"Otarci" from Leszek Sobocki's "March '68" series, 1968 (Courtesy of Polin Museum)
"Otarci" from Leszek Sobocki's "March '68" series, 1968 (Courtesy of Polin Museum)

In Warsaw, the chilling tale of 1968 anti-Semitic purges

In 1968, Americans were focused on the Vietnam War and race riots in many major cities. Israelis were coming to grips with the reality of their victory in the Six-Day War a year earlier.

So most of the world barely noticed when one of the worst outbreaks of state-supported anti-Semitism since the Holocaust swept across Poland that year. By the time it subsided in 1971, half of the nation’s remaining Jews had fled the country for Israel, the U.S. and Scandinavia.

The purging of Jews from the ruling Communist Party, from the Polish military, from government and academia — which began as an anti-Zionist campaign but quickly evolved into anti-Semitism — is the subject of a temporary exhibit at the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, epicenter of the events a half-century ago that pushed an estimated 13,000 Jews out of Poland.

The exhibit, which runs through Sept. 24, is titled “Estranged: March ’68 and Its Aftermath.” It begins with a look at how Poland joined the Soviet Union in supporting the Arab nations that lost the 1967 war with Israel and ends with a chilling reminder that anti-Semitism continues in 21st-century Poland.

“Some historians said it was the final chapter of Polish Jewish life, saying this was the end of 1,000 years of Polish Jewish life,” said Rachel Rothstein, who made the 1968 anti-Semitism campaign the subject of her doctoral dissertation at the University of Florida.

Poland was home to an estimated 3.5 million Jews before the Holocaust. Less than 10 percent were left by 1945. In the late ’40s, there were periodic pogroms in Polish cities and in 1956, a wave of anti-Semitism swept through the country as part of a purge of Stalinists. By 1968, about 25,000 to 30,000 Jews remained in Poland.

Authorities estimate there are 7,000 Jews living in Poland now.

The Polish government began an anti-Zionist campaign in 1967 after the Six-Day War, and student protests against censorship that broke out in March 1968 gave Poland’s leaders an excuse to turn that into a wider anti-Semitic campaign.

Polish media highlighted student protest leaders with Jewish-sounding names, cartoons in national newspapers claimed Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was recruiting Nazi veterans. Polish Communist Party leader Wladyslaw Gomulka told a cheering audience: “We are happy to provide those who consider Israel their homeland with emigration passports.”

Justyna Koszarska-Szulc, a co-curator of the Polin exhibit, said the government’s anti-Zionist campaign was just an excuse to purge Jews from positions of influence and leadership in Poland.

“The term ‘Zionist’ was used as a cover for anti-Semitism. The real Zionists immigrated to Israel in the 1940s. Most of the remaining Jews were highly assimilated and decided to stay to rebuild Poland from the rubble,” she said. Zionist “was just a cover term. After Auschwitz and what happened in the Holocaust, nobody wanted to admit to anti-Semitism.”

Polish Jews were denounced in public, lost their jobs and were kicked out of universities. Those who chose to emigrate were forced to renounce their Polish citizenship so they could not return. Day after day, Jews left from Warsaw’s Gdanski railway station, often never to see their families again.

Dorota Liliental, a Polish actress who was 3 years old in 1968 and remembers her grandmother sobbing as she watched Gomulka’s speech on TV, said her family was among those who considered leaving. Liliental and her family did leave Poland a few years later and she graduated from UC Berkeley in 1988, but she has since returned to live in her native Warsaw.

“At the Gdanski railway station, I pass by it every day, there were really dramatic stories that took place there,” she said. “Jewish parents who had survived the Holocaust thought only about building a life, and they came to say goodbye to their children.”

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Krzysztof M. Bednarski, “To Jews and Dogs,” 1968

Koszarska-Szulc said the events of 1968-1971 generally did not include physical violence against Jews, but “it was like a symbolic pogrom.”

“Those people who were victimized by the hate campaign were often Holocaust survivors, or their parents went through the ghettos and the concentration camps,” she said. “They remembered the Poles were also the group they had to be afraid of, and a lot of people became sick mentally.”

There were protests in New York against the Polish anti-Semitism campaign and leaders of U.S. Jewish organizations appealed to President Lyndon Johnson for help, but the U.S. government worried about pushing too hard because officials feared Poland might join the Soviet Union in blocking Jewish emigration altogether.

Reaction to the 1968 anti-Semitism campaign was mostly drowned out in the U.S. by protests against the Vietnam War. What little American attention was focused on the plight of Jews in Eastern Europe was centered on the Soviet Union’s refusal to let Jews emigrate, rather than Poland’s efforts to push them out.

Rothstein, who teaches at the Weber School, a Jewish high school in Atlanta, presented a paper entitled “Did the Warsaw Ghetto Burn in Vain?” at an international academic conference at the Polin museum in March. In her talk, she focused on American reaction.

“As I was working on my dissertation, I would get absolutely blank stares,” she told J., “which is crazy because in Poland it’s the opposite, there’s hardly anyone in Poland who doesn’t know about 1968.”

The March 1968 exhibit at the Polin museum, which chronicles the 1,000-year history of Polish Jewry and which stands on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto, has been accompanied by theatrical performances and a series of debates about the legacy of the anti-Semitism campaign.

The exhibit’s final panels examine the continued presence of Polish anti-Semitism, especially online and in right-wing publications, which surged this spring after a law was passed making it a crime to blame Poland for Holocaust atrocities.

“Today, 50 years after March [1968] events, the mechanism of hunting for and stigmatizing the ‘others’ has been put into motion yet again,” the exhibition text warns.

Following an outcry from the U.S., Israel and Jewish organizations, that law was amended in late June to make blaming Poland a civil rather than criminal offense. Critics contend, however, the amendment doesn’t go far enough — a charge the Polish government is still smarting from.

Museum director Dariusz Stola told J. that the Polish Ministry of Culture declined his request for additional funding for the exhibit, an unusual — but not unique — refusal of funds beyond the museum’s annual basic subsidy from the government. The Warsaw city government filled most of the funding gap, giving the museum 600,000 zlotys (about $162,000) to cover the additional costs of the exhibit.

Stola said the ministry attributed the refusal to excessive administrative costs, but the museum director added that “certainly was not the real reason to refuse.”

Liliental, the actress, said she has experienced renewed anti-Semitism in recent months in Warsaw, including a woman at a bus stop who called her “ugly Jew” and a manicurist she has known for years asking: “If you don’t like what is happening in Poland, why don’t you go to Israel?”

Koszarska-Szulc, the exhibit curator, said she hopes there never will be a repeat of the 1968 anti-Semitism campaign, but pointed out that a May display at the Gdanski railway station showing portraits of Jews who were forced out in 1968 was quickly covered with graffiti.

“Even though there are so few Jews now in Poland,” she said, “anti-Semitism survives.”

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Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster is J.'s senior writer. He can be reached at rob@jweekly.com.