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Just as Wrocław was about to assume the mantle as the 2016 European Culture Capital, I began to read about recent shocking events and developments that are conclusive confirmation of what drove me out of the country.

On October 10, 2015, an article was published on the official city website, entitled, “Paint Over Hatred.” From the article:

As a part of the European Action Week Against Racism, on Friday, October 10, young people working at the Wroclaw Association ‘Tratwa’ will paint over racist symbols and inscriptions painted on the walls of Wroclaw buildings.

On Oct. 16, 2015, a far more disturbing article was published by Radio Poland, more news that confirms what has motivated me to write my story, four years since I left Poland in complete secrecy. The piece in question was about, of all people, author, Olga Tokarczuk – who simultaneously provoked intense controversy concerning what lies hidden beneath the paint, with shocking repercussions. Entitled, “Author Olga Tokarczuk spurs online lynch mob,” Radio Poland reports:

In recent days, award-winning writer Olga Tokarczuk has been receiving death threats, and repeatedly called names, ranging from ‘Jewish sl*t’ to ‘Ukrainian wh*re’ for speaking out on Polish history in her bestseller ‘The Books of Jacob’.

In The Scotsman – Scotland’s National Newspaper’s October 15, 2015 article, “Polish author Olga Tokarczuk gets death threats,” she was quoted as saying: 

“Many comments seem to suggest I’m Ukrainian or Jewish. For the first time in my life I have been accused of not being Polish. I’ve been excluded from the community.”

Hmmm. What would Baszta’s ghost lurking inside the secret Wrocław Ghetto have to say about this?

As I was once told that Tokarczuk’s surname is known to have Ukrainian roots, if, in fact, her roots are also Jewish, she has never admitted this, among other secrets, to the public.

As in her remark she seemingly disassociates being Jewish with the possibility of also being Polish, my neighbor across the street, who has an Auschwitz tattoo on his arm, would surely have something to say about that, as would my grandfather, were he still alive.

In my opinion, one of the most poignant scenes in the history of filmmaking addresses this matter: in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, as the Allies arrive at WWII’s end, pianist Władysław Szpilman comes out from hiding, among the ruins of Warsaw, wearing a Nazi winter coat that was given to him by a sympathetic German officer. The Allies thus mistake him for a German soldier and start shooting at him. As he runs for cover he yells out: “Stop shooting! I am a Pole!” 

Szpilman did not say that he was a Jew and when one of the soldiers yelled back, “So why are you wearing that fucking coat?,” he meekly answered: “I’m cold!” 

Denial of all sorts runs deep in Polish life and when I first visited the newly-liberated country in 1989, there was a hotline that was promoted with the announcement: “If you have discovered that you have Jewish origins and are afraid to tell anyone, please call this number.”

The convoluted relationship between heroes and villains in all of this could not be better played out than it has been by the story of Tokarczuk’s rise to cult fame. In early October 2015, for the second time, she received the prestigious Nike Award for her latest book, at which point, according to the Poland Radio article, a “widespread hate campaign against the author broke out.”

Apparently, the same woman who in 2010 wrote in the New York Times about Poles discovering a “sense of self-worth” provoked an online “hate mongering spree, accusing her of treason and advising her to leave the country.”

The article goes on that she offended right-wing nationalists by stating upon receipt of the Nike Award:

“We contrived a narrative of Polish history depicting Poland as a tolerant, open country, one which has never disgraced itself with any wrongdoing towards its minority groups. Meanwhile, as colonisers and an ethnic majority we did appalling things, suppressing the minorities; we were slaveholders and murderers of Jews.”

As she conveyed a personalized sense of collective guilt by using the plural form of “we,”, I wondered, what would the ghost lurking inside the Wrocław Ghetto have to say about this?

According to several accounts I have read, just nine days later, Poland held a national election that swept the right-wing into power, thanks to its especially unusual appeal to xenophobic nationalism. The outcome has posed a profoundly disturbing parallel with extremist political sentiment simultaneously occurring in the US.

“The Spectator,” the oldest English-language magazine in existence, tried to explain it from the convoluted Polish perspective, in an article headlined,”Poland’s shock election result has just made the EU even more of a mess:”

European politics hardly needs more excitement, but that’s what is in store after the crushing victory for the Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland’s general election. The party is not just pretty far off the European mainstream; its politics breathe what Adam Michnik, the legendary dissident, has called ‘a combination of an inferiority and superiority complex’. Its redeeming quality now seems to be that it is, nowadays, less nutty. But its politics still have a scent of its past: a social conservatism occasionally lashing modern liberties, a confused and populist economic agenda, and schizophrenia over Germany that swings between pride and feeling of cultural inadequacy.

Predictably, echoing the dominant evangelical Christian influence on the American Republican Party, The Guardian said after the election:

For the large part [Poland’s Law and Justice Party victory] is linked to the country’s conservative family values and worry over gender politics and perceived secularist trends that are seen as undermining the influence of the Catholic church.

However, beyond the strict morals of family values – that is, as espoused by Christian doctrine – the “superiority/inferiority complex” highlighted so trenchantly by Adam Michnik, is expressed by one Pole who The Guardian quoted in its article, “Poland lurches to right with election of Law and Justice party:”

“If you look at Warsaw, you see only foreign shops, banks and brands – C&A, Bank Millennium, H&M, Carrefour. Where have all the Polish businesses gone? We have opened our doors too much and we have lost control of our own economy. We must say stop.”

This phenomenon having started in 1989 largely thanks to Jeffrey Sachs’ Shock Therapy Capitalism, that was instilled with the blessings of the newly-elected Solidarity government, one has to ask: Lost control of what economy? What Polish businesses? During the Communist era, nearly the entire urban marketplace was operated by the centrally controlled monopolistic cooperative, “Społem.” In fact, Społem still remains.

If only my Landlord had understood that Poland’s future depends on a sense of self-worth that is about building bridges, not walls or fences.

Such simplistic xenophobic scapegoating completely fails to address the real issues that allowed for the proliferation of multinational globalization. All of the Poles I personally knew, who built small businesses beginning in the early 1990s, either sold products made abroad, or they themselves had learned from living and working abroad about starting a business during the burgeoning days of free enterprise. One friend of mine imported desktop computers. What was he to do, first invent and manufacture computers before selling them? And with what capital? He started out by advertising computers while working from his apartment. With payments received upfront, he then picked up the computers in Germany and delivered them to his clients. Slowly investing in equipment, he displayed it at a weekend hi-tech flea market at the local university of technology and eventually opened up a shop. 

Like the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, Poland had been stuck in a time warp ever since WWII. What up-to-date knowledge, skills, education or tools could its people have possibly developed while trapped behind the Iron Curtain? The last time Poland was a sovereign nation dates back to the early 20th century! Are they better off today with Mexican restaurants owned by Poles who serve what looks like a burrito – but otherwise is nothing of the sort, but it passes for one because few Poles know what a real burrito is made of or tastes like? Will Poland now turn back the clock to stop the import of all alcoholic beverages, to offer the public only Polish-made vodka, beer and sweet wine made from everything but grapes?

For that matter, as a non-European citizen, by law, it was necessary for me to form a Polish limited liabilities company. I paid taxes up the ying-yang, had to cover medical expenses of my employees, and yet, I was forced to purchase private health insurance. Despite investing heavily in the country and in its people, I received none of the social benefits accorded to Polish citizens.

Aside from this, in what way did my initiative as a foreigner somehow stop Poles from starting up their own businesses? In fact, my brilliant former Polish chef today owns a restaurant, largely thanks to an introduction I arranged for him, to a Polish restaurant owner, while my restaurant was being sabotaged. He could never have developed his skills as he did, had he not spent a few years in London, learning under masters of various styles of exotic cuisine. This, to me, concretely demonstrates the reason I was originally invited to Poland, in the spirit of cultural exchange. If only my Landlord had understood what Olga Tokarczuk has so eloquently stated, that the future depends on a sense of self-worth that is about building bridges, not walls or fences.

As for multinational companies that were already well-established abroad, their ever-growing dominance of the marketplace throughout the industrialized world is essentially the same. The same bed sold by IKEA all across the US is sold from Spain to Poland. People may speak different languages or play different music, but the same smartphones, sound systems and musical instruments are sold around the world. And there is no reason or need to lose one’s own cultural identity in the process, for cross-cultural inspirations can mutate into wonderfully eclectic hybrids.

The difference, in Poland’s case, as well as throughout the USSR, is that its market was reestablished after decades of a communistic system that, unlike China, did not emphasize retail production and sales. Meanwhile, in the West, small businesses thrived and some of them ended up becoming multinationals. Though in Poland, it was really no different. Społem has grown as well, as Communists, who had access to assets and resources, became overnight multimillionaire capitalists. 

It was the French, who coined the term, hypermarché (hypermarket), or “superstore,” which became such a threat to small French businesses, that restrictions were imposed on their growth. Poles were unable to understand that foreigners had nothing to do with it. Small business owners like myself were not the problem; the real issue was the proliferation of multinational corporate globalization. Not long after Poland became a new place of free enterprise opportunity, a slew of French hypermarkets: Leclerc, Carrefour and Auchan, took Poland by storm. Along with them came the home-improvement chain: Castorama, British hypermarket called Tesco and German cash-and-carry chains Makro and Selgros. Had Poland not become a Communist state controlling a monopolistic marketplace, there would be little reason to be pointing fingers at foreigners. Nor would Poles like my friend, Michał, who had spent years abroad, become demonized for returning home to take advantage of what had appeared to be a new wide-open free enterprise climate. 

The corrupting Western influences have been blamed on preparing Mexican burritos containing too many beans and no cabbage.

The dynamic of multinational exploitation is having tremendous impact across the world, as each country addresses this in a different way, at least with the pretense of protecting their working and middle-classes from the domineering menace of neoliberalism. On the surface, this would seem precisely the opposite path that Poland has taken. For that matter, some Polish and US right-wing policies are ironically contradictory. As The Guardian states:

The [Polish Law and Justice Party] promises more welfare spending, a lower retirement age and new taxes on foreign banks.

Ironically, such policies are in line with the proposals of former American presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who billed himself as a “democratic socialist.” By stark contrast, the American Republican Party has an agenda of cutting funding on all social welfare programs, and there has even been talk of raising the retirement age.

What could seem stranger than the fact that Sanders, the son of a Polish Jew, shares values with the Pope that right-wing American Congressmen and presidential candidates are adamantly opposed to – even though they claim to represent Christian family values. Like Pope Francis, Sanders considers the most pressing issues that individual nations face to be global: corporate greed, income inequality and the increasing dangers of human-created climate change.

About the only issues left that link American conservatism with Poland’s concerns xenophobia and religious ideology. In both countries, abortion has become a wedge issue that for many on the political right supersedes any other. With regards to today’s American religion-driven conservatism, there is a joke I have heard that puts this into perspective: “The last time Republicans cared for you, was when you were a fetus.”

The real issue that most Poles endure, is the fact that wages in nearby European countries are much higher for the same work done in their homeland. While Polish workers have left the country en masse for better-paid jobs abroad, Americans on both sides of the political spectrum are confronted with countless jobs that have been transferred overseas, where labor is far cheaper.

I certainly can attest to this, having hired many Poles to work in my former business in Wrocław. However, for me, this offered no advantages whatsoever. The ironies hit me hard from all directions, as I invested in training workers and in the property of a Landlord, who would then pick up and leave the country. A great misconception existed, whereby some Poles were deeply resentful that a Westerner making business in their country was not paying them the wages that they could earn abroad. It was impossible to adequately explain to some of them that the products and services that my business offered could not be sold at a price higher than one  could demand in Poland.

Even foreigners with plenty of money to burn, who visited my restaurant over two decades later, would rarely willingly pay for a quality meal at a price that was not locally competitive. Many came to Poland to enjoy an inexpensive vacation. Likewise, Expats living in Poland, myself included, typically became spoiled by the vast disparity in prices between East and West.


What I came to call “cross-cultural ignorance” continually haunted me in so many ways, and I see more acute evidence of this phenomenon since returning to the US, where the right-wing has demonized social programs as a gateway drug to the revival of totalitarian Soviet socialism. Many Americans are senselessly angry that immigrants take low-paid jobs that they do not want. Since I left for Europe more than 25 years ago, America’s multicultural melting pot has become stirred up into a stew of resentments that has divided classes, races, and even age groups. Anger is now aimed at those receiving welfare, who are frequently charged with being “moochers” on hard working taxpayers. Receiving social benefits from the government is sneered at as “getting free stuff.” Donald Trump’s presidency as fed on inflaming this polarizing attitude with a politically manipulative narrative that has been destructively intended to divide-and-conquer the American public.

At least the conservative Law and Justice Party in Poland that had risen to power offered a sense of economic security for their people – ironically something that many Americans ignorantly look upon as the rebirth of Stalinism.

Perhaps the greatest of all ironies for me personally, Olga Tokarczuk was threatened with my fate of fleeing her country, something that for years she did willfully, when I was the entrapped tenant of Baszta by my ghost landlord.

On Nov. 12, 2015 the Telegraph newspaper ran an article with the appropriate title: EU flag burned as tens of thousands join Warsaw nationalist demo. From the article:

Tens of thousands of protesters poured into Warsaw’s streets on Wednesday for a demonstration organised by the far right, marching under the slogan “Poland for the Polish” and burning an EU flag. “God, honour, homeland,” chanted the protesters as they marched under a sea of red-and-white Polish flags.

Demonstrators trampled and burned a European Union flag at one point, while a banner added to the anti-EU theme with the slogan “EU macht frei” (“Work makes you free” in German), a reference to the slogan over the gates at Auschwitz.

Greetings from Auschwitz! Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Sets You Free)

I have wondered from afar, did they march en masse on the 2016 European Culture Capital? Did the guard tower, known as Baszta, ready its cannons and prepare for battle? Did it feed vegetarian Thai dishes and Hungarian wine to the freedom fighters in the name of God, honor and homeland? Did they chant in unison, “Poland for Poles,” while dancing to their favorite bands: Abba from Sweden and the black German bubblegum pop group, Boney M?

Perhaps it is also meant to be that, just as in 2006, I should once again offer Tokarczuk an opportunity to present her latest book to the public – but this time at Abrams’ Tower West in Los Angeles? It would seem a most appropriate opportunity for her to share some insightful lessons for the West to drawn from Poland’s remarkable success story in the name of self-worth and ideas for the future.

Click here for Conception to Realization: Cultural Exchange Goes Full Circle