I will not forget you, Poland!

I will not forget you, Poland! March 1968

At the outbreak of the Six-Day War, in which Israel confronted its Arab “neighbours”, there were about 30 000 Jews living in Poland - a country of 32 million. The older generation consisted of Jews who had survived the Holocaust. Their children, born after the war, quickly assimilated into Polish society. The religious community was practically non-existent, while ties to Judaism were cultivated only by lay associations from which Yiddish culture was also gradually beginning to disappear.

A number of the leading figures in the Polish United Workers’ Party were Jewish communists, belong-ing to the “Pulawian faction” following Wladyslaw Gomulka’s rise to power in 1956. They were rivalled by the “Natolin group” whose members did not hesitate to draw on ethnic arguments to sway the balance of power in their favour. The latter, “strengthened” by Mieczyslaw Moczar and his “Partisans” from 1960 on, began a new party purge which turned into the anti-Semitic campaign of 1968. The escalation of events was largely due to middle-ranking officialdom, whom the purges provided with an opportunity to take their unpromising careers forward.

The Israeli-Arab war broke out in June 1967. At first, press commentaries were neutral. They turned awry after a meeting in Moscow, attended by heads of the Eastern Bloc countries: it was there that a decision was made to lend financial support to the Arab states and break off diplomatic relations with Israel. Only Romania failed to comply with these decisions.

After returning from Moscow (where Leonid Brezhnev had expressed his regret that Jewish comrades in the People’s Republic of Poland were openly critical of Soviet policy with regard to the State of Israel after the Jewish victory over the Arabs in the Six-Day War), Gomulka presented the official party line in a two-hour speech at the Congress of Labour Unions on June 19th, 1967. He accused Israel of forming a coalition with American-British imperialists “against the progressive Arab forces”, and commented on events in his own backyard: “Israeli aggression against the Arab countries has met with applause in Zionist Jewish circles - among Polish citizens... we do not want a fifth column in our country”; he also added that those who feel that these words apply to them, should emigrate. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, headed by Moczar, took this as encouragement for their faction and began to investigate the origins of the most important public figures.

According to Prof. Dariusz Stola the above stage could be described as a “creeping” anti-Semitic cam-paign. Its high point coincided with the student protests of March 1968. At the PUWP party summit held at the Congress Hall in Warsaw on March 19th, Gomulka condemned anti-Soviet suggestions in performances of the “Dziady” (Forefathers’ Eve) and the anti-Socialist activity of students groups, which were dubbed “enemies of People’s Poland”. On this occasion, he also underlined the Jewish origins of those who inspired the events at the University of Warsaw (Adam Michnik and Henryk Szla-jfer were expelled from the university). A similar anti-Semitic party rally took place in Katowice, led by Edward Gierek.

An open purge unfolded within the PUWP. Prominent party members were demoted, including Roman Zambrowski (a member of the Central Committee Political Bureau). In the Polish Army, the purge raised Wojciech Jaruzelski to the top of the Ministry of National Defence. Paradoxically, it is difficult to find any Zionist or anti-Zionist features in these events; their main background is the party purge stemming from the anti-Semitic argument. As the fight for power unfolded within the party, Jews were accused of being the “true communists” and blamed for Stalinism. The pre-war myth of Judeo-Bolshevism was reawoken and the notion of the “Judeo-commune” introduced. The media and active members of the party were drawn into the anti-Semitic campaign. Only in the first two weeks of March 1900 meetings of basic party organisations and 400 demonstrations took place in Warsaw. Cer-tain social groups, such as members of the PUWP, military officers, the militia and teachers, were fully subjected to a course informing them that Jews were enemies and traitors, their homeland being the “American dollar”. As part of “breaking the conspiracy of silence” anything that had to do with Jews was stigmatised, while individual attitudes towards the State of Israel or Zionism as an ideology was completely ignored.

With this all-pervasive demagogy and propaganda, reaching all the way down to the lowest strata of society, a witch-hunt was unleashed - all too reminiscent of Nazi or pre-war nationalist rhetoric to those who had survived the Holocaust. Emigration was the dominant response given to the authorities by Jews. Special resolutions of the Party Political Bureau, the Sejm, the State Council and the state apparatus permitted the development of legal solutions sanctioning this state of affairs. Premier Cyrankiewicz announced: “among Polish citizens of Jewish origin there is a certain number of people holding nationalist, Zionist and therefore pro-Israeli views... Loyalty to socialist Poland cannot be rec-onciled with loyalty to imperialist Israel. A choice must be made and conclusions drawn. Whosoever wishes to face these consequences by emigrating will encounter no obstacles”.

In order to emigrate from Poland one had to sign a document in which one renounced Polish citizen-ship and declared one’s leave for Israel. In exchange, one got a one-page “travel document” instead of a passport (which only citizens deserved, while “Zionists” wishing to emigrate were willingly renouncing this privilege). The piece of paper read “the bearer of this document IS NOT a citizen of the Polish People’s Republic”. By 1971, 12 927 (non-Polish by now) Jews had left. Barely 3100 reached “Zionist” Israel. The rest chose welcoming Sweden, France, Denmark, the United States and other Western countries. By 1972, the number of emigrants had risen to 15 000.

The 1968 emigration from Poland had a specific social structure. Compared with the Polish average, the “Jewish” group contained 8 times more students and people with higher degrees. Most were edu-cated as engineers or doctors. There were nearly 500 university lecturers, 200 journalists, 100 musi-cians and performing artists, 60 radio and television employees, 26 (!) film directors, 560 high-ranking officials (including diplomats) who left. It was a true (unintended?) drain of the brains and human resources available to Poland - still engaged in the effort of rebuilding the country after the war. There is no doubt that these people were the elite of the Polish intelligentsia. This is why - although this argument has never been commonly used - an analogy to the Nuremberg Laws and the emigration of German Jews from the Reich in the 1930s imposes itself so distinctively.  As Dana Platter from Sweden writes: “What went on next was a grotesque theatre of the absurd. Assimilated Polish Jews were made into enemies of the socialist state and Zionists. A monster word no-one had ever really heard before, but which suddenly became an insult, a stigma. The party gave the command ‘Zionists to Zion’, a slogan often erroneously repeated as ‘Zionists to Siam’, which reflected the schooling of the so-called dictatorship of dunces. Many people were not even aware of their Jewish roots. Accusing them of disloyalty to Poland came as a shock to them”.

Trains to Vienna, where the Jewish Agency had organised a transit point, left from Warsaw’s Gdansk Station. It remains a symbol of the expulsion of Jews from Poland. “The kikes first leave for Vienna, and then for Israel, America or Canada - a waitress says to her friend at the Gdansk Station buffet, a stupid grin on her face. Mrs. Irma Seidenman, who will leave Poland in an hour, is sitting on a bench on the platform. She is accompanied by a friend, judge Romnicki, who helped her to survive during the war. ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with this country, I don’t want to be here, because I have been humiliated’ (from the play “The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman” by A. Szczypiorski). Important and interesting books have been written on the subject by Joanna Wiszniewicz “Życie przecięte” (A Life Cut in Two) and Teresa Torańska “Jesteśmy” (We are).

The countries of the democratic West received these events as badly as could possibly be expected. The image of Poland,  20 years after the war, grew bleak. The March emigrants joined the ranks of the Polish democratic opposition abroad (through the activity of broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America, helping activists at home and finally becoming engaged in the activities of Solidarity). Of course, inside communist-ravaged Poland, a number of their countrymen saw the possibility of leaving Poland granted to Jews as yet more proof of the fact that “Jews will always find a way to get by” and were departing for the colourful West, leaving them in the austere landscape of Gomulka’s Poland. It was only as the 80s drew near that someone wrote on the wall of the Gdansk Shipyard: “The Jews are gone, so who is to blame for the hunger?”

What is interesting, the March emigrants have maintained close ties amongst themselves to this day. Every once in a while they meet in Ashkelon, and publish the “Plotkies” newspaper. They have increas-ingly been sharing their experiences with the public in Poland through books, memoirs, theatre and film.


Monika Krawczyk

March 2013