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 Whoever survives a test, whatever it may be, must tell the story. That is his duty.

– Elie Wiesel (1928 – 2016)

In June 2014, Poland celebrated the 25th anniversary of its first free election since 1945. US President Barack Obama, who was in Warsaw for this occasion, took the opportunity to lecture Ukraine about the success story of its western neighbor.

25 Years of Freedom / Self-Service

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The 1989 election paved the way for Poland’s independence from Russia’s political, economic and military dominance. In 1999, Poland became a member of NATO and in 2004 it was admitted into the European Union. It also was the only country in Europe that survived the 2008 economic meltdown without going into the red.

Yet, only two years after Obama so optimistically visited a reborn Poland, in July of 2016 he was back in Warsaw, though this time in no such a celebratory mood. Instead, he found himself expressing his displeasure over a disconcerting turn of events: the prior October a reactionary right-wing government was elected that has been cracking down on the country’s fragile democratic institutions. Unquestionably at that time, he could not have possibly conceived of the fact, that when his 8-year presidency ended just over one year later, a similar fate would overcome the United States of America.

It was my strange destiny to become intimately engaged in the radical transformation of Poland since Communism’s end in Eastern Europe. For this reason, I have felt compelled to tell my personal story from a foreign artist’s perspective. Only later could I include in my observations the experience of having restored historical architecture and run a private small service-industry business under the oppressive rules and regulations of a lingering holdover communist bureaucracy

Beginning in the spring of 1989, a long time journalist friend, Joop Koopman, introduced me to a remarkable man named Jerzy Ryba, who was from the western Polish city called “Wrocław.” A leader of a cultural underground that resisted communist oppression, Ryba had just won an annual award for cultural planning from the famous Solidarity union. He was visiting Los Angeles after crossing the United States from east to west under the auspices of the American consulate in the Polish city of Poznań. During an unforgettable meeting on a hot spring day in an artist’s loft in downtown Los Angeles, speaking with the aid of an English interpreter he invited me to his country for the sake of cultural exchange. Never did it occur to me that by accepting Ryba’s offer, I would experience Poland’s radical transformation spanning from a time when it was virtually impossible to place a phone call to the US, to when one could skype the world for free. Never could I have imagined witnessing a void of commercialism turn into a Happy Meal haven as nearly empty highways gave way to debilitating traffic jams and dirty, screeching trains were slowly replaced by the construction of a nationwide high-speed train network.

Recognizing the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate in the rebirth of a nation, I made several return visits between 1991 and ’96. Regardless of my adventurous fascination, it was the last thought on my mind to stay for more than a few months, let alone that I would spend 16 years living in Wrocław, a city that as far as at least 99% of people I have talked to in my native home of southern California are concerned, remains one of the best kept secrets on the planet. This is despite the fact that Wrocław (pronounced Vrots wahv) was voted in 2010 to become an annual European Culture Capital for the year 2016, along with its counterpart San Sebastian in Spain.

After all, aren’t artists often the first ones to discover the cool cost-effective places to inhabit? I would have to guesstimate that nearly as many Poles asked me with empty glass skepticism, “What on earth are you doing here?” as have Americans I’ve encountered to this day, who have never heard of the the largest city in western Poland. As for choosing Poland of all possible places in the world, the truth of the matter, as the story I am about to tell reveals, is that Poland chose me! Alas, I was crazy enough to take up the challenge.

Who could have ever understood why a Californian would leave Surf City to become a fish swimming upstream, braving the harsh conditions of a country that so many have fled from and were in the process of leaving? It has been perhaps even more incomprehensible to American Jews I have spoken to, given lingering controversies over Poland’s allegedly anti-Semitic history.

I have concluded that if God had a mission in mind for me, it was to uncover the extraordinary pervasiveness of cross-cultural ignorance. Even though Poland today is as inundated as anywhere with elaborately conceived shopping malls, broadband Internet, cell phones and Satellite TV, population-proportionally speaking, for every American who has never heard of Vrots Wahv, there’s a Pole who hasn’t a clue what Tex-Mex means.

Surprisingly, several times I had met Poles who told me that I was the first American who they had ever met. It seemed inconceivable to them that I actually grew up on the very streets that they regularly saw as the background of exciting car chase scenes. Often enough, authoritatively they would proclaim that they knew what it is like because they saw it on TV. Likewise, Poles would speak of the geographical ignorance of most Americans. Ludicrous circumstances I sometimes endured caused me to reflect on an old Polish joke, but with my own twist to the original punchline:

How many Poles does it take to screw a light bulb into a ceiling socket?

Old Answer: Ten. Nine to turn the ladder and one to screw in the light bulb.

New Answer: As many as it takes Americans to find Poland on a map.

Such being the unreality of cross-cultural pioneering, it would have in any case appeared that I was in the right place at the right time to ride the wave of Poland’s “success story.” At least, this is how my country’s ex-president and many journalists from abroad portrayed things a quarter of a century after my first visit.

Thus the unavoidable question: who has benefited from this success story, and why? This has become disturbingly poignant, since the current government of “Law and Justice” has been taking steps backward from the European Union after little longer than a decade-long membership. Concurrently, it has been regularly reprimanded for cracking down both on journalistic freedom and its court system.

As it is central to my own story, I cannot argue with Poland’s new reactionary leadership that the media and courts were anything but bastions of independent integrity in the country’s fledgling democracy. As I can now see clearly from a bird’s-eye-view, my in-the-trenches experiences, ending in 2012, says more than I could have ever fathomed about what has caused recent political upheaval. The implications are far reaching, directly correlating with why Great Britain pulled out of the European Union and a nationalistic demagogue was elected the President of the United States, who has assaulted all of the country’s democratic institutions, which were once envied throughout the free world.

I suppose I could have taught Obama a thing or two as well that is better viewed from the window of a deteriorating ancient tower than from the ivory sort, let alone the walls of a big white mansion that he had previously occupied.

Click here for Chapter One: Art and Nonviolent Revolution