Poland's President Apologizes for 1968 Purge of Jews

50 years ago, some 20,000 Jews were expelled or forced to flee persecution by the communist regime. 'We are sorry you're not here today,' says Andrzej Duda

FILE PHOTO: A black and white photo showing people running away as police attack near the Warsaw University during the 1968 student riots in Poland.
Tadeusz Zagozdzinski / PAP / CAF

Polish President Andrzej Duda apologized on Thursday to the victims of the Communist regime in Poland, including Polish Jews, who were persecuted by the regime and were forced to leave the country in 1968. 

"I want to ask forgiveness of those who were expelled," Duda said. "To those who were thrown out, I say, forgive us," Duda said. "Through my lips Poland is asking forgiveness, asking them to be willing to forget, to be willing to accept that Poland regrets very much that they are not in Poland today."

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Polish President Andrzej Duda speaks during ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the purge of Jews from Poland by the communist regime, in Warsaw, Poland, March 8, 2018.
Alik Keplicz/AP

In March 1968, this month 50 years ago, student protests against censorship and restrictions on freedom of expression erupted throughout Poland. As political crisis ensued, the Communist leadership began an anti-Jewish, anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic persecution campaign. This took place against the backdrop of the Six-Day War, which also led Israel and Poland to sever relations.

In his speech, Duda also addressed the victims of the Communist regime, saying that the Poland of his generation was not responsible for the murders commited by the communists, "But we bow our heads before them, with great pain," he said. "Those were deported then and the families of those who were killed – I want to say, please forgive Poland for that."

Polish President Andrzej Duda, left, shakes hands with former Israeli Knesset Speaker Shevah Weiss during the ceremony, Warsaw, March 8, 2018.
Alik Keplicz/AP

Duda spoke at the Warsaw University campus that was the site of the 1968 protests. A group of the current government's opponents, many holding white roses — a symbol of their protest — chanted "disgrace," ''hypocrite," and "go away from the campus."

Other guests in the ceremonies included Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich and former Israeli Ambassador Shevach Weiss.

Polish Jews, numbering tens of thousands, were stripped of their jobs, and about 20,000 were expelled, or forced to leave and forgo their citizenship. Many of them immigrated to Israel. The Communist regime remained in power until 1989. The present Polish Jewish community amounts to some thousands.

On Wednesday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that Poland had not been an independent country at the time of the purge, but had been subject to a "foreign power, Moscow." The events of March 1968, he said, should be a source of pride for the Poles because of their fight against the Communist regime and for freedom.

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In recent weeks, in light of the recent so-called Holocaust law and a spike in anti-Semitic rhetoric, Jews who were expelled in 1968 said the atmosphere today reminds them of the climate half a century ago. The law would criminalize any public statements that the Polish nation was complicit in Nazi war crimes.

Addressing the current tensions between Poland and the Jewish community over the enactment of the new Holocaust law, Morawiecki said he observes an increase in "anti-Semitic sentiment" and wants to "fight it effectively." He also called the Jews of Poland "brothers."

People lay flowers during ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of student protests that were exploited by the communists to purge Jews from Poland, at the Warsaw University in Warsaw, Poland, March 8, 2018.
Alik Keplicz/AP

Last week, an official Polish government delegation met with representatives from the Foreign Ministry and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center in an attempt to quell tensions over the law.

With reporting by The Associated Press.