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Remembering the forgotten Polish-Jewish exodus

By Georgia L. Gilholy

Forgotten Exodus,” a multimedia initiative to collect and share testimonies of Jewish Poles forced to flee the country in 1968, launched last month in London.

Part of a permanent exhibition dedicated to the March, 1968 expulsion at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. (Wikipedia)

This history is generally overlooked, according to Daniel Schatz, a visiting researcher at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and co-founder of the project.

“The Holocaust is the main thing people connect with anti-Semitism in 20th-century Poland,” Schatz said. “I’ve spoken to many people in both Jewish and non-Jewish circles who have no idea about what happened in Poland in 1968.”

Daniel Korski, who advised former British Prime Minister David Cameron, is co-founder of the project, which sheds light on the thousands of Jews — largely Holocaust survivors and their descendants — who left the Communist country in 1968 after a wave of anti-Semitic purges.

A personal project

The project, which notes that this year marks the 55th anniversary of that expulsion, is personal for both Schatz and Korski.

“My parents were refugees from Poland who fled to Sweden in 1968, while his were part of the same flow but settled in Denmark,” Schatz said.

“We grew up with these stories, and we want to make sure these victims have the chance to share their firsthand accounts for future generations.”

Under the auspices of the project, testimonies of those who fled Poland are already being recorded. “The public must understand this chilling example of what happens when anti-Semitism gets its grip and intolerance gets political airtime,” Schatz said.

Poland expelled 13,000 Jews, often accusing them of supporting Israel, which “amounted to disloyalty to Poland and the Communist project,” Schatz said. “Almost all were Holocaust survivors or their direct descendants, already living with huge trauma.”

Many Holocaust survivors had already left Poland years after WW II, so those who remained in the 1960s tended to be very assimilated. Their children often were unaware of their Jewish heritage.

“In many cases, this was due to fear of being discriminated against,” Schatz said.

“It was no coincidence that this episode unfolded shortly following the Six Day War in 1967, during which the USSR severed all diplomatic ties with Israel.”

Poland used the Israeli victory as a pretext to launch an anti-Zionist campaign, “which was in reality very anti-Semitic, and many workers were forced to publicly denounce Zionism,” said Schatz. “In this way the government was manipulating people by uniting them against an imagined, internal enemy.”

The Polish government also sought to connect a burgeoning student democratic movement with Jews and Zionism. It “cruelly suppressed the student strikes,” Schatz said.

“It was also related to a power struggle in the governing Communist Party between the ruling faction and the more nationalist and anti-Semitic wing, which this campaign was intended to neutralize.”

“They even bizarrely accused Jewish Poles of working with German neo-Nazis to undermine the Communist regime,” he added.

“The public must understand this chilling example of what happens when anti-Semitism gets its grip and intolerance gets political airtime,” says Daniel Schatz, a visiting researcher at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Anti-Semitic articles filled Polish newspapers, with Jews accused of financial corruption and dual loyalty.

“Lifelong non-Jewish friends began ignoring their Jewish neighbors on the street,” Schatz said. “Others were expelled from universities or lost their jobs.”

To apply for foreign visas to flee, Jews had to renounce their Polish citizenship, Schatz said. Many were so desperate that they became stateless. The Polish government issued visas to Israel deliberately to “prove” that Jews had Zionist affiliations.

Jewish émigrés were allowed to leave the country with just $10 worth of belongings, he added.

“It is part of the country’s national mythology that it is a victim of foreign powers and to a major extent this is factually correct,” Schatz said. “Because this idea is so widespread in Polish society, I think some sections of it have a hard time accepting that a victim can also be a perpetrator.”

‘It is unfair to pretend there were no Polish collaborators’

The current Polish government made it illegal in 2018 to accuse the country of complicity in Nazi or Communist crimes. That amounted to an official policy of rewriting history, according to Schatz, who said the effort has “some parallels with 1968.”

“Just weeks ago, the government threatened to withdraw funding from a research institute headed by Holocaust expert Barbara Engelking after she stated that Poles could have done more to help Jews during the 1940s,” Schatz said.

Anna Zalewska, then Polish education minister, refused in 2016 to acknowledge Polish involvement in the 1946 Kielce pogrom, in which Polish soldiers, police officers and civilians killed 42 Jewish Holocaust survivors. They accused the Jews of ritually murdering a missing boy.

“The Nazis were responsible for the Holocaust and thousands of Poles risked their lives to help Jews, but it is unfair to pretend there were no Polish collaborators and to ban open discussion of this fact,” said Schatz.
He and Korski aim to partner with museums across the continent, and the world, “to ensure our message reaches as many people as possible,” he said. “We are keen to make sure these stories are known before it is too late.”

Michael Steinlauf, history professor emeritus at Gratz College in Melrose Park, Pa., who is not involved with the project, said that the project is doing “important work.”

Steinlauf said that calling the events of 1968 a pogrom — as in Korski’s March article in the Spectator that referred to the 1968 “last pogrom” — misses the mark.

“Referring to these events as a pogrom is misleading because there was no actual violence against the Jews,” said Steinlauf, author of Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust.

“Jews were slandered, fired from their jobs, and had no choice but to leave Poland. Mostly Communists, they were only allowed to say that they were going to Israel in order to ‘prove’ they were Zionists,” he said.

“Jews were not physically attacked, however. I probably don’t need to remind you how important it is, particularly today, to make sure the stories we tell are absolutely accurate.”

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