I remember how my grandmother looked on the night she left for Berlin. Standing in our living room in Gdansk, she wore her best fur coat over torn stretch pants and run-filled stockings. Beneath a grand fur hat, her long hair was graying, neglected. On the eve of escaping to the capitalist West, she was hiding the truth of her situation, - her proudest skill.
I was five when my mom and I joined my grandmother in Germany. She had already launched herself as a seamstress with her own shop. My mom, once a piano teacher in Poland, was reduced to helping out in the shop, hemming policemen’s uniforms. The loss of status depressed her, but energized my grandmother. She saw a bright future – so long as we fit in.
We lived in government housing. When I was ten, we visited Canisius Kolleg, one of the top schools. My mom pleaded with the headmaster to admit me, until, worn down by her persistence, he relented. Tuition would be waived until we could pay. Overjoyed, my mom showered the Jesuit with kisses. Thus began my double life. By day, I competed with the children of doctors and politicians, the night I spent in my poor immigrant’s home. My grandmother let us be Poles at home but outside we were to be well-off Germans. She sewed what she imagined was rich clothing for me. She forbade me to speak Polish in the street. Nor was I to tell people what part of town we lived in.
At age 13, I befriended a doctor’s daughter, who lived in a white house on Luisenstraße. Over dinner, they talked about their day. At our flat, the grown-ups at our kitchen table fought about money. Nights ended with my mom in tears. Yet she became my best friend and managed to be accepted into our family. She slept at our place on an old mattress and we became inseparable. When we turned 16, however, she changed. All of a sudden, she used my otherness as a weapon. She mocked our food, our ratty furniture, my ersatz designer clothes.
Never again did I let a classmate into my world. Alone at school, I asked for art lessons. A Greek expatriate by the name of Dimitris Tzamouranis gave afternoon classes in Prenzlauer Berg, to students preparing for graduate work. I became his youngest pupil. I loved his studio at first sight, with its splayed canvasses and splattered stools. Dimitri saw how living in a prison of make-believe had caused me to examine other people's lives. He taught me to translate it onto paper. He saw my distorted figures as a search for psychological truth. From the first day of working with him I knew I had begun a lifelong quest.
At 19, I resolved to leave for the U.S. to live and create in maximum freedom. My destination was New York. Paradoxically my grandmother supported this move. She saw America as a good place to make money. This has hardly proved to be true in my case. But in all my artistic adventures, I have kept on exploring the theme of inner truth and social mask; a theme that she willed to me, through her love of appearances and her belief that we must seem to be all that we are not.