Less than a decade after his release from prison, Jan “Lewan” Lewandowski is the subject of a new Netflix movie that’s based on his strange life story. He talked with Glenn on today’s show about his journey from Poland to Pope John Paul II to “Polka King” inspiration.
Lewan came to the U.S. from Poland in 1971, intent on success. He brought together a polka band and took them on a European tour where they went to Rome to meet the pope. But unfortunately, Lewan’s story also includes fraud, tampered votes and an elaborate Ponzi scheme.
Lewan was arrested in 2001 for fraudulent dealings that amounted to millions of dollars stolen from more than 400 people. And yes, he would like for you to watch the Netflix movie.
“Even though I was told, ‘Don’t do it,’ I [kept doing it] because when you drown, you will catch anything,” Lewan told Glenn on today’s show.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article provided courtesy of TheBlaze.
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Palm Springs International Film Festiva
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors.
GLENN: So Netflix has a new movie out with Jack Black. It’s called the Polka King. And the polka king is an actual guy. And I started looking into him. And I thought, we have to talk to this guy. His name is Jan Lewan. And he is from Poland. He was born in Nazi-controlled Poland and grew up under the Soviet Union. Came over here. Wanted to make it big.
Fell into a Ponzi scheme. I should say, he started a Ponzi scheme and others fell into it. He lived the high life. Met the pope. Pope John Paul II. Had real notoriety in the polka world. His music was nominated for a Grammy. And then he went to jail where he was stabbed in prison.
He is out now and has a whole lifetime of interesting stories. Welcome, Juan la Juan. How are you, sir?
JAN: Fine. How are you?
GLENN: Very good.
So let’s start — when did you come over here in the United States? And what was life like back in Poland for you?
JAN: Well, you’re in a communist regime, the life is terrifying every day. You couldn’t trust nobody, and you are living always with the fear that you’re going to be punished for anything.
So life in the communist is definitely very negative, very depressing life.
GLENN: And when did you come over here? What time period?
JAN: To the United States, I arrived in the ’80s. In 1980. I actually — early, I was coming for the performing, for the festivals. I was living in Canada first. And they were bringing me here to the states from time to time.
And then in the ’80s, I came here permanently.
GLENN: So you came under — at the height of the Cold War, with Ronald Reagan, which must have been —
JAN: Yep. That’s exactly it.
GLENN: And how do you remember those days, as somebody from Poland? The Reagan —
JAN: Oh, I remember.
GLENN: The Reagan years and the Pope John Paul and Margaret Thatcher years.
JAN: That was the turning — turning point in Poland. Finally, the opposition started growing, included movements with Lefawenza (phonetic). And that gave power to oppositions, to — to succeed. And actually thanks to Lefawenza, they succeed eventually to get back freedom in Poland. And, of course, they were behind 50 years. So, you know, we didn’t have a proper education. See, you have to belong to the Communist Party. Then you were — you’ll be assigned to the better school. You can learn English. In my case, my parents did not want nothing to do with the communists.
So they not only lost the job, but I was learning Russian instead of English.
GLENN: So you come over here. You move to Pennsylvania. And you become the polka king. Tell me —
JAN: Well, the polka king, you know, that came along.
JAN: I guess your question is, how I went to that.
I learned that in Poland, for the people who came here after the Second War, and many of them cannot go back to Poland, during the communist regime. Many cases, they will find out in jail since they didn’t come back to Poland after the Second War.
So that was the — and there were all just there for me. Because I was starting to learn English a little bit. But I was speaking Polish.
And then due to my education in Poland, in the theatrical school and this, I wasn’t ready for that kind of entertainment with the polkas and this.
And I found that when I turned the polish folk music to polka, I gained lots of viewers. I mean, my — my concert hall and festival, they were full to the last seat because they loved that. Broken English. Polish.
GLENN: Right. Right.
JAN: You know.
JAN: That’s the way it goes.
GLENN: So you — in the movie, with Jack Black, you appear to be a wide-eyed, I love America and I’m going to make it big.
And it seems as though you don’t really know what you’re doing is wrong, until later. But you started a Ponzi scheme. Can you —
GLENN: Tell me about it. And did you know that it was wrong at first?
JAN: No. Not at all. I went with my accountor, for the legal advice. And I was advised that everything is fine. A couple days later, we went again. Everything is fine. Go ahead.
I wasn’t told I have to register. That was the — that was the wrong thing on the beginning. Not so — I feel free to advertise. This is perfect. That’s — again, oh, I’m going to build the empire.
GLENN: Right. And what were you selling people?
JAN: Well, it was a promissory note, which I offered them 12 percent. And that was very easy for me on the beginning to pay that, because in Poland, at that time, everything was penny. And in America, you sold for tens of thousands of dollars. So I created the gift shop. When you create the gift shop, you have to — you have to have money to buy these gifts, which I didn’t have nothing.
So people could travel with me to Poland. They saw on their own eyes, oh, my gosh, that doll cost 25 cents here. And in America, I pay 20 dollar. You should buy Poland. You should get everything to America, and you’re going to get rich. And we’re going to get rich.
Sure, I go for it.
And that’s called — of course, later on, I learned, I’m not doing illegal thing — it’s illegal. Well, I already have huge merchandise in the silver, amber — those and everything, just to sell that. I wasn’t able to sell when the accident came over. When the 9/11 came over. And, oh, the whole thing fell apart. My two musicians get killed. My son was suffering with terrible — we all were suffering. So even though I was told don’t do it, I would keep doing it. Because when you’re drowning, you will catch anything. So I did wrong, knowing that I did wrong, and I paid a high price for that.
GLENN: Yeah. You went to prison for how long?
JAN: Almost six years.
GLENN: And you were stabbed in prison.
JAN: Yes. Because I should never finalize in such a terrible prison in Smyrna. That’s people who commit —
JAN: Terrible violence. Most of them were killers. And somebody like me, with an accent, with — with the conversation, they thought, well, he’s such a soft. You know, this guy — this guy is here for something, what we call child — which I had nothing to do with that. And they get angry. But that’s what they say in media. My opinion on that is different. Something went wrong.
Somehow, somebody did the job. And the guy who — who really cut my neck left and right, he got 25 years on the top of his life sentence. So makes no difference for him.
Why he did that, I still don’t know. I was very nice to him. I bought him coffee in commissary and everything. And keep conversation. And somehow, you know, he got me when I was sleeping.
GLENN: When you can’t trust a killer, who can you trust?
JAN: Thank you.
GLENN: So, Jan, now you’re out, Jack Black is playing you in a movie. What does the future hold for you? And what’s your attitude about being here?
JAN: Yeah. Before I go — part of this — let me just say that, believe me, I’m very sorry for people who get caught in my situation, who lost the money. I would do everything possible to supply my restitution as much as I can.
Since I am thankful for that — but I never thought that movie going to change my life. Jack Black told me that. We were talking for six months every night for two hours.
And he learned from the day I was born, you know, how they got everything so perfect in the movie, I still don’t know. I did send them some of my writing, what I was doing through this years in prison, they learned from that. But I think Jack Black was a great influence to the script, to the script writers, Mya and Wally, that they did so perfect. Because I don’t see — it may be — Hollywood.
You know, that’s — but now, the movie — I have right now thousands of very nice comments. Of course, the negatives as well. But next to — I should say, well, they’re writing to me. They’re probably just writing a positive way.
But the point is that they’re asking me right now to do the concert. And I wouldn’t to do that. My music director, Steve Kaminski, who actually saved the music in the movie. We had — in the movie, we had top notch arrangements for big dance polka. It’s not like regular dancing. Small thing. Okay? I don’t know.
Did you see the movie?
GLENN: I have not yet. I’ve seen several clips of it, but I have not seen the movie.
JAN: I wish you will see the movie.
GLENN: I will. I will. I will watch it.
JAN: So that is my camera man. He supplied them with — with all of the footage, which he traveled with me all the time. You’re going to see that in the movie. They did everything. I mean, my gosh, it’s fantastic.
GLENN: All right.
JAN: I don’t know what it will generate because I don’t need money anymore. I want to give to people who suffer over that. And I’m so sorry. Believe me, I am sick over that.
GLENN: Jan Lewan. It’s a pleasure to talk to you. I’m sorry I didn’t watch the movie. I had plans to watch it with my family this weekend. Something came up, so we didn’t watch it. But I’m anxious to see it.
JAN: Please. Please.
GLENN: You have led a very interesting life. And I wish you all the best, sir. God bless.
JAN: Thank you. Thank you very much for your time.
STU: So to review, guy comes from over from Poland. He’s a polka king. He starts up a polish gift store. He gets people to invest in the store by promising them 12 percent and 20 percent returns.
That apparently is illegal. But he’s too far in the hole to pay the money back, so he has to continue the illegal activity. He goes to prison over it, and then he gets stabbed in prison in the neck.
GLENN: More than stabbed. He had his throat cut.
STU: Throat cut in prison. And his life — right now, the story so far — and I’m not going to say that there is not a lot more to this. But right now, it ends in a Jack Black movie that just came out on Netflix. It’s perfect. And it should be a Jack Black movie.
GLENN: Yes, it is. We live in a parallel universe, man.
STU: I really want to see it. The movie is called The Polka King. There’s not only a Jack Black movie, but also a documentary that are both on Netflix now, if you’re interested in the stories.
GLENN: Yeah. I saw parts of the documentary. He’s a fascinating guy.