Hopefully the conference will bring a closer understanding of the events of 1968 and heal some of the deep wounds that have persisted between Jews and Poles for almost as long as Poland has existed.
Throughout Jewish history there have been many defining moments. In March 1968, one such moment occurred, possibly the harbinger of future Jewish life in Poland. At the time, people said it would complete the goal of Hitler, y”s, to make Poland Judenrein (free of Jews).
That event was the expulsion of Jewish Intelligentsia from Poland in 1968. Many circumstances led up to their banishment.
The world was in a state of turmoil. Viet Nam was heating up, with sizable American losses, and student riots took place at all major universities in America and Europe. The unrest reached Poland, the only Communist Bloc country where students held protests.
Another major factor was that is was less than a year after the Six-Day-War, in which Israel defeated the Communist-backed Arab armies.
In an attempt to gain favor with the Soviets and to suppress the masses, the Communist Government in Poland seized the traditional scapegoat, the Jews.
On June 19, 1967, Prime Minister Władysław Gomułka, gave a speech calling the Jews a “fifth column,” suggesting they be transferred to Israel. The Polish Communist Party began a process to purge “Zionist” (Jewish) elements, primarily aimed at the liberal opposition movement. Many Poles (irrespective of actual faith) were accused of being Zionists and expelled from the Party.
In March 1968, the anti-Semitic campaign peaked, as in the words of The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe (Yale University Press): “The Interior Ministry compiled a card index of all Polish citizens of Jewish origin, even those who had been detached from organized Jewish life for generations. Jews were removed from jobs in public service, including teaching positions in schools and universities. Pressure was placed upon them to leave the country by bureaucratic actions aimed at undermining their sources of livelihood and sometimes even by physical brutality.”
The Communist Government, faced by massive anti-Soviet opposition of Poles, used hate propaganda to divide the nation. Jewish organizations were shut down, Yiddish was banned and anti-Semitic slogans were used in rallies.
By 1968 most of Poland’s 40,000 Jews had already been assimilated into Polish society, but over the next year, they became the center of an organized campaign to equate Jewish origins with Zionist sympathies and thus disloyalty to Poland.
Approximately 20,000 Jews lost their jobs and had to emigrate. The campaign, despite being ostensibly directed at Jews, who had held office during the Stalin era and their families, affected most of the remaining Polish Jews, regardless of background.
While there was little outright physical violence, the events of March 1968 have been labeled a pogrom by many historians.
Until recently very little had been known about the events that, for all intents, finished the job that started with the Kielce Pogrom in 1946, of making Poland a land seemingly devoid of Jews. Most of those that remained were not culturally or politically active and remained, for the most part, in the shadows.
It took the overthrow of the Communist regime for the small nucleus of a Jewish community to sprout and begin to flourish to attain what they have today – active communities, synagogues, schools and festivals.
Last week, to commemorate the events of 40 years ago, a conference was held in Warsaw sponsored by The City of Warsaw; The Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw; the E.R./I. Kaminska Yiddish Theater; the Shalom Foundation; many other institutions; and scholars and artists. It was titled The Jewish March 1968/2008.
The titles of the different events, lectures, debates and exhibits that were showcased during the conference tell the story of the strange relationship between the Poles and the Jews. Not only did the conference look at the events of 1968, but was also an overview of the often-confrontational historic relationship.
Some of the titles were, “What is a Catholic allowed to believe: a debate over the 1913 blood libels,” with Jolanta Zyndul; “Hatred in Polish Culture” by Maria Janion; and “Anti-Semitic Stereotypes in the Documents of the Security Services in the 1960s” with Krystof Peresak. These lectures examined the roots of anti-Semitism in Poland with the idea that understanding the cause can prevent the problem from occurring in the future.
Other topics included, “Where We Were and Where We are Now,” with Teresa Toranska. The Yiddish theater had a repertoire of shows and exhibits highlighting the loss both to the Jews, as well as to Poland, as a result of the expulsion of 20,000 citizens. “Here they left behind more then they had,” and many films were also shown, such as “Travel Document,” directed by Golda Tenzer and “Farewell My Country,” directed by Andrzej Krakowski.