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The Story

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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. 

It was in the spring of 1989 that a long time journalist friend, Joop Koopman, introduced me to Jerzy Ryba, a leader of a cultural underground that resisted communist oppression. Ryba, who had just won an annual award for cultural planning from the famous Solidarity union, was visiting Los Angeles 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. I did not understand what he meant when he said to me, “If you accept my invitation the conditions will be hard, but the people will be warm and hospitable. Also, the conditions will likely be more favorable to you when you arrive.”

Never did it occur to me that I would experience Poland’s radical transformation 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. I witnessed a void of commercialism turn into a Happy Meal haven, nearly empty highways become debilitating traffic jams and dirty, screeching trains give way to the construction of a nationwide high-speed train network.

My main focus is on a medieval tower that I leased about 15 years later in the western city of Wrocław shortly after Poland joined the EU in 2004. I became involved in its restoration while making use of the historical building to own and operate an all-in-one art gallery, intimate cinema, live music club, educational center, wine bar and restaurant serving fusion world cuisine. As my restaurant received prominent attention in published tourist guides from New York to London, it would have appeared that I was in the right place and the right time to ride the wave of Poland’s “success story.”

When frequently asked why on earth I chose Poland as a place to live, I came up with the answer:

“It was my strange destiny.”

I have decided to tell the story here as an interactive online experience. This unconventional means of storytelling entails photographs I began taking during my first visit in 1989, videos, music, graphic artworks, documents and hyperlinked online references. Presented here is extensive documentation of the tower’s restoration, its history, my former cultural and gastronomic business inside of the tower and a photographic portrait of the city of Wrocław from 1989 until 2013 (photos and video clips from 2013 were shot during a return visit one year after i had left the country). Also included are a few photos that were taken for me since then; they are found in the later chapters of this story.

I have never before publicly presented most of the material that dates back to the day that the decision was made to allow for Poland’s first free elections. It was obvious to me that I had to document everything from a personal perspective and I did this at first by taking photos, keeping a journal and making graphic drawings. Revolutionary hi-tech innovations allowed my creative skills to evolve in several new directions. The rapid transformation of former USSR satellite countries paralleled global technological advancements. In a redeveloping country, it thus became possible to record quality digital music as a one-man band or even as an orchestra. Capturing the Polish experience of rapid globalization, on my own and with a minuscule budget, I could shoot, edit and create special effects for a film, albeit not of the kind of quality intended for cinematic commercial consumption. At first I applied these and other newly developed creative skills to artistic and musical events, then later on to my business ventures. 

By the same token, the trials of ensuing technical challenges that I faced amidst the country’s crumbling infrastructure tell a story in and of itself. Still, this was nothing compared to creating a new business in the face of the remnants of both a medieval architectural edifice and a Kafkaesque post-communist bureaucracy that is still going strong a quarter of a century since Poland’s first free elections. My tale attempts to describe from a user-unfriendly perspective the peculiar convergence of the leftovers of Poland’s haunted past with the powerful influences of globalization.

My in-the-trenches accounting of Poland’s dramatic transformation began when I was fatefully invited to the country in 1989 on the exact day that the decision was made to hold the first free elections. It continues even now, long after I escaped in 2012 from what turned into an unimaginable entrapment. Thus, it would have seemed inconceivable that just over two years before the 25-year celebration, I fled from Poland like a fugitive on the run. 

Click here for Chapter One: Strange Destiny