WARSAW — Poland’s president asked for forgiveness for an anti-Jewish wave that drove Jews from the country in March, 1968, but said today’s Poland is not responsible for the events of 50 years ago.
“I bow my head with great regret as president. To those who have been expelled, I would like to say ‘Please, forgive me, forgive Poland and Polish people,’” Andrzej Duda said March 8 at the University of Warsaw at a commemoration of the events in Poland known as March, 1968.
After the Six Day War in 1967, countries under the influence of the former Soviet Union condemned Israel. In 1968, Polish students protested against censorship.
In addition to suppressing the students, the communist government engineered a massive anti-Semitic campaign that would see Jews dismissed from jobs and thrown out of the universities.
Several thousand Jews left Poland for good.
Duda’s remarks came amid a furor over his government’s support of a law that would make it a crime to blame Poland for events surrounding the Holocaust. During his speech, critics of the law chanted “shame.”
At a simultaneous commemoration at the Dworzec Gdafski railway station in Warsaw, an adviser to Duda, Zofia Romaszewska, also was heckled as she read remarks from the president condemning anti-Semitism.
One person in the audience shouted “now the authorities do the same” — that is, encourage anti-Semitism.
Romaszewska recalled coming to the railway station 50 years ago to say good-bye to her Jewish friends.
“In independent Poland there is no place and there will never be a place for anti-Semitism,” Duda said in the letter she read. “Poland is a state of free and equal people. It is the common homeland of all its citizens.”
Israel’s ambassador to Poland, Anna Azari, received warm applause during her remarks at the train station. She said she has lived in Poland for over three years and for a long time could not understand how and why in 1968 a decision could be made to organize an anti-Semitic campaign and expel Jews from Poland.
“For the last one and a half months I already know how easy it is to wake up in Poland anti-Semitic demons, even when there are hardly any Jews in the country,” Azari said. “I would like the view of history to be open and honest. The truth helps not only to understand the past, but also helps to create a democratic and tolerant society today.”
Taking a radically different view than Duda, Poland’s prime minister said his countrymen should be proud rather than ashamed of events that happened 50 years ago when anti-Semitism drove thousands of Jews to leave.
Mateusz Morawiecki, during a debate at the University of Warsaw titled “March ’68, National Social Movement against Communism,” blamed the Soviet Union, which controlled Poland until the USSR’s collapse, for fomenting anti-Semitism.
Last month, Morawiecki triggered a furious reaction from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when the Polish leader said the Holocaust had some Jewish perpetrators.
In the same month, Poland stirred controversy when it enacted a law that criminalizes blaming Poland for Nazi crimes.
Israel, Jewish groups and historians are among those who have blasted the measure.
In a speech preceding the debate, Morawiecki said: “We often hear that March ’68 should be a reason for shame for Poland.
“For Poles who have fought for freedom, they should be a source of pride.”
Polskie Radio’s report of his remarks did not include an explanation by Morawiecki as to why exactly Poles should be proud of the month, in which anti-Semitic posters appeared throughout Poland.
However, his remark about pride appears to be a reference not to anti-Semitic incitement but to a failed student uprising after which Jews were vilified in the media that were closely controlled by the state.
The uprising had erupted over the expulsion of two Jewish students, Adam Michnik and Henryk Szlajfer, for their criticism of human rights abuses under communism.
Following months of anti-Semitic incitement in the media, thousands of Jews left for Israel, leaving behind whatever possessions they could not smuggle out before being stripped of their Polish citizenship.
But Poland cannot be blamed for this, Morawiecki said, as it “was not an independent and sovereign state, it was dependent on another superpower.”
The slogan “Zionists to Zion,” which was common during the incitement period, “did not necessarily come from Poles who wanted freedom, from Polish society,” he said. “This foreign power, which was the representative of a great power, implemented its plan and used anti-Semitism.”