How the communists tried to poison Polish-Jewish relations in March 1968

While the Six Day War marked a Soviet defeat, March 1968 in Poland marked a small but significant Soviet propaganda victory.

MEN PUT up a Polish flag at an election booth. The country is struggling with its past. (photo credit: REUTERS)
MEN PUT up a Polish flag at an election booth. The country is struggling with its past.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Earlier this month, on the 50th anniversary of the 1968 anti-communist protests in Poland, the Polish parliament voted nearly unanimously to condemn the antisemitic purges orchestrated by the Communist Party and to honor those who protested against the Soviet- backed regime.
This unprecedented joining together of Poland’s opposition and the ruling Law and Justice Party on a defining moment in Polish-Jewish history may mark a new beginning for Poland’s relations with the international community.
The events of March 1968 in the Polish Peoples’ Republic unfolded against the backdrop of Soviet foreign policy objectives. In June 1967, Israel – a US ally – defeated Soviet-supported Egypt, Syria and Jordan in what is known as the Six Day War. Humiliated, Moscow responded by ordering the leaders of its Eastern European satellites to break diplomatic relations with Israel. “Zionists” everywhere were to blame for the defeat.
Much as in the Soviet Union during the Great Purge of 1936- 38, in March 1968, when the Russian-controlled Polish Communist Party turned against its own, against the purported Zionist enemy within, intra-party factional struggles took an openly antisemitic turn.
Official antisemitism of the detested communist authorities prompted broad sympathy for the party’s Jewish victims. Bitterly opposed to the Soviet occupation of their homeland, Poles instinctively cheered the Israeli victory and supported the Jewish state. They remembered that many Israeli fighters and leaders, including future prime minister Menachem Begin, were former Polish soldiers who served under my father, Gen. Wladyslaw Anders, in his army made up of Siberian Gulag prison survivors and deportees rescued from Soviet Russia during World War II.
Some Poles of Jewish descent showed their pride and support for Israel by changing their Slavic first names to Hebrew. When in March 1968, the regime censors in Warsaw closed down a play by a famous Polish romantic poet for its openly anti-Russian sentiment, university students erupted in anti-communist protests.
MANY OF the best-known student leaders were marching against the communist regime their parents helped establish. Seizing on that fact, the communist authorities brutally crushed the student protests and turned on the Polish-Jewish elite. Alleging a “Zionist plot,” the party launched a crude antisemitic campaign in the state-run media. The first secretary of the Communist Party accused Polish Jews of subversion. Highly scripted workers’ rallies against student protesters were held under antisemitic banners and signs, such as “Zionists Go Home” and “Long Live the Communist Party’s Central Committee.”
Simultaneously, the army carried out its own purges, expelling most Polish-Jewish officers for “Zionism.” Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, then-head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which would later engineer a Soviet-ordered bloody crackdown on Poland’s Solidarity movement, “justified” the persecutions.
He said, “Numerous internal and external Zionist and pro-Zionist connections, both in individual and mafia-like forms, pose a great threat to us [by] the silence of high-ranking comrades of Jewish descent, and their refusal to take a stance strengthens our enemies abroad.”
Instead of subsiding, the protests, initially confined to universities, spread throughout the country. Student activists were arrested and imprisoned, as were many protesting workers, regardless of their ethnicity. The communist harassment of “Zionists” continued. Combined with the demeaning offer to the purged party members of a one-way ticket out of Poland, the crackdown led in 1968 to a large-scale Polish- Jewish emigration to Western Europe, the United States and Israel. Not surprisingly, many of those émigrés, stripped of their Polish citizenship, carried with them a misperception that the people of Poland as whole had persecuted them, rather than the Communist Party that orchestrated purges within its own ranks.
This misperception persists to this day.
While the Six Day War marked a Soviet defeat, March 1968 in Poland marked a small but significant Soviet propaganda victory: By purging Jews from the party and forcing them to emigrate, Polish communists helped their masters in Moscow reinforce in the West the depiction of Poland as an antisemitic state, not fit to self-govern. This narrative had been successfully promulgated by Soviet Russia at least since the 1945 Yalta agreement that gave Stalin control over Eastern Europe after War World II. March 1968 served as a reminder of that logic.
After the fall of communism, the government of free Poland quickly reestablished diplomatic relations with Israel. Now, not only are our two countries America’s strategic partners – on NATO’s eastern flank and in the Middle East – but, with 800 years of shared Polish-Jewish history, we are also an inextricable part of each other’s past.
Let us tell our story together – just the truth, no less, no more.
Anna Maria Anders is a Polish senator and secretary of state for international dialogue. She is the daughter of General Wladyslaw Anders, Poland’s greatest World War II hero.