50 years since Poland expelled its Jews in state purge - What changed?

In 1968, the state authorities of Socialist Poland expelled its Jewish citizens, arguing that there cannot be two homelands. Is it possible that such a thing could happen again?

September 15, 2019 16:16
3 minute read.
50 years since Poland expelled its Jews in state purge - What changed?

PARTICIPANTS WALK in the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz as thousands of people, mostly youth from all over the world, gather for the annual ‘March of the Living,’ during Holocaust Remembrance Day, in Brzezinka near Oswiecim, Poland, in April last year. (Jakub Porzycki/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters). (photo credit: JAKUB PORZYCKI/AGENCJA GAZETA/REUTERS)

Polish prime minister Wladyslaw Gomulka was once ironically referred to by Jews as a “great Zionist” since he initiated not one, but two waves of immigration to Israel. The description was slightly ironic because while the first wave in the 1950’s enabled those who survived the Holocaust to rebuild their lives in Israel, which was seen as a positive thing, the second, in the late 1960’s, was pushed on the remaining Jews in Poland against their will and best-interests.

Following the Israeli victory in the Six Day War the entire Socialist Block, the Eastern European nations dominated by the USSR, had to confront the uncomfortable truth that technology provided to the Jewish State by the so-called decedent West was able to defeat Soviet weaponry offered to the Arab countries.

In Poland, where people were encouraged to ignore the historical truth of the Soviet invasion to their country alongside the Germans and only speak of the Red Army as liberators – the Jewish victory was seen as, odd as it may seem, “our victory” as many Israelis at that time were born in Poland or to Polish-born parents.

The authorities, fearing a massive revolt like the one that eventually took place in the Prague Spring of 1968, decided to find a scapegoat.

The choice was the Jews of Poland,  those who chose to stay in Poland and believe that under Socialism a better life might be built for them and their children.

The spark was a televised speech given by Gomulka in which he said Polish citizens cannot have two homelands, this was seen a green-light to a state-led antisemitic campaign to remove Jews from their jobs, homes, and schools. As Socialist Poland [PRL] was in control of all these things, to be labeled “disloyal” meant an end to any hopes of a future in the country they thought was their homeland. It also became clear that the PRL kept records of all Jewish citizens and had them followed by the secret police.

Among the Jewish people who left Poland during these years were theater critic Michael Handelzalts and the late reporter and writer Roman Frister, roughly 13,000 Jews left Poland to Israel and Sweden, which offered them asylum.  The Polin Museum for the History of Polish Jews held a special exhibition on these years titled “Estranged.”  

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki  expressed the view that the 1968 events were not Poland’s fault as it was controlled by Communists at the time. Ruling Law and Justice party [PiS] senator Jan Zaryn is one of those currently drafting a bill that would officially put the blame on the Communist rulers of Poland, DW reported.

This attitude, that Gomulka, who was sentenced to prison by Stalin in Moscow and took part in the rebuilding of Poland after the second world war, was not really a Pole – is typical to the historical attitudes of the ruling party which recently passed a law making it an offense to blame the Polish nation, as a collective, for crimes against the Jewish people during the years of Nazi occupation.

Historians warn that this refusal to take some responsibility for actions committed by Poles during the Nazi occupation, or state authorities during the PRL years, might lead to a distorted understanding of Polish history and society.

In her 2006 book Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism 1918-1958 Marci Shore tells the story how Polish-Jewish poet Julian Tuwim speaks with an officer of the Polish secret police, the same body that was tasked with crushing Poles who resisted the Communist rulers – using torture and executions if needed – “When I see you,” the great poet said, “I see the avenging angel of my mother.”

Tuwim’s mother was pushed to her death from her balcony during the Nazi occupation of Poland, Tuwim, who survived the war in Brazil and later the US, chose to return to Poland after the war.


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