jewish Poles had risked their lives to protect and save them?

To think that a member of the German Consulate was there for me in this time of immense crisis and that Jacob wasn’t, remains as bitterly ironic to me as a book Tokarzuk wrote during extensive travels abroad about an enslaved Jew in the 18th century, also coincidentally named Jacob, while she enslaved me in her crumbling 13th century tower.

Among my favorite memories of owning La Luz/Abrams’ Tower, were some of the remarkable customers, who had described their difficulties in finding the entrance, if not the building itself. These were true travelers, people with determination, who would climb mountains if they had to, in pursuit of a rare discovery. Nothing would stop such individuals from finding the tower’s door. The first thing I would ask of new customers, after the fence was erected, was how they had managed. One said she had traveled from Ireland with her husband and was so excited to visit my restaurant that they actually climbed over the wall! They were unable to fly home for five days due to a terrible storm and returned to the tower every single night of their unplanned extended visit.

Late one evening, when the restaurant had just closed and my staff had gone home, I was still there as the restaurant’s phone rang. The caller said he was at the airport with his wife, they had just arrived from South Africa, were starving and couldn’t find anywhere that was open. I told him that we were closed but if they came right over I would whip something up for them. They took a taxi, left their suitcases downstairs and what an interesting evening I had with them in a building that had barely survived many centuries of a brutal history. The man had made a film about Poles, who had risked their lives to save Jews during the war. Baszta had become the symbol of a test of human character.

Sometimes I was invited to sit with customers from abroad, who had read about a Californian artist serving delicious burritos and fusion global cuisine and they wanted to meet me personally. I interviewed a few of them and posted a video, which can be found here:

Such bravery and appreciation that I occasionally encountered kept me fighting, even when there were times that I couldn’t imagine going on one day longer. Knowing as well that I would never be able to live with myself had I taken the easiest way out, my own determination was so unwavering at that point, that I wanted to know what it is like to experience a Polish court case, no matter the outcome.

One by one, my witnesses, who had the courage and integrity to appear in court, testified about the brutal conditions of entering the building, of its badly damaged roof that had destroyed my business and of their awareness that Olga Tokarczuk was completely uncooperative and irresponsible as its owner and landlord.

Yet, no one, beside myself, knew this better than Jacob and Olga.

Zygadło had proposed prior to the first court session to meet in private and discuss a possible settlement, but he failed to show up and afterward claimed to have forgotten the date that he himself had stipulated. At court, he proceeded to portray me as a disgruntled tenant, who was attempting to cheat Tokarczuk out of income. He testified that he had inspected the attic himself and that the roof was fine because no water was dripping through the holes that were now everywhere. He forgot to mention a small detail, that he came to inspect the roof with his architect on a hot summer day.

These are among the photos I had submitted to the court

If that wasn’t enough, he claimed that the fence erected by the neighbor had nothing to do with it. As if this was justification for failing to reopen the closed passage through the wall that would have allowed customers easy, direct access to the tower’s door, without having to search for a passage from the far opposite end of the block or through the tenement buildings facing a distant street?

The roof was just fine because it was a warm, sunny day and because he saw me holding a private event on such a day, after I had to close down the restaurant for regular customers, he claimed I was making a lot of money and taking his girlfriend for a ride.

The court case became dumbed down to the ridiculous cliché of a foreign cash cow taking advantage of a poor local sacred cow. I tried to submit to the judge a published article, with photos of Tokarczuk looking like a comfy bourgeois lady in her beautifully furnished new apartment in Wrocław, that she had purchased, while ignoring the crucial needs to repair the rare historical building she had leased to me. The judge refused to see it.

Wikipedia says, “Tokarczuk is particularly noted for the mythical tone of her writing.” She had also built quite a mythical tone about herself. Perhaps most distressful of all I had heard and seen, was a transcribed interview I found on the website of Radio Free Europe, which was published just a few months after she had filed the lawsuit against me for unpaid rent, in January of 2010. I have copied the following excerpt from the interview, which at the time of writing this, it is still online around a decade since it was published, on June 19, 2010.


When I came across this interview, my hair stood on end. Had I shown it to my elderly parents back in Los Angeles, they might both have had heart attacks, while my sister was surely rolling in her grave.

I remember listening to Radio Free Europe during my first visit to Poland in 1989, when it was the sole source of English language news from the west. It had been a lone voice in Eastern Europe during the dark days of communist censorship of free speech, independent journalism and artistic expression. Who would have imagined then that it would give voice to kombinować zasadzka exploitation of someone from the West, who gave one’s life to help overcome that dark past?

What on earth had I gotten myself into, I asked myself, by wanting to help restore a historical treasure that wasn’t mine, and to help Poles enjoy wonderful food, wine, music and movies from around the world, most of which had been excluded from their country during the communist times, while offering artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers the opportunity to share various forms of creative expression with others? I even gave free English lessons for awhile on the premises of Baszta and a place for students to meet weekly during the daytime, who were studying about Jewish history and culture. I organized a weekend for children living in the neighborhood tenement apartments to play fun games and another weekend of seminars about architectural illumination of historical buildings. Operating an ethical educational business was impossible in this climate.

Never did Tokarczuk’s real estate agent contact me, nor had her husband, about exhibiting his photographs. Twice I had given all of the walls of the tower’s interior to students to exhibit their drawings and in both cases they conjured up obscene false claims that I had stolen one of their drawings, then demanded that I pay hefty sums for them. The boyfriend of one of them threatened to call the police if I didn’t pay him for one of countless little drawings that were hung onto the walls, without a shred of evidence that one of them was missing. Twice managers of mine had serious injuries that made it impossible to walk without crutches. In both cases, they had accidents unrelated to the business and in both instances they made claims forcing me to pay their salaries for months. One had fallen while dancing in a drunken stupor at a late night party, the other was driving too fast, while drinking on Christmas Eve. I had to pay for his therapy as well.

Whatever it was, it became my responsibility and the court case was no different, when the judge did not accept the written submissions from two experts, without appearances by them in court, who had assessed the roof’s rotted condition. Incredibly, I was told that one of them had died and the other had mysteriously disappeared. For God knows what reason, the judge appointed a court-ordered inspector and declared that it was my obligation to pay for him. Apparently, in a Polish court of law, the defendant was still guilty until proven innocent.

I found myself living the plot of a Tokarczuk detective novel.

When the inspector came to the tower, climbed up the steep stairway to the attic and merely peeked inside, without even entering, he exclaimed,

“I don’t need to see anything more.”

For one split moment, I thought, that just maybe the two women, who that claimed all I had to do was tell my story and everything would fine, were right. Back in court, he confirmed the roof’s disastrous condition. I was certain that I had won, that there was, after all, la luz al final del túnel! Time to celebrate and chill out!

Then, oddly, Tokarczuk’s lawyer presented to the judge new architectural plans to restore the attic, with an apartment inside. This stunned me, for according to her sales contract, living on the premises was illegal. No one had informed me that somehow she had persuaded the city to change the building’s zoning, so that it could become residential.

Yet, the judge refused to look at the gorgeous renderings I hired an architect to draw, with a glass pyramid roof, or the fired architect’s drawings of the new entrance through the wall.

Suddenly, it became apparent that Tokarczuk had a plan from the beginning, for personal usage of the attic, which must have been why that part of the building was not rented to me.

Zygadło even went so far as to make the outrageous claim that I was the cause of delays to restore the roof. He absurdly argued that as long as I was still the tenant, that construction wasn’t possible. It was as if the lease agreement I had signed, in and of itself, was a nuisance. My very existence as the tenant was a nuisance, as were the customers, workers and neighbors who risked being knocked unconscious by a falling roof tile.

Conveniently forgotten was the fact that three years earlier, for the five months that I paid the rent at a significantly increased amount, while I had to close down the business to install a new kitchen, that one day Tokarczuk would inherit, she did absolutely nothing, other than to hire an architect and fire him, once his project was completed, which neither the department of historical buildings or the court judge were even willing to look at.

The judge said that she would announce her verdict in two weeks but mysteriously the date to appear was postponed for half of a year.

Six months later, as everyone but Tokarczuk sat outside of the courtroom, with a big grin on his face, Zygadło walked up to me, my translator and lawyer and gleefully shook our hands. My heart sank, for I suspected that somehow he already knew the outcome.

Upon entering the courtroom, the first thing I noticed was that the judge had dyed her previously dark hair an intense orange color. I thought to myself, “Oh my God! Does she ever have poor judgment!”

She proceeded to hand my lawyer a long written explanation of her decision, that ultimately boiled down to a conclusion as outrageous as Zygadło’s court arguments. On the front cover of the architectural project that stated that the roof must be restored, was the name of my Polish liabilities company, described as the “investor.” Therefore, I was responsible for EVERYTHING!

What the hell, I asked myself, was the judge doing during those six months, aside from symbolically setting her hair on fire? Was she meeting with Tokarczuk in church to confess her sins, while they were plotting to screw me together?

It was certainly news to me that not only had I agreed to take full financial responsibility for all investments in the renovation of Baszta’s interior, but I was liable for the restoration of the entire building? It was my fault all along that I didn’t pay for a complete replacement of the roof? No matter there was available government restoration funding, only not to me, because I was not the owner of the tower?!

Adding insult to injury, the judge announced that it was my obligation, not only to pay back past rents but Tokarczuk’s legal fees, the fees of the court and a lifetime supply of fiery orange hair dye, which in a rebellious act I decided to utilize elsewhere.

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