PART VI: IMMIGRATING TO WEST BERLIN
I: What is the first thing you remember after separating with the WPT and defecting to the West?
M: The first thing I remember was also the last.
I: What was it?
M: It was an image of the bus, with the members of the company on it, departing back to Poland.
I: What was so memorable about it?
M: The impression it left in me.
I: The impression?
I: Tell me about it.
M: After seeing the company members to the bus and shaking their hands goodbye, I was still standing there on the side of the road, waiting until the bus drove away. After the door closed behind the last passenger, the bus immediately took off. It was as if they were in a hurry. I waved to them and some people waved back through the windows. The waving lasted only a short moment because the bus accelerated very quickly and drove away. After two or three hundred yards, it went around a curve in the road and disappeared from my view. They were gone! I was looking at an empty road but was seeing the absence of the bus. It was my last impression of them. It was like an apparition or phantasm — I saw what was not there anymore. The emptiness that was left after them got stuck in me and haunted me as an unwanted secret. I couldn’t shake it off.
I: How did you deal with it?
M: The next thing I remember, I was already on the train traveling to West Berlin.
I: When was that?
M: In the late afternoon…
I: Which day?
M: I am not entirely sure. It had to be the same day the company returned to Poland, or the day after.
I: You don’t remember exactly?
M: No, I don’t.
I: That’s curious.
M: Yes, it is. But I don’t. I had a memory lapse for a day or two.
I: Do you have any idea why?
M: I wonder myself why I didn’t remember anything. But I have no idea.
I: Were you in shock, perhaps?
M: Perhaps, ha, ha, ha, but I don’t remember that either.
I: Ha, ha, ha. Come on!
I: Are you hiding something?
M: No, I am not hiding anything. And even if I am, I don’t remember what it is.
I: You suppressed it?
M: I doubt so. Nothing really dramatic was happening, I was just waiting for the train.
I: How did you get to the railway station?
M: Oh you see?
M: I remember something.
M: I remember driving in a car to the railway station.
I: What kind of car was it?
M: It was a regular four-door car.
I: Which railway station was it?
M: I don’t remember. It had to be either Titisee-Neustadt or Frankfurt.
I: Who drove you?
M: I guess it was a taxi, or, wait, there were two other people in the car: besides the driver, there was someone seated in the front passenger seat. It could have been Joachim Landgraf, our German impresario. I think it was he.
M: He was arranging my trip to Berlin and provided transportation to the railway station. He also paid for my train ticket.
I: How did that come about?
M: When he found out that I had defected, he came to my hotel room – it was late at night, before the company left (they left the next morning) – and he talked with me about what I was up to. He asked me, “Christopher, I heard that you are not going back to Poland because of the proclamation of the martial law there. Is it true?”
“Yes, it is,” I answered.
“What is your plan now then?” he asked me somehow very seriously.
I shrugged and said, “I don’t have a plan yet.”
“You don’t have a plan?” he repeated the question with no hidden astonishment. It sounded as an accusation (after all, he was a German; he couldn’t imagine anything without a plan.)
“No, I don’t,” I answered sparsely but was thinking, how can I have a plan? I didn’t plan it. The communist regime in Poland that proclaimed martial law planned it for me. I only reacted. It was not a planned but a spontaneous defection.
“What are you going to do now?” Mr. Landgraf kept pressing. “Do you have any idea?”
“I’ll manage,” I said reluctantly, putting him off because I didn’t quite trust him.
I: Why not?
M: There was a rumor, probably spread by the management of the company, that our German impresario, Landgraf, was against any political protests by the members because he had a lot of business with East Europe bringing theater companies on commercial tours to West Europe. He was afraid that any political upheaval could ruin his business relationship with the East. At least, that was the notion circulating in the company. So, I was suspicious that Landgraf had come to my room to sway me to go back to Poland with the company. This suspiciousness was in my mind while I talked with him, and I think it showed. I think he noticed it. He suddenly realized that he was cornering me too much and that I was putting him off. So, he stepped back and quieted his voice.
“I just worry about you,” he said.
“Thank you. I appreciate it,” I said hoping that he was going to get lost. But he didn’t.
“Christopher, do you have a place to stay?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Where are you going to stay?”
“I am going to go to West Berlin and will stay with my friend who lives there,” I answered reluctantly.
“O, I see,” he reacted with surprise. “Because, you know, if you need any help, I’ll do what I can.”
I thanked him but told him that I didn’t need anything.
“In case you change your mind,” he continued shortly, “and choose to stay here, in West Germany, I want to you to know that you can stay in this hotel as long as it takes, until you settle on your own. I will cover all the expenses. Or, if you prefer, you can stay in my house in Munich (I think he said, Munich) with me and my wife. She will like that,” he added, ‘be my guest.”
“Oh, thank you very much to offer your hospitality. It is really very nice of you. I did not expect that. But I think that I’ve already made up my mind to go to West Berlin and will stick with it,” I refused as politely as possible.
“Okay,” he paused as if disappointed.
Then he asked me how I was going to get to West Berlin and I told him I was going by train. He asked me if I already had a ticket and when I told him no, he immediately offered to arrange my trip to West Berlin and to pay for my ticket. That was more or less my conversation with the German Impresario.
I: So, after all, he had not come to sway you to return to Poland.
M: No, he hadn’t. My suspicions were unjust. He just felt obligated to take care of me.
I: Why didn’t you take him up on his offer to stay with him?
M: I didn’t even consider it. I had already made my decision and was more comfortable to go to West Berlin.
M: It was an independent choice. And that was what I needed at that juncture in my life.
I: What happened on the train to West Berlin?
M: I had an ominous vision that made me shudder.
I: Are you serious?
M: Yes, I am.
M: Yes. Why do you doubt me?
I: I don’t. Tell me about it.
M: I was traveling to West Berlin in an almost empty train. For a few hours, I didn’t see a living soul. I was entirely on my own, sitting alone in the compartment. I thought it was great because I needed a moment or two of solitude to collect my thoughts after the previous two weeks of political upheaval with the company that had drained me. After all, politics were not my thing; I was not in my element. So, I felt relief that it was over, and I didn’t have to deal with it anymore. Even the German impresario, the last link with the company, was gone. There were no more strings attached. I was totally detached. I was free as a bird. What a liberating feeling it was! But it didn’t last long. Man is not supposed to be entirely free.
I: What happened?
M: At a certain point I stepped out of the compartment into the train corridor, stood near the open window, and smoked a cigarette. Suddenly I had a vision. I saw my past in an instance. The most peculiar thing about this vision was that it appeared not in my mind, but on the sky.
I: On the sky?
M: Yes, on the sky. I mean it literally. Suddenly the dark, gray sky opened with light and in it appeared my past life as if painted in an old medieval painting.
M: At first it was a grandiose vision, all in light and rich colors, and then the vision began to disappear, quickly going away and diminishing. Finally, it vanished entirely from my view and the sky closed behind it. It was gone. I felt that my past was gone forever and that I had lost everything I had. I realized in that moment that I would never return to Poland and the life I had there. It was an awful feeling. What have I done? I thought. I looked again to the sky just above the horizon behind where the vision had vanished. There were only gray, heavy clouds, as if it were going to rain. There was no sign of any vision anymore. So, I let it go.
I: It was horrible.
M: A nightmare.
I: You hallucinated.
M: Certainly I did.
I: How did it make you feel?
M: It made me feel deprived of my past, cut off.
I: What was the realization at that moment?
M: I became a man without my own country.
I: What were the implications of that?
M: I was an émigré, a refugee, an outcast.
I: That was what were you thinking then?
M: No, I was not thinking in those terms. I was just disturbed by the vision I had. Then I felt terribly alienated. When I looked outside the window, the landscape looked dark and gloomy, which is typical for that time of the year. It was the last week of December, a wet winter that is usually without snow in that part of the country. I had seen it many times before while on tours with the WPT and didn’t give a damn about it. But this time it got to me. The landscape looked unappealing. I kept looking at it trying to find something inviting out there. That was what I badly needed – a sign. But nothing was inviting; everything in the landscape felt hostile. I am sure it was a subjective impression, but it was what I felt. It scared me and I almost panicked.
But then, in the moment that I was about to fly or run or jump out the window, a familiar young man emerged from one of the compartments. He was an actor from the WPT who had also defected. I don’t remember his name now. Anyway, I hardly knew him – he had only been in the company a few months. I had no chance to talk with him before. We were almost strangers. Nevertheless, he approached me and started to chat. “How are you?” “Fine,” “Where are you going?” and so on. Bizarrely, I suddenly felt responsible to take care of this young man as an older colleague. I became very friendly, asking questions with concern about whether he had place to stay. Of course he had, not only that, he had family in West Berlin. So he was set. When we exhausted the factual conversation about our survival, I didn’t know what to talk about with him further. That’s right, we did not know each other. For some reason I felt guilty about it, but had nothing more to say. There came this uncomfortable silence between us.
“I better get back to my compartment,” he said. And added to justify, “The train is getting close to West Berlin. We are getting off soon.” “Sure,” I said. “Take care and so on.” Before we departed, I gave him the phone number where he could reach me in West Berlin and encouraged him to call me to keep in touch or, even more so, if he needed anything. In return, he gave me his phone number. When in Berlin, I called him once. That was it. I never saw him again.
I: How many members of the company had defected at that time?
M: There were three of us. I didn’t particularly know the third one either because he had also been a short time in the company.
I: So you were the only one who defected among the permanent actors of the company?
M: Yes, I was the only one at that time.
I: How was your arrival in West Berlin?
M: Yes, I couldn’t imagine a better welcome.
I: How so?
M: When I arrived, Andrzej Wieckowski, my friend, was waiting for me at the railway station with a bunch of people, something like about ten or twelve of them. They had all come to welcome me. It was terribly nice of them to do that. I didn’t know those people and they came to welcome me. When I was getting off the train, they were already standing on the platform and enthusiastically waving their hands. When I came down the platform, they surrounded me and greeted me as if I were an especially awaited guest. It was incredible. I was not expecting that. They were treating me like a star.
I: Why were you surprised? You were a star, were you not?
M: Stardom is something illusive. You are surprised when you are treated like one and you are surprised when you are not.
I: Who were those people?
M: They were all Polish refugees; they were Andrzej’s friends and acquaintances. He gathered them for the occasion of my arrival. They made an event of it. Welcoming me at the railway station was only the prelude. Later that evening, there was a banquet on my behalf in Andrzej’s house. We all drove there in two cars. And that ride was something most memorable.
I: Please, tell me about it.
M: On the way we stopped in some place and picked up a few more people, and then we continued to Andrzej’s house in the two cars. It was a long drive, half an hour to forty minutes. Suddenly the other car caught up with us and hit our car on the side while passing. I felt a big jolt, and our car was knocked off its path a bit, but the driver managed to stay on the road and to regain full control.
“What the fuck is that?” I shouted. But the passengers in the car were only laughing.
“That’s nothing, that’s nothing,” Andrzej said disregarding it. In that moment, the other car hit us again, this time even stronger.
“Nothing?” I shouted.
They all laughed including Andrzej. “Don’t worry,” he said, “They always do that.”
Okay, I got it. It was sort of a game, a strange game of bumping into each other. They kept doing it during the entire ride. Next, it was our car hitting theirs, and so on. It went on and on, hitting from the sides, hitting from behind, blocking the way of the other car, pushing to the side. It was crazy.
“Why are they doing it?” I asked Andrzej.
“Aren’t they concerned to wreck their cars?” I asked him but really was concerned with my own safety.
“They’ll fix it.”
“Can they afford it?” I could not help but press the issue.
“They will fix it themselves,” Andrzej explained. “Michal is a mechanic, and the other one is a professional racecar driver. They have their own repair shop.”
“Damn it, they could kill us,” I thought but said nothing. It would be totally unbecoming. I sensed that. They all were into this reckless game of bumping and smashing each other. There was something anarchic about it. They were getting nihilistic excitement out of it, out of those acts of destruction. I sensed it was an act of liberation for them, or a strange form of therapy, or both.
I: But why? Of what?
M: They were all refugees from Poland. They were wrecks. The cars bumping and smashing were reflecting their state of mind. It was symbolic. What it was exactly, that anarchic or nihilistic impulse in them, I don’t know how to fully explain it, but it made sense to me. It is why I was not protesting more firmly while they were doing it. The thrill was in taking risk. The liberation, in breaking things, as if saying, it doesn’t matter, my life is wrecked anyway. Our lives were wrecked because the communist military regime had crushed the society, what did it matter to crash a few cars?
I: How did the game end?
M: When we arrived at the parking lot on the front of Andrzej’s apartment building, they parked the cars next to each other and we got out. The drivers checked the damage and calmly discussed what would be the best way to fix it. One car needed an urgent repair because its back fender was falling off, so one of the drivers took that car immediately to the garage. The rest of us went to Andrzej’s apartment, which was on a very high floor; I don’t remember exactly which floor it was. It was quite a nice and spacious three-bedroom apartment with a large living and dining room. “How did he get it?” I wondered. He is only a few months in the West and already has an apartment four times bigger than the one he had in Poland. And it was already fully furnished. Andrzej lived there with his family: Wanda, his wife, and Milek, his son. When we arrived, there were already some people waiting for us, and some more were coming. It was a great party. People were open, friendly, and somehow euphoric.
I: Why were they euphoric?
M: They were euphoric because they were free. Almost all of them were more or less recent refugees from Poland who had been lucky to be out of the country when martial law was proclaimed on December 13th 1981, which was just two weeks before we gathered in Andrzej’s house. It was all fresh. We didn’t even know much about what was going on in Poland because both communication and transportation were cut off by the regime. There was some news via unofficial channels that stated that almost all the leaders and activist of the solidarity movement were arrested and detained and/or imprisoned somewhere. But where and what was going to happen with them, we didn’t know. This unknown created a suspense of anticipated horrors and an atmosphere of suspicion. We did know that the military had taken control over the country and were imposing marital law: there were military patrols and tanks on the streets. We also heard there were some fights but didn’t know any details. Though we knew that the opposition was crushed, there was still hope that the opposition would stand up to the regime and overthrow the monster. That was our wish. People were acting as if they still had faith and the fight was not over yet, though I don’t remember exactly how much in it was the political evaluation of the situation and how much was just the attitude of unbroken spirits, which we still were then. We were free and on the loose, the euphoria was the result of getting drunk with newly gained freedom. People felt lucky not to be in Poland at that time.
I: What was the other side of the coin?
M: Euphoria was an antidote to anxiety. The louder we laughed and screamed, the less we heard our worries. We did not want to hear them. We did not want to have fear.
I: How did the party go?
M: Wanda prepared some food for supper. Then we sat around with drinks and talked.
I: What were you talking about?
M: We were talking a bit about politics, about the situation in Poland – people were saying what they knew and wondering about what they didn’t. Those conversations were a matter of facts and when the facts were exhausted, there was nothing more to say. People also talked about how they left or escaped or defected from Poland and how long they were already in the West. They wanted to hear my story, so I told them. In fact, I told my story a few times because people were coming and going. Later on came a group of three men who were Polish Solidarity activists in West Berlin. They were very interested in my defection story and the situation in the WPT and suggested that I should go public with it in the German mass media — radio, TV, newspapers. They offered to arrange the interviews. I declined telling them that I was not into politics. They said, “It doesn’t matter; that’s even better! You would be a more credible voice!”
I: Credible voice?
M: Yes, I wondered myself how I was more credible than they were.
“We need someone like you and your defection story right now. It will make big news. Can you imagine the headline: the leading actor of the WPT has defected while on tour in Germany in protest against the proclamation of martial law in Poland?” one of them asked me.
“Well, I do imagine it,” I said. “But it is precisely what I want to avoid.”
“Why, why, why?” they asked overlapping each other. “Are you planning to go back to Poland? Is that why?”
“No,” I said, “I am not planning to go back. At least not now in this political situation.”
“What are you afraid off then?” one of them asked.
“I am not afraid of anything.”
“Leave him alone,” Andrzej said, “he just arrived, let him rest, let him think about it.”
“Okay. Just asking.”
“We will talk about it later,” another activist said. And we dropped the subject for the time being. The party went on and I had a tremendously good time.
M: Just talking and playing with people. Not about politics anymore but all other things. A lot of joking – I relaxed and was having fun performing on the spot. It was hilarious. At midnight someone reminded us that it was late, that it was time to end the party because, as Andrzej justified, it was only a prelude to the New Year’s Eve party that was coming in two days. So, with that notion, namely, to save our energy for the New Year’s Eve celebration, we dispersed. The guests went home and Andrzej, his family and I went to bed. I slept in the living room on a foldout couch.
The next day I got a phone call from a radio station. They wanted to conduct an interview with me about my defection. I turned them down. Throughout the next two weeks or so I received a few more propositions to give interviews about my defection. They were from some newspapers, another radio station, and a TV station. Each time I declined.
I: Why didn’t you want to give an interview?
M: I didn’t want to implicate the WPT by showing them in a politically unfavorable light.
I: Would it be?
M: Yes, I already realized that while telling my story during the party. It stirred suspicion about why the WPT didn’t make a political statement in face of the proclamation of martial law. People were speculating on which side was the management of the WPT: the communist regime or the Solidarity movement.
I: On which side did you think they were?
M: I didn’t know. They didn’t declare their political position at all. It seemed to me at that time that they were on neither side. At least, that was their official policy.
I: Why were you protecting them?
M: Why wouldn’t I? I was a member of that company for many years. The least I owed them was loyalty.
I: How was the New Year’s Eve party?
M: It was excessive.
I: How so?
M: During the party, which took place in the Andrzej’s apartment, a young couple that was entirely naked entered the dance floor, which was arranged in the dining room, and danced the tango. They danced spectacularly. Notwithstanding, some of the guests, in particular, the Germans, were supposedly offended by the stark nakedness of the dancers and left the party outraged by the Poles’ scandalous behavior. At least that’s what I heard; I didn’t see the Germans leaving the house. Anyway, they could have left because it was already late, something like two in the morning.
I: How did the Poles react to the dancers?
M: They behaved as if dancing a tango naked was something quite ordinary. They pretended that they didn’t notice it. All of those Poles were so hip. To make an issue about it would be very unbecoming. It was obvious that the naked dance was a provocation, that the young couple tried to shock us. But we wouldn’t fall for it. We’d already seen it all. Nakedness? Who cared? We were the generation of the seventies in which every second avant-garde theater production or happening had nakedness in it. And yet, not noticing it was unnatural. I remember I was sitting around the table with a bunch of people in the living room talking. The naked dancers were well in our view because the living and the dining room were joined together with a half-open, half-split wall. Besides, the dancers kept making excursions into the living room, often bending provocatively above our table. But we didn’t pay any attention to them and kept talking, focused on the subject of our conversation.
I: How did the dance end?
M: At the end of the music, the dancers danced themselves out to the back rooms where they disappeared. Then, moments later, they came back to the party fully dressed as if nothing had happened.
I: Who were the dancers?
M: Zbyszek and Beata. I had met Zbyszek two or three days earlier, on the evening I arrived to West Berlin, and Beata I met for the first time during the New Year’s Eve party, though I had heard about her from Andrzej and Wanda. They told me she knew me from Wroclaw, but only from the stage, and was madly in love with me. I, of course, didn’t take that kind of talk seriously. Nevertheless, at the end of the New Year’s Eve party, when all the guests had already left, and those who were sleeping in the house had already disappeared into the back rooms, Beata sat next to me on the couch in the living room, the place of my temporary bedroom, and didn’t leave. I chatted with her politely, and then it was time to go to sleep. The day was breaking and no one else was awake but Beata and I.
“Where are you going to sleep?” I asked Beata.
“Here, on the couch,” she said.
“I don’t know if you know this, but I sleep here, on this couch,” I said.
“I will sleep with you.”
It made me pause. “I thought that you and Zbyszek were a couple and were going to sleep together in the back room.”
“No,” she laughed. “Zbyszek? No, no way. He’s just a friend.”
“What about the dance?”
“What about it?”
“You were dancing naked together, so I thought you were a couple.”
“Oh, no, don’t be such a prude, we were just doing a happening, that’s all.”
“I am not a prude. Just trying to figure out who sleeps with whom and where, that’s all,” I said trying to be funny but she didn’t laugh.
“I sleep here,” she said and turned slightly away, taken aback by my words.
I said nothing, just looked at her sitting motionlessly on the edge of the couch in silence. It was enough to reach for her and she would be mine. But I hesitated for a reason that she had not the slightest idea about. I knew her mother, Lena, personally, for years in the past. She was a good friend of my girlfriend Gertruda, the singer from the Musical Theater with whom I was going out when I was a dancer there, in the years 1972-3. Lena became my friend too and I liked her a lot. Beata knew her mother and I were friends. But she didn’t know that I had slept with her mother.
I: Wow, how did it happen?
M: It was not a big deal. Once her mother lured me to her apartment, on some pretext of a glass of wine or something else, and seduced me. In fact, I had seen Beata at that time but she did not see me.
I: How so?
M: She was already asleep when her mother and I arrived to the house. It was something like nine or ten p.m. After we arrived, Lena brought me to her room and said, “Let me first check on my child if she is already asleep and then we will have a drink.” As she said, she went to the Beata’s room to check on her. A moment later she came back and said, “Do you want to see my child?”
I said, “Yes.”
“Come with me,” she said. “But be quiet because she is already asleep.”
So we went to Beata’s room, and her mother showed me her sleeping in bed. I saw her in the light coming from the open door because Lena did not want to turn the bedroom light on and wake Beata. It was a bit dark, but I could see her. I clearly recognized that she was still a child and yet already becoming a woman.
I: How old was Beata then?
M: Beata was twelve or thirteen at that time.
I: What was her mother was thinking showing her to you?
M: I don’t know, it seemed as if it were spontaneous. She became affectionate with her daughter and wanted to share it with me. She was saying things like, “Look at her, isn’t she a darling?” “Yes, she is,” I answered (what else I could say.) Then she continued, “My most precious treasure, my Beata, Beatka, Beaciunia, Beaciunieczka.” She poured a litany of affectionate diminutive names that are only possible to derive in the Polish langue.
M: Yea, I saw Beata the night that her mother seduced me.
I: How did she seduce you?
M: We went back to Lena’s room and she threw herself on me.
I: Did she?
M: And you went for it.
M: I could not refuse a woman, could I?
I: No, you could not.
M: It would be rude.
I: Certainly, it would be.
M: It was only a one-night-stand. And yet, six or seven years later, I had scruples to sleep with her daughter, as if it were a taboo engrained in my mind. The memory of her mother haunted me. I could not help but compare those two. They were so different. Lena was a tall and slim blond woman with a long pair of stunning legs. She had the elegant carriage of a high-class model. But Beata was a rather short, dark-haired girl with beautiful, almond-shaped large eyes and a sensual curvy body. Her large but firm breasts were particularly sexy. I was always impressed with the stunning appearance and classy carriage of Beata’s mother, but I wasn’t attracted to her. Anyway, she was too old for me. When we had sex, she was thirty-five, which was an old cow for a twenty-two or three years old boy (as I was then). But Beata, she was just right for me, a 20-21 year old girl to whom I was attracted at once. She did stir my senses. And now she was sitting next to me, waiting, available. But I was hesitating while thinking about her mother. How absurd. I realized it and got over it. It was time. I sensed that Beata was getting impatient. So I reached for her and touched her. She turned toward me and we kissed.
“Let’s open the couch,” she said. And we did, and we had sex, and we slept together until noon the next day. It was New Year’s Day, 1982. When we woke up the house was empty and there was a note for us on the table, “We’ve gone for a walk at the lake in Tegel. Please, join us out there, if you wish.” There were also directions how to get there. So we drove to the lake and met with the others at the assigned place. The lake was frozen. We walked on the ice. Zbyszek, who was a very good acrobat, made a double aerial somersault on the ice to showoff. But slipped, fell on his back, and broke his arm.
I: How unfortunate.
M: For him yes, but for me, I hate to say it, but it was a blessing!
I: A blessing?
M: In some flippant work of fate, yes, it was.
I: How so?
M: He had to stay in the hospital for a week or two. Beata, knowing that I had no privacy in Andrzej’s house, asked Zbyszek if I could stay in his place during that time. Zbyszek gladly agreed. It was as if fate had ordained it so I could have better comfort.
I: Is that so?
M: I could not find a better reason why Zbyszek had broken his arm than that.
I: No kidding.
M: It made sense.
I: How so?
M: There was not enough space for me in Andrzej’s apartment. There was no extra room for me there. I slept on the couch in the living room, which was fine for a day or two. But after that I felt crowded and had a hard time enduring people around me all the time. I desperately needed to be alone, at least for a few hours a day. It’s the way I’m made: partly a loner and partly a social creature. You see? Zbyszek breaking his arm was not a coincidence.
I: Yes, I see it, if I look at it from your unique perspective that you are the center of the world.
M: Besides, having Zbyszek’s apartment was convenient for dating Beata who was coming to visit me.
I: Why didn’t you go to her place?
M: She had a roommate at that time.
I: I see.
I: How long did you stay in the Zbyszek’s apartment?
M: A week or so. Zbyszek came back from the hospital earlier than he was supposed to. His arm was in a cast. The first thing he did was to throw a big party. So, my privacy was over. However in the meantime, I had obtained the legal status of a refugee in the emigration office, which allowed me to temporarily stay in Germany. It entitled me to get welfare benefits, but it didn’t allow me to work.
I: Were those welfare benefits enough to survive on without working?
M: Yes, they were. The German social welfare was very generous at that time, in particular for political refugees from Poland.
I: How much was it?
M: It was enough to pay the bills: rent, utilities, groceries, clothes, transportation, and there was even some money for entertainment. Besides that, the social welfare covered the expenses for basic material goods, such as furniture, utensils, television, radio, and so on. Whatever was considered the basic standard of living, the recipient was entitled to obtain within certain limits. It was enough to sustain oneself without stress but without going overboard.
I: How did you settle?
M: I rented a studio apartment in the same building where Zbyszek lived. It was already furnished and had all necessary appliances. It was a simple but comfortable and esthetically pleasing place. It had a modern feel, a bit impersonal as if it were a hotel. I moved there sometime in the second week of January, and from that point, I was entirely on my own.
I: What did you do?
M: Well, I found myself often alone in my apartment. There wasn’t much intensive social life. Occasionally, yes, but somehow it died. The high spirit, the euphoria, had died among my Polish friends, and they weren’t into partying anymore. And if so it didn’t fly.
M: We all lost faith in the cause of the Solidarity movement – the news from the country wasn’t good. It was clear that the communist military regime had crushed the Solidarity movement – and lets face it, without much active resistance.
M: It was a drawback for a long time to come. Most of us thought it would be forever. It was all beginning to look hopeless and people were losing heart for the cause. So our gatherings stopped to make sense. There was no more common ground. For a while we tried to pretend that the cause was still alive, but it was forced. So, it died naturally. People realized that and gave up. Anyway, they had to face their own existential predicaments of survival, to think of their own future.
I: What did they do?
M: Some of them chose emigration as I did. The others went back to Poland.
I: Did you consider returning to Poland?
M: I did, everyone did, depending on the situation.
I: What was the decisive factor that made you choose to emigrate instead.
M: The decisive factor was a letter from my sister that I received from Poland. She wrote me that they were taking my apartment away from me.
I: Who were “They?”
M: I don’t know who they were. They were “they” because they had no personal but collective identity. “They” were the anonymous evil force of the totalitarian society. They were the faceless monster.
I: Don’t give me that crap!
I: There are no faceless monsters. It is just a cover up. There are always people behind it.
M: Sure there are, but it is hard to trace them.
I: Do you have any clues?
M: I do but never tracked them.
I: What was in the letter?
M: My sister wrote me that only a few weeks after I defected to the West, a man from the WPT showed up at my apartment and wanted to move in. He had the legitimate papers. It was a deed issued in his name as the new owner of my condo. Can you imagine that?
I: Wow, could they do that?
M: Apparently, they did it.
M: He opened the door with his own keys that he had to have gotten from the housing cooperative I belonged too.
I: So the housing cooperative took the apartment away from you?
M: They did but they couldn’t do it on their own. They didn’t even know I had left.
M: The directives had to come from the highest authority of the city representing the regime (whoever they were: the military council or the communist central committee.) Nevertheless, it had to be done through the department of culture and in this case in arrangement with the WPT.
I: It is convoluted.
M: Yes, it is.
I: Who was the man who came from the WPT to take over your apartment?
M: I am reluctant to say his name.
M: I don’t want to personally point the finger. He is the only one whose name I know for sure in this affair but maybe the least guilty one.
I: He was just the scavenger not the perpetrator.
M: Ha, ha, ha, though only a potential scavenger. When he found out that my sister was living in my apartment and that she had the status of the permanent resident there, he backed off.
M: Because it was very difficult to evict someone with the permanent resident status, as my sister had. It was almost impossible unless the state provided a substitute apartment for her. So, I suppose he realized that it was going to be messy and didn’t want to go through with it. I talked with him about it after something like twenty years, during a visit to Poland. He admitted that he got my apartment from the Department of Culture and was intending to move there. But when he opened the door and saw that my sister lived there, he had a change of heart. So he backed off and gave up this apartment. He said, that because he gave up my apartment, the Department of Culture never offered him another one.
I: Did you feel for him when he told you about his great sacrifice?
M: I am afraid that I almost did. He almost got me.
I: Did he apologize for trying to steal your apartment?
M: No, he did not, but I believe he was sorry that he got entangled into this affair.
I: Why would he be so unscrupulous to agree to take over your apartment in the first place?
M: I suppose he was desperate.
I: How so?
M: There were serious housing shortages in Poland at that time. In a large city like Wroclaw, a person could be on the waiting list for as long as fifteen years to get an apartment.
I: How did you get your apartment?
M: I got it from the City Pool for the prominent citizens of Wroclaw.
I: How long did you wait?
M: A month.
I: No wonder they wanted to take it away from you.
M: Don’t be the devil’s advocate. It was my apartment. I paid for it and had the deed.
I: What was the legal ground for taking your apartment away from you?
M: It was hardly legal. The communist military junta was confiscating the apartments form the people who left and stayed abroad.
I: On which basis?
M: They argued that those apartments were vacant while there was a housing shortage in Poland. But what they really wanted was to punish dissidents, such as me.
I: Did they?
I: Did they take your apartment?
M: No, they did not. But my family had to fight for it. My sister asked me to write a letter to the housing cooperative stating that I did not leave Poland permanently and was going to return soon. So I did. I don’t know if my letter ultimately helped or not, anyway it would have been a short-lived lie, but it would give my sister time to delay the eventual eviction. Fortunately, one year later or so, the regime abandoned the practice of taking away apartments from dissidents who lived abroad due to international pressure against the violation of human rights, and my sister never was evicted.
I: Does she still live there?
M: No, she doesn’t but she did until two years ago.
I: What was your initial reaction when you got the letter from your sister informing you that the WPT took away your condo?
M: I was stunned.
I: You did not expect it, did you?
M: No, I didn’t.
I: How did it make you feel?
M: Deeply ashamed.
I: Of what?
M: Of them.
I: How did you deal with it?
M: I didn’t tell anybody about it.
I: You are telling it now. Why?
M: I am not ashamed anymore; let them be ashamed.
I: Do I sense the writer’s revenge?
M: No, you don’t. I write about it not for the revenge sake but rather as a history lesson.
I: What is the message of this lesson?
M: Don’t take what is not yours because you will choke on it.
I: By leaving the WPT and defecting to the West you lost everything then, didn’t you?
M: Yes, I did.
I: Was the letter from your sister the final blow?
M: Yes, it was. It made me fully realize that I had irreversibly lost everything and there was no way back. This letter symbolizes for me a point of no return. I had nothing to come back for. I had to start my life anew.
I: How was it to be a political refugee in Germany? What kind of life was that?
M: It was like living in limbo.
I: What kind of limbo?
M: A social limbo where people were stuck on a sidetrack from their lives.
I: What was the worst about it?
M: Having no fixed purpose in life. It was hard for many people. They felt lost.
I: What was the best part about being a political refugee?
M: To have plenty of free time and no obligations.
I: How did you use that time?
M: I was doing all the things I always wanted to do but had no time for because I was always working.
L: Like what?
M: I don’t remember. It was just a fantasy.
I: How did you take being stuck in the political refugee’s limbo?
M: I was stuck only for two or three weeks, if that. Then I managed to avoid it altogether by getting a job in the theater and getting busy working again.
I: What kind of job was it?
M: I was a movement instructor in Transformtheater. I was teaching movement and mime classes in their acting school and choreographing their performances.
I: How did you get that job?
M: They found me and offered me a job.
I: How did it happen?
M: One day, when I was alone within the four walls of my apartment and was getting a bit, or rather a lot, lonely and was starting to get that emigrational anxiety about being stuck in limbo, which was rather new for me and, I must admit, hard to take, the phone rang. It was Andrzej Wieckowski. He said that someone from Transformtheater called for me at his house to inquire if I’d be interested to teach movement and mime classes for them. I said, “I would.”
Then I asked Andrzej what kind of theater it was and how they found out about me. But Andrzej didn’t know much. He said that someone recommended me and the theater was in Kreuzberg, an alternative arts district in town.
I was a bit uncertain, wondering if it was the right theater for me. But Andrzej told me not to worry in advance. “We’ll go there and see,” he said. So I agreed.
Andrzej set up an appointment for Friday night, which was two days later, and we went there.
When we arrived at the given address, we found a large, run-down building that looked like a warehouse or factory.
Andrzej checked the address and said, “It’s here.”
“”It can’t be here,” I doubted.
“It must be here. This is the address.”
“This building doesn’t look like a theater!” I said.
“Let’s go inside and see,” Andrzej concluded.
We went inside. According to the directions, we were to take an elevator to the fourth floor. There was only a freight elevator. So we guessed it might be it and took it. And yes, it was it.
When we got to the fourth floor the director of the theater was already waiting for us at the door. We didn’t know anything about him at this point and were surprised when he greeted us cordially in Polish, introduced himself as Henryk Baranowski and told us that he was originally from Poland. Afterward he led us to a very large room that evidently was once a warehouse or factory space but now was almost empty.
There was a group of twenty-five to thirty actors sitting in a few rows of chairs and benches far in the depth of the room. It was rather dark. Only when we approached them, could I see them more distinctly. They were young people, most of them were in their twenties, a few in their early thirties.
Henryk Baranowski brought us in front of the actors and quickly introduced us. From that point on Andrzej Wieckowski, who was serving as my translator, took over. He did the introductory talking. And he went on and on. Although I didn’t understand German, I understood enough to know that Andrzej was shamelessly complimenting the WPT and me. I heard those superlatives, such as the best avant-garde movement theater in the world, famous around the world, the tours and festivals, the accolades and honors, and me, the master in mime-acting, the exceptional star, and so on. I could feel myself turning red out of shame – I never took flattery well. Thank god that it was dark in there and no one could see it.
Anyway, on top of that I noticed unusual motion among the German actors. They were leaning toward each other in a chain reaction, whispering something to each other’s ears, and then pointing discreetly toward me. What is it all about? I wondered.
Then I saw that a few of them were debating together, figuring something out, and then one of them stood up, approached me, and pointed out that I was standing with one foot in an ash-pan. And I really was. There was a small, metal coal stove. It was a bit chilly in there, so I had stood close to the stove and stepped into the ash-pan, which was full of ashes, and had been standing in it the entire time Andrzej was talking. Curiously, when the German actor pointed out to me that I was standing in the ash-pan, Andrzej was so enwrapped in his brilliant speech that he didn’t notice anything and kept talking.
I pulled my foot out of that damn ash-pan, but realizing how ridiculous it was, I made a whole show of it, pulling my foot out and shaking the ash off it demonstratively. Then I played with that idea, making various comic mime bits behind Andrzej’s back while he was speaking.
The German actors were laughing; Andrzej didn’t know why. He thought maybe there was something funny in his speech. Then he suspected that something was going on behind his back, but whenever he looked at me I stopped fooling around, and whenever he turned back to the audience I made mimic and/or gestural comments regarding his exalted speech on my behalf. But I was only picking up on some selective words, not understanding the rest, which made it even funnier, I suspect, because at this point the German actors were rolling with laughter.
Andrzej finally figured out that it was I making fun of his speech and dropped it, allowing us to move on to some questions and answers about the class I was going to teach.
After the meeting, we figured out the date of my first class – I started in the beginning of the following week. And so that was how my teaching career started in West Berlin.
I: Had you taught before?
M: No, I never had. But I was taking movement and mime classes on a daily basis in the WPT for many years. Besides, I was an exercise freak, doing them often on my own. So, I was ready to do it. It was just a matter of putting myself in the role of the teacher: instead of following I had to lead. I prepared a plan for a class, a syllabus, and went for it.
I: How was your first class?
M: It was terribly rushed. I got so buzzed up that the program for the class, which should have been plenty for over an hour, I completed in forty minutes, maybe forty-five. I was doing everything very fast. The students were impressed with the class but they wanted more. I thought that it was enough for the first time. And really it was. If they had done those exercises as precisely as I did, they would have had plenty. But they didn’t. They were dilettantes in movement at that point. So they were faking it, even though they didn’t know it because they did not know the difference. In that way, of course, you can go three hours, and that was what they wanted. After the class, the director, Henryk Baranowski, told me, “You know, some teachers do the classes even for three hours.”
I: It was a clear suggestion.
M: Yes, it was.
I: Did you figure it out?
M: Yes, I did.
M: I stopped rushing and made the students to do the exercises properly, so they felt it in their whole bodies and had to work hard, not just to fake it.
I: It’s a big difference, isn’t it?
M: Yes, it is.
I: What kind of exercises were they?
M: They were plastic exercises.
I: What is that?
M: The plastic exercises are basic movement training, in particular for mime-actors, but they’re also profitable for dramatic actors and, in fact, all other stage performers who want to improve their movement skills.
I: What kind of skills?
M: The main purpose of plastic exercises is to train the body as an instrument of expression.
M: The actor exercises the body part-by-part (both in isolation and combination), exploring its functions and increasing or enhancing its plasticity.
I: Is that why they are called “plastic exercises”?
M: Yes, it is because the main benefit the actor gets is the plasticity of the body, which becomes impressionable and easily acquires forms of expression.
I: Were you teaching other types of movement than plastic exercises?
M: Yes, I was also teaching acrobatics and even some ballet classes. But those were supporting classes for general physical development. Whereas the plastic exercises were the formal base of the movement technique I was teaching. I taught them often along with mime and movement improvisations, so the actors had the benefit of learning how to utilize those exercises artistically.
I: How long were your classes?
M: I had one-and-a-half and three hour classes.
I: How often did you teach?
M: I could have a few classes per day, on average, I would say, I was teaching six hours per day.
I: How many students did you have?
M: On average, thirty students per class.
I: Who were your students?
M: First I was teaching only the actors from the Transformtheater. Then I was also teaching classes and workshops in the acting studio open to the public. There I had a variety of students.
I: Were they amateurs or professionals?
M: I had both beginning and advanced classes.
I: Did you become very popular?
M: Yes, I had a considerable following. The students were coming to attend my classes from all over Europe.
I: How long did you live in West Berlin?
M: For two years and four months.
I: And then you immigrated to the United States.
I: What else were you doing in West Berlin other than teaching?
M: I was doing theater. First I choreographed shows for other directors, and then I founded my own theater company.
I: Tell me about it.
M: Maybe another time.
I: In another chapter?
M: And in another volume.
I: Are we ending this one?
M: Yes, we are. I feel that we have reached the end of a certain period of my life marked by theatrical experiences that were shaped by Polish theater, in particular, The Wroclaw Pantomime Theater, and it is time to wrap it up into volume one.
-The End of Volume One-