Destruction of Poland’s Jewish community in 1968: A remaining open wound

Poles of Jewish origin were accused of having instigated the students’ rebellious calls for democratic reforms. They were arrested, beaten, and subjected to torture and detention.

A FLAG and flowers are left at a monument in Warsaw, Poland that commemorates the uprising in the city’s Jewish ghetto in 1944. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A FLAG and flowers are left at a monument in Warsaw, Poland that commemorates the uprising in the city’s Jewish ghetto in 1944.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The year 1968 was characterized by global events ranging from the Vietnam War to the Prague Spring. For my parents’ generation, 1968 remains a fateful turning point in history, marked by an antisemitic campaign that resulted in the expulsion of Poland’s all but last 15,000 Jews. The campaign, initiated by the then-Communist government, led to the forced exodus of leading academics and 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. Developments in Poland soon took a darker turn. In June 1967, one week after the suspension of diplomatic relations, Wladyslaw Gomulka, first secretary of the governing Polish United Workers’ Party, and internal affairs minister Gen. Mieczyslaw Moczar – whose antisemitic views were no secret to his comrades – 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” and “Zionists.” In the eyes of the government, they were not just morally reprehensible; they were denounced as Poland’s enemies and a “fifth column,” which had to be eradicated before it could gain further strength.
The significance of Gomulka’s “fifth column” remarks can hardly be overestimated. They invoked a conspiracy theory centered on Poland’s small Jewish community, which in 1967 numbered less than 30,000 members, or less than a tenth of a percent of a population of 32 million. Watching Gomulka’s speech, huddled around television sets in their apartment, my grandparents became tearful as they were – once again – told they were not welcome in the country of their birth.
Gomulka’s comments gained full traction in March 1968, with the launch – following an internal power struggle in the Communist Party – of a full-blown propaganda campaign: “Anti-Zionist” resolutions were passed in more than 100,000 public meetings in factories, party offices, 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.
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 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 almost “judenrein.”
Mieczyslaw Rakowski, the last prime minister of Communist Poland, recalls how a woman from Kraków 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,” 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.
WHILE THE Jewish community was spared an actual nationwide pogrom, physical violence accompanied the brutal campaign that ran parallel to the headline event of March 1968: mass protests initiated by students against the state. Poles of Jewish origin were accused of having instigated the students’ rebellious calls for democratic reforms. They were arrested, beaten, and subjected to torture and detention.
Jozef Dajczgewand 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***ing Jew’ while interrogating me,” he told 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 Dajczgewand was released from prison, all of his friends had fled Poland.
“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.... I could feel the echoes of history and decided to leave the country,” he said.
Another émigré, Dorotea Bromberg, recalls in a testimony for the Jewish Museum of Stockholm: “We could read in the newspapers and hear on the radio that it was Jews (“Zionists”) who had stirred up the students. On the same day, my father was dismissed from his job. Almost all our friends and acquaintances disappeared.”
Bromberg’s family was subjected to persecution by the state and vilification in the media: “Following a virulent media campaign against my father, he was threatened with prosecution, accused of taking part in a ‘Zionist conspiracy’ against Poland. He faced 10 years or life in jail. He was refused a lawyer and was cross-examined every day for a whole year. More than 100 witnesses were forced to sign false testimonies against him.”
The émigrés-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.
To insult and injury was added 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 ranging from Sweden to Denmark, France and the United States.
Humiliating exit procedures included the confiscation of possessions and savings. 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.
“We were forced to leave the apartment that we had lived in for 20 years. We had to move to a small apartment in a building in which the neighbors were openly hostile toward us,” Bromberg recalled.
“Everything changed at school,” she said. “My grades were lowered, and all my friends had suddenly disappeared. No one dared to talk to me anymore. Only one friend remained, Grazyna. She refused to abandon me and protested to the teachers. She was called up to the school principal and told that she was never to attend school again. And she was forbidden to apply to any other school.”
Bromberg related that “16-year-old Grazyna went home, wrote a letter about how deeply she was ashamed at what was going on in Poland, and opened the gas tap.... As if it was not enough to lose my best friend, I was accused of causing her death. The school reported me to the police, and I was forced to confess my ‘crime’ in the assembly hall in front of the entire school.”
She concluded: “Our situation became untenable, and we applied for permission to leave the country.”
At Yad Vashem, Polish-born pope John Paul II remembered Poland’s Jews and warned the world to be attentive to their unique suffering: “How can we fail to heed their cry? No one can forget or ignore what happened. No one can diminish its scale.”
However, to this day, no viable solution has been found to resolve the issue of compensation for the dispossessed, nor have any perpetrators been prosecuted. Neither are the tragic events of 1968 widely known in Polish society – which has seen a recent resurgence of antisemitism – or to the world at large.
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 destroyed, and the handful of Jews who decided to stay demoralized and intimidated, March 1968 signifies a catastrophe from which Poland and the last remnant of Polish Jews have not yet fully recovered.
The writer is a political scientist, visiting scholar at New York University’s Center for European and Mediterranean Studies, visiting fellow at New America, and an award-winning writer on international affairs. He has served as a visiting fellow at Harvard, Columbia and Stanford universities.