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Chapter 14

 

Escape from the Wrocław Ghetto

They had all calculated terribly in the obvious plot to milk a thoroughly depleted American cash cow, for they foolishly didn’t consider the fact that the only assets I had in Poland that Tokarczuk could make a claim to were in the name of my Polish limited liabilities company, that by Polish law I, as a foreigner, was forced to establish. Further, all of my valuable assets were already invested in her property, which was hers to keep. She would have had to sue me again privately and I had made no other investments of great value.

I was warned by my lawyer, as the court case commenced, that despite having all of the evidence on my side, it would not be an easy case to win. Zygadło proposed to me, as we were about to enter the court for the first session, that if I paid up the back rent and vacated the tower, he wouldn’t charge petty interest, but if I refused, I would be forced to pay for the months of the duration of the court case.

What a bargain. Zygadło, like Tokarczuk, was stuck in his head in 1989, when the art museum curator thought I was making off like a bandit by accepting what equaled $30 a piece in selling my artworks to a poor Polish museum. The interest he was offering to spare me would have bought me a taxi ride home from the LA airport. In a fair trial, at the very least, if Tokarczuk wanted me out prematurely, she should have paid me back for all of my investments and expenses during the past six years of my life, all for naught because she had made agreements in bad faith and was complicit in the sabotage of everything I had worked so hard to achieve.

Over my sister’s dead body were any of them ever going to receive another złoty from me.

Often I reflected on what the former New York taxi driver told me, of an art collector in New York, who offered to return to Poland at no cost a large collection of Polish art that he had protected during and after WWII, only to be told that it would not be accepted, unless he also invested in building a new museum for its exhibition.

Two weeks before Christmas, I came home late in the day and found a folded up piece of paper that had been stuck into a crack in the front door of my apartment. Santa’s helper had showed up early. It was a notice to pay up in full, with no delay.

“With what?” I asked myself.

One of my former managers had warned me repeatedly that at any time government goons might knock down my door and take anything from my apartment that they could possibly hock at a pawn shop. I was so terrified of someone barging in, taking away my computers, musical equipment and God knows what else, that a friend let me hide out in his art studio, which had a bed but no hot water. It was January, snowing and in the freezing weather I managed to secretly remove everything possible from both the restaurant and my apartment. Each night I would return to my apartment late to take a shower and to copy countless documents and other personal papers, relying on no other illumination than a flashlight. I saved everything, all written agreements, all of the court case transcripts and witness testimonies, photos and videos, in case anyone ever doubted my story.

One friend offered to temporarily store my high tech and musical equipment in his apartment and another gave me a garage to store sixteen years of belongings, all of the furniture from the restaurant, kitchen equipment, and leftover alcohol. I sold parts of the ventilation system to pay for my plane ticket home, sent back to LA about ten boxes of small irreplaceable personal items and papers and said goodbye to my friends.

After moving everything in secrecy, the businessman friend, who years earlier had screamed, when he read the contract I had signed that I was told was a tax document, told me that times had changed and that the collectors were only chasing after cars and real estate.

One month later, I quietly got onto a plane and saw my two sickly aging parents for the first time since before I met Olga Tokarczuk, eight year earlier. My mother had cancer, my father had dementia and I didn’t dare tell them that Tokarczuk had been traveling the world and lied about her sources of income that had made her freewheeling lifestyle possible, while I couldn’t even see my sister before she died.

I was overcome by culture shock, having not lived in my homeland for 25 years, my family disintegrating, some of the changes in American life dramatic. As I feared, when I left for Europe in 1987, during the second term of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the country had become a corporate state. On top of this, the spirits of people had been badly damaged by the Iraq War, 9/11, fear of terrorism and the 2008 recession.

What had not yet become apparent to anyone was the impending impact on the West, following the end of the Cold War and demise of the Soviet Union.

The US was becoming a country of haves and have-nots and in Los Angeles homelessness had approached epidemic proportions during my long absence. Not yet aware of the massive discontent that was brewing, one person after the next lamented to me that they were disillusioned by president Obama’s failed promises of “Hope and Change.”

This opened the door to a snake oil salesman, who promised to make American great again, with the aid of Vladimir Putin and the new breed of Russian oligarchs, who came right out of the former Soviet Union’s Communist Party.

I soon discovered that from Brighton Beach in Brooklyn to several parts of southern California, an enormous migration of Eastern Europeans had occurred in my absence, many of them so psychologically damaged by Soviet totalitarianism, that they would go along with post-McCarthyism fear-mongered Americans, who believe that healthcare as a human right is as dangerously communistic as offering flowers to a woman on Women’s Day.

In this climate, a highly regarded Polish author had been building her reputation internationally, by writing a book conveying Polish guilt over the historically abusive mistreatment of Jews, while lying about how she could afford her exotic lifestyle.

Having no qualifications to speak concerning the merits of her writings, what I cannot help but reflect on, despite all of the awards she has won and all of the accolades she has received, what a man said to me privately, who claimed to have won the 2016 “Culture Capital” distinction for the city of Wrocław. We met privately one day, while the court case was ongoing, and he said to me that the city had built Tokarczuks’ reputation, as “the best of several mediocre Polish writers.” Those were his words, not mine.

He further said to me that the mayor didn’t want to win the competition. His sole purpose was to bring more attention to Wrocław, to attract more foreign investment.

Attracting foreign investors from multinational corporations in the age of neoliberalism was one thing. How independent individuals making investments and contributions were treated is another. I got a bitter taste of this, when I introduced myself to the mayor of Wrocław, on the evening of the celebration of the completed restoration of the city’s synagogue. I found him standing idle with his assistant and introduced myself. He instructed his assistant to hand me his business card and asked me to call him the next day. When I did, his assistant rudely refused to make an appointment.

Around two years after I left, a Polish friend, who lived in one of the apartments outside of Baszta, informed me by email of what had transpired in my absence. Tokarczuk obtained government funding I had tried in vain to help her procure, to restore her newly acquired historical property. The roof was replaced and the passage through the medieval wall reopened, thus I assumed that the new living quarters was installed inside of the tower’s attic.

He sent me a few photos as evidence, including the following plaque on Baszta’s wall:

The plaque says:

Ministry of Culture and National Heritage

Program National Culture – Priority 1:

Protection of Monument

Task:

Wrocław, Defense Tower within the city’s old fortifications

“Bear Tower” (13th century)

Repair of the roof and internal restoration

Co-financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage

After all was said and done, years of my life invested in a war for survival, once I was gone, Tokarczuk received government funding, not only for full restoration of the roof, not only to reopen the passage through the wall but for restoration of the interior that she had contractually demanded I pay for as her tenant!

                                                                                                          Photo by Zezen

                                                                                                                         Photo by Zezen

As for the nickname of “bear,” this was due to the fact that the architect, who restored the damaged structure, after the end of WWII, had installed a sculpture of a bear he had found among post war ruins on one corner of the building, above the tower’s door.

Shortly before I closed the restaurant for good, I met with and interviewed the then 91-year old architect, Mirosław Przylecki, at the tower, shortly before he died. The interview shows him looking at a large framed print I had hung on a wall of the tower’s top floor. It was one of the renderings I’d commissioned of my vision for the renovated building, with a glass pyramid roof and he liked the idea. At first he questioned whether the city would have accepted it but he quickly recognized that I had not altered anything concerning the architectural integrity of the building’s original design in the 13th century, except that glass was to replace the tile.

The two-part interview can be found here:

The most bitter irony of it all could not be better conveyed than by an Op-ed Tokarczuk wrote in 2010, as I fought her ghost in court, in the wake of the death of the president of Poland, who had perished in a controversial plane crash. He had been on the way to a ceremony in Russia, commemorating Stalin’s massacre of Polish officers during the war.

Translated into English and reprinted by the New York Times, she ended her commentary with the following words:

I am sick of building our common destiny around the funeral marches and failed uprisings. I dream of a Poland becoming a modern society that is defined not by the crippling nature of history, but by our individual achievements, a sense of our own self-worth and ideas for the future.

Yet, neither she, the mayor of Wrocław, Polish media or the court judge ever allowed me even the opportunity to present my architectural renderings depicting a 21st century concept for restoration of a badly deteriorating 13th century building.

One year after I left Poland, I returned for a visit. Baszta was still abandoned and the lock to the front door hadn’t been changed. I went inside and made a video of what I found. By then, the roof was in such terrible shape that the entire ceiling of the top floor that lies below the attic was riddled with dampness from melted snow that had poured through the roof. What could possibly be a more symbolic example of the crippling nature of history?

Concerning ideas for the future, in 1989, during my travels around the country by train, the computer drawings I was carrying with me were still too futuristic for even most of the art world in the United States. Before I opened La Luz/Abrams’ Tower, no restaurant in Wrocław had ever served Mexican food with fresh cilantro and real corn tortillas, Thai food, Indian food or even the top award-winning beer made in Poland.

Also from the New Yorker article:

Every culture is built upon defense mechanisms,” Tokarczuk says. “This is quite normal, that we try to suppress everything that’s not comfortable for us.” Her role, as she sees it, is to force her readers to examine aspects of history—their own or their nation’s—that they would rather avoid. She has become, she says, a “psychotherapist of the past.” 

On the day that I discovered the fence blocking the path to the tower, I called her boyfriend/manager/gopher/sole court witness to see it in person, while Tokarczuk was abroad “writing novels against nationalism.” Trying to suppress what was obviously an uncomfortable situation, Zygadło defensively demanded, “You are in Poland! Speak Polish!”

Then he said that the fence was my problem.

Yes, Tokarczuk was so right about examining the past, which any psychologist knows begins with examining one’s own.

I wonder what would Polish Jew, Adam Michnik, have thought, if he knew a thing, as the founding editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, the first edition published three days after I met Jerzy Ryba in LA, in the spring of 1989. Just after meeting Ryba and reading the New York Times’ headline the next morning, I went straight to a local library to do some reading on Poland and came across a book by Michnik called, “Letters from Prison.” It is a collection of letters he wrote from behind bars that consisted of a blueprint for the nonviolent revolution. From what little I recall of what I read so long ago, inherent in his philosophy was to hide nothing at all from the communist authorities, not phone numbers, not addresses of activists in the opposition. It was the plan for a nonviolent revolution that was right out in the open. This coincided with the open, satirical demonstrations of Orange Alternative, which Ryba presented to me in a video the day before. Reading this book after I met Ryba is what convinced me to accept his invitation.

Michnik was one of the members of the roundtable discussions that resulted in the first free elections since 1945. In one of his letters written in prison, in 1985, he wrote,

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.

After the neighbor erected the fence, I came up with the name: the Wrocław Ghetto.

As for self-worth and ideas for the future, from what I have also been told, by an anonymous source, there never was a restoration of the attic, regardless of what the plaque on the outside wall says. After the roof was replaced and the entrance through the medieval wall finally reopened, the building was leased to the owner of a new restaurant, which lasted only for a short time. As I experienced, according to someone who worked in the restaurant that succeeded mine, without proper insulation, the building was impossible to comfortably heat and no adequate ventilation was installed.

A rare, precious symbol of Wrocław’s ancient history has remained empty ever since.

As for my own battered sense of self-worth and ideas for the future, while taking care of my two slowly dying parents back home, I fantasized, with the full architectural plans for Baszta in my possession, to rebuild the entire structure, with the concept I had for its restoration. Instead, I designed and supervised construction of a completely new contemporary tower, which I currently utilize for artistic and cultural purposes.

If there’s a silver lining, had I never lived in Poland and by a strange cursed destiny met Olga Tokarczuk, this would have never happened. Here are 3D renderings of the building, that was recently constructed in Los Angeles:

                                                                                              Renderings by Alina Hansan

And the end result:

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