Poland refuses to confront its 1968 antisemitic pogrom against Jews - opinion

As we approach the 55th anniversary of the expulsion of 1968, it is time Poland confronts its history by compensating old offenses and confronting the remaining ghosts of the past.

Poland's President Andrzej Duda delivers a speech before the official start of a march marking the 100th anniversary of Polish independence in Warsaw, Poland November 11, 2018. (photo credit: AGENCJA GAZETA/ADAM STEPIEN VIA REUTERS)
Poland's President Andrzej Duda delivers a speech before the official start of a march marking the 100th anniversary of Polish independence in Warsaw, Poland November 11, 2018.
(photo credit: AGENCJA GAZETA/ADAM STEPIEN VIA REUTERS)

History does not make appointments, it just happens. Fifty-four years ago, the venom of antisemitism was unleashed against Poland’s all but last 15,000 Jews, among them my parents and grandparents, who were forced to leave the country, terrorized, broken and excommunicated for no other reason than being Jewish.

The antisemitic state-sponsored pogrom in March 1968, initiated by the then-communist Polish government, led to the forced exodus of renowned figures in the arts and sciences, less than a quarter of a century after the Holocaust.

Following Israel’s victory in the Six Day War with its Arab neighbors, Warsaw Pact member states, with the exception of Romania, broke their diplomatic ties with Israel. The developments in Poland soon took a more dramatic course. In response to the war, Władysław Gomułka, the first secretary of the governing Polish United Workers’ Party, began a bigoted campaign against Polish Jews.

The last remaining survivors of the Holocaust in a country that before World War II had more than three million Jewish citizens were declared to be foreigners, cosmopolitans, Zionists, and Poland’s enemies and were denounced as a “fifth column.” The significance of Gomułka’s fifth-column remarks can hardly be overestimated. It invoked a conspiracy theory centered on Poland’s small Jewish community, which counted no more than 30,000 members out of a population of 32 million, in 1967.

Gomułka’s comments launched a propaganda campaign where anti-Zionist resolutions were passed in more than 100,000 public meetings in factories, party offices and even in sports clubs all over the country. Poles of Jewish descent were then subjected to systematic harassment and prosecuted for defaming the Polish state. The victims were ultimately expelled from their jobs and campuses, had their citizenship revoked and were forced to emigrate.

 The flag of Poland (illustrative). (credit: PIXABAY) The flag of Poland (illustrative). (credit: PIXABAY)

In Lodz, where the antisemitic campaign raged with brutality, the city’s newspapers dismissed Jewish journalists while the local eye clinic administration demanded baptism certificates from physicians. The local communist propaganda bureau published educational materials quoting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. After less than two months, Lodz, once a flourishing center of Jewish culture, was judenrein.

Mieczysław Rakowski, the last prime minister of communist Poland, recalls how a woman from Krakow with two sons and a sick husband asked Gomulka in a letter how she should tell her children that they had now become pariahs in their own country.

“Do me a favor and send some poison capsules. I have no strength to live anymore and I do not want my sons to spend their whole lives paying for having a Jewish father.”

Krakow woman

“Do me a favor and send some poison capsules,” she wrote. “I have no strength to live anymore and I do not want my sons to spend their whole lives paying for having a Jewish father.” In this atmosphere, which, according to Polish historian Dariusz Stola, amounted to a symbolic pogrom, dozens committed suicide after they had found themselves publicly vilified and socially isolated.

Physical violence accompanied the brutal campaign, which ran parallel to the main event of March 1968: mass protests initiated by students against the state. Poles of Jewish origin were accused of having instigated the rebellious calls for democratic reforms. They were arrested, beaten and subjected to torture and detention.

“We lost all of our human dignity and human rights. There was a general feeling on the streets that Jews could, once again, be freely persecuted,” says Jozef Dajczgewand, who was detained on March 12, 1968, tortured, harassed and sentenced to two years in solitary confinement.

“The police ordered me to take off my pants, screaming ‘f*****g Jew’ while interrogating me. I closed my eyes, wondering for a second if it was Poles who committed these acts or the same Nazis who had persecuted my parents.”

Josef Dajczgewand

HE TOLD me that “the police ordered me to take off my pants, screaming ‘f*****g Jew’ while interrogating me. I closed my eyes, wondering for a second if it was Poles who committed these acts or the same Nazis who had persecuted my parents.” When he was released from prison, all of his friends had fled Poland. “I could feel the echoes of history and decided to leave the country,” Dajczgewand says.

The emigres-in-waiting were given a few weeks to pack up their lives into one wooden container and relinquish their Polish citizenship. As a result, they became stateless individuals and were provided with a one-way ticket valid for departure to Israel.

Added to the insult and injury was an irony: some of the victims had been unaware of their Jewish roots until a few weeks prior to the campaign, while only about a quarter of the Zionists immigrated to Israel; a majority chose to build a new life in countries such as Sweden, Denmark, France and the United States.

Poland's Jewish community has never recovered

Looking back at the campaign of hate, my father’s friends recall feelings of confusion, anger, sadness and betrayal: many of their Polish neighbors had stopped saying hello. Others recalling that time speak of the spookily quiet homes: dismissed from their jobs, kicked out of university and socially vilified, many Polish Jews sat together in silent resignation in their now half-empty apartments, waiting for their departure dates.

The victims were made stateless and subjected to humiliating exit procedures, which involved the confiscation of their properties, possessions and savings. With Poland’s last survivors of the Holocaust forced into exile, the Jewish community, which had only just reestablished itself after the Second World War, was destroyed and the handfuls of Jews who decided to stay were demoralized and intimidated.

For my parents’ generation, March 1968 remains a fateful turning point in history and a catastrophe from which Poland and the last remnant of Polish Jews have not yet fully recovered.

To this day, no viable solution has been found to resolve the issue of compensation for the dispossessed, nor have any perpetrators been prosecuted and faced justice in a court of law. Neither are the tragic events of 1968 widely known in Polish society or in the wider Jewish community.

These attempts to evade history are in no way unique. Warsaw has similarly dismissed restitution claims by Holocaust survivors and their heirs for Jewish property stolen from them in Poland. When rightfully pressed on this issue by Prime Minister Yair Lapid, his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, responded that his country would pay Polish Jews and their descendants, “not a zloty, not a euro, nor a dollar.”

As we approach the 55th anniversary of the expulsion of 1968, it is time Poland confronts its history by compensating old offenses and confronting the remaining ghosts of the past.

The writer is a political scientist, a visiting scholar at Georgetown University and an award-winning writer on international affairs. He has served as a visiting fellow at Harvard, Columbia and Stanford.