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Poland and the Jews on the fiftieth anniversary of March 68: the antisemitic campaign of 1968 seen by a Polish Jew witness of the events

Reading Time: 10 minutes

By Olivier Bault.

Poland – The theme of Polish anti-Semitism is back. With the new Polish memorial law, Poland is under attack from all sides, especially from Israel and the United States. After a little calming down, the attacks started again when Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, answering the question of an Israeli journalist, assured that the Polish law do not forbid to testify about crimes committed during the Second World War, whether their authors were Polish, Russian, Ukrainian or Jewish. Yes, Jewish, it happened too, but it is little known to historians outside Poland and this was enough to revive the controversy. Things seem to be calming down again now despite an Israeli ambassador in Poland who seems not to miss an opportunity to fuel the fire with her extremely hurtful remarks for the Poles. A few days ago, she said she had realized in recent weeks how easy it was to awaken the Poles’ demons of anti-Semitism. Ambassador Anna Hazari was referring not to aggression that has not occurred but to criticism of Jews and Israel in the current controversy. Despite the efforts of this undiplomatic diplomat, a dialogue resumed between Poland and Israel to talk about history and see if the Polish memorial law could be changed to reassure those who fear that freedom of expression regarding the Holocaust would be muzzled. The Polish President, Andrzej Duda, has also appealed to the Constitutional Court on the issue and the latter, through its interpretation of the law, could provide the necessary guarantees.

But another factor brings up the question of the role played by the Poles during the Holocaust: the fiftieth anniversary of the events of March 68. One of the arguments to prove a part of Polish responsibility in the Holocaust is indeed the persistence of an anti-Semitism supposedly virulent after the war. For this, one refers most often to the Kielce pogrom in 1946 and the anti-Semitic campaign of 1967-68 which led to a wave of emigration of the Jews from Poland, emptying the country of the majority of the survivors of a people with which the Poles had cohabited for several centuries. This anti-Semitic campaign, which began after the Six Day War (the Soviet bloc took a stand for the Arabs against Israel), intensified greatly in Poland after the revolt of the youngsters (students, workers …) of March 1968. A revolt unleashed in universities after the blacklisting of two plays by communist power when the first secretary of the Polish Unified Workers’ Party (the Communist Party under Moscow’s orders) was Władisław Gomułka.

Today, the reading of this anti-Semitic campaign varies greatly depending on whether one is a Jew of Polish origin or Polish with or without Jewish origins, and also according to whether one has convictions of left or right. In a nutshell, for some, the anti-Semitic campaign of 1968 was a backlash, certainly provoked by communist power, but nourished by latent anti-Semitism in the population, while others point out that Poland was not independent in 1968 because it was led by a dictatorship imposed by Moscow, and they therefore reduced the antisemitic campaign of 1967-68 to an internal settling of scores in the Communist Party. Indeed, Polish Jews were largely over-represented in the ruling structures of the Stalinist communist dictatorship set up by the Soviet occupiers just after the Second World War. In 1968, the “Zionists” were invited by Gomułka to leave if their allegiance was first to Israel. It was also a year when the structures of the Party and the army knew an important purification, in particular, as regards the army, under the direction of the general Jaruzelski, at the time chief of staff and notorious antisemite ( in addition to being Christianophobe, charged in the Stalinist era with repressions against seminarians as part of their compulsory military service) just like Gomułka. It should be noted in passing that many Poles would have wished to leave Communist Poland in 1968, but that only those with Jewish origins could do so. This is an opinion heard by the author of these lines from a Polish Jew who emigrated to Australia in 1968 and returned to settle in Poland after the fall of communism. The reading by the Polish left of the events of March 1968 and the anti-Semitic campaign that followed, to demonstrate the anti-Semitism of the Poles, dates back to the 90s. It is notably due to circles related to the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza under the editor-in-chief Adam Michnik, himself a member of a Jewish communist family (his brother was a Stalinist judge who fled to Sweden after the events of March 68) but dissented in March 1968: it was his expulsion from the University of Warsaw which triggered the revolt.

Despite the divergent readings of the events triggered on March 8, 1968, the Polish parliament succeded on March 7 to reach an agreement (something extremely rare nowadays) on a resolution commemorating the fiftieth anniversary.

But to better understand the events of 1968 in Poland, it is best to give the floor to a direct witness: a Polish Jew demonstrator of March 68, victim of repressions, who emigrated in 1969. The text below is an open letter addressed to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews “Polin” of Warsaw, to reproach it for having titled an exhibition on March 68 “Strangers at home”. Born in 1946, Bronisław Świderski has been living in Denmark since 1969. A translator of Kierkegaard from Danish to Polish, author of several books, some of which have been awarded, he is a member of the Polish Writers’ Association (Stowarzyszenie Pisarzy Polskich). Świderski denies having ever felt, as a Pole with Jewish origins, being a foreigner in Poland. For him, the break in 1968 was not between Poles and Jews, but between the communist power and the people.

Open letter to the director of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews Polin about the program “Estranged: March ’68 and Its Aftermath”

Bronisław Świderski

The expression “Strangers at home”, which is the title of the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the events of March 1968, seems to involve a double error. First: Was the basic message of the events of March really a message of division or on the contrary of unity? Secondly, by attributing to Jews the qualification of “foreigners”, that is to say of people deprived of rights in their country, they are made exclusively victims. This of course corresponds to the current fashion of victimizing Jewish history, based on the not necessarily correct belief that “the victim is always right”.

The funny thing is that this title was not invented by the Polin museum. It is, in fact, the word-for-word repetition of an expression used in Gomułka’s anti-Semitic speeches in March 1968. It is he who, with his neurotic intonation, separated the Poles and the “Zionists”, whom he decided to hunt. This expression has never been an objective description of the events of March, but a political slogan of the anti-Semites.

This ax division along the “blood line” corresponds to the nationalist program present in both ethnic groups. It does not, however, reflect the reality of the events of that time.

March 68 was the exact opposite: it was proof that we were all Poles, that the border did not pass between ethnic groups but between the communist power and the people. This has been demonstrated by Jerzy Eisler in his second book on March 68 entitled / Polish Year 1968 / (of which I spoke in my text “March 68 – a romantic myth?”, published in Europa, and accessible on the Internet). The historian underlined the predominance of the young Polish workers in the events that shook the country. Eisler’s conclusion confirms the support of this group for the student struggle: “between March 7 and April 6, 2,725 people were arrested throughout the country including 937 workers, 300 more than students.” Was March 68 a student movement that Gomułka called “foreigners” or a movement of Polish workers? Why did the Polin Museum employees not think of what these workers would feel when they’d hear again the words of Gomułka, claiming that their courage and activism served the “foreigners”, the Jews?

When we were demonstrating in March ’68, we were not “foreigners”. On the contrary, we showed how much we felt at home in our common Polish house. By taking part in the demonstration on March 8, 1968, in front of the rector’s office of the University of Warsaw, I was with other Polish students and I absolutely did not feel different. Sentenced to a punitive military camp for my March 68 activism, I met ordinary students from many cities. Even a zealous nationalist would not think of calling most of these students “foreigners”. We were united in the face of a common enemy.

The revolt of March 68 was part of the struggle of the Polish people against the power of the communists. The anti-Semite Gomułka sought to break our unity by presenting some rebels as “foreigners”, as non-Polish, as Jews. It is surprising and even shocking that the Polin museum has so easily adopted this anti-Semitic idea for its title.

March 68 was a national movement, and commemorations should be organized by the Museum of Polish History rather than the History of Polish Jews. Indeed, we, the participants in March 68, shared this struggle with the entire Polish nation!

It is truly surprising that a museum focused on the knowledge of history also easily overlooks the historical evidence described by a historian, and prefers to use the nationalist political rhetoric of Gomułka. I repeat: the use by the museum of an expression of this servant of the Soviets is offensive, because we know well that the respectable professors and specialists of the Polish museums, usually serious and concrete like dried lemons, do not use irony nor parody.

Moreover, this nationalist division between the Poles, “hosts in their country”, excluding from their community the “foreign” Jews, does not take into account at all the reality of the events of March 68. All the Jews were not “foreigners” in the Polish People’s Republic! It was not the Poles who denounced me to the political police but two Jews who were its confidential collaborators: one was the son of a communist general, the other one a censor. Perhaps they felt strangers in Poland and they very much wanted to be recognized as part of its people by the communist power. These two informers, who were at the time my best friends, were able, thanks to their denunciations, to make a career in Poland and they obtained university titles, while I was expelled from the university and forced to emigration. They and I, were we in the same way “foreigners at home” in Poland?

In addition, one of the jury members of the museum actively participated in the events of March 68, but by his zealous collaboration with the communist militia. She took the initiative to write a long text for the use of the political police, a text that can still be found on the Internet today. My name, my name of opponent to communism, is in there several times. And it took the Polin Museum to designate this person to evaluate the stories received about March 68! As a persecuted participant in the events of March 1968, I had the audacity (or perhaps just the imprudence) to testify in a March trial in defense of an accused. As far as I know, I was the only one, among those who participated in March 68, to have defended colleagues during the political trials that took place in Warsaw at that time (I say more about it in the text referred to above about Eisler’s book). The political police immediately reacted by promising to destroy my life, which it did. The question still remains unanswered: can one describe in the same way the one who denounced his colleagues and the one who defended them?

For a long time, I did not want to leave Poland. What tipped my decision in favor of leaving were the elections to the Diet of 1969. My Jewish mother, who wanted very much to be Polish and did not want to leave for anything in the world, warned me, panicked, that if I’d not vote, they would come for us, they would take her job and throw us out onto the street. My father, raised in a family of Catholic workers in Warsaw, had found himself in Russia in 1914, at the age of sixteen. It was there that he fell for his whole life madly in love with Lenin and Stalin. He could not forgive me for being an enemy of communism. The hatred of my father and the lamentations of my mother urged me to vote. Of course, I intended to strikethrough the voting form… At the polling station, I showed my ID and was given a ballot paper. The ballot box was on the table of the electoral commission, it was enough to throw its ballot in it. In a far corner of the room was a small space with a modest curtain. Beside it, a tall man was sitting, certainly a member of the political police, with a paper and a pencil. No one in the polling station was approaching him. Everyone threw his ballot in the ballot box without even looking at it. I knew that going behind the curtain and barring all names – which I had a huge urge – would not change the outcome of the election that had been set before the vote. On the other hand, it could attract repression against my family. The fraud of the communists was indeed a secret for nobody. If I had crossed out the names, I would have been happy with myself, and at the same time I was aware that it would hurt my family. Did I have the right to do that? But did I also have the right to draw a line on my participation in March 68? After a moment of hesitation, I threw the ballot intact into the ballot box and went out. Maybe back then I saved my family’s existence, but I betrayed myself. I felt the metallic taste of the bit in my mouth, a taste that every slave knows. That’s why I decided to leave Poland. Did I become a foreigner when I left, or did I continue to cultivate the Polish tradition of protest?

When I was asked why I left, I said, “because the Polish communists considered me their enemy, and I did always  believed the communists” (this statement was recorded in the film “I left Poland, because …”, posted on the website of the Polin museum). I perceived my attitude as part of the struggle of the Poles against the “sovereigns” imposed by the Russians, and not as the gesture of a “stranger”. That’s why, from Denmark, I tried as best I could to help Solidarność that I saw as the natural heir to the Polish revolts for independence.

I do not think that we become victims leaving Poland, even if it is the victimizing vision diffused by the museum Polin. On the contrary, it gave us the opportunity to enrich ourselves, not financially (I myself am much less rich than my Polish friends), but in terms of knowledge of the world and of ourselves, what I mentioned in Znak magazine No. 3 of 1996, in article Three.

Because I acquired by leaving three identities that I continue to develop. I have been writing in Polish ever since, and from time to time in the language of Kierkegaard. Since March 68, I am interested in the history of the Jews, and for twenty-seven years I am the husband of a Danish woman and I have a family with whom I express myself in Danish. Why should I reject one or two of these identities by calling them “foreign”? Is not combining identities the only way to effectively protest against the crazy nationalisms that drive us to war?

I am not trying to give the impression that this process has proceeded in complete happiness and harmony. To have participated in the demonstrations of March 68 was sometimes source of pride in Poland, and more often it was the cause of repressions. In Denmark, it meant nothing at all. Busy at counting their money, the Danes did not have time to find out more about an unknown country. Often, my requests for scholarships or work remained unanswered. A good Protestant soul told me one day not to indicate on my resume that I had fought against the communist power, that I had been persecuted and that I had been expelled from the university. “In Denmark, it’s the CV of a delinquent,” whispered this Christian soul. Unscrupulous opportunists have adapted much better. In Denmark, I met many former members of the Polish political police who had suddenly discovered that they were victims of communism.

Let us now reflect on the implications of the Polish title for those “foreigners” who stayed in the country because they felt Polish. Is this expression not easily put into the mouth of the Polish nationalists, and does it not reinforce their accusations that those “foreigners” who, for “suspicious reasons”, remain in Poland are in reality liars (who “pretend” to be Poles) and cowards (because they are afraid to emigrate). Is not this an easy reduction of the lesson of March 68?

Copenhagen, September 15, 2017

Source: Polish Jews Forum website (Żydów Polskich Forum)
Primary source: quarterly philosophical and cultural magazine Kronos, n ° 2/2017