Poles Apart

A journalist's diary and a collection of classified documents shed light on the rampant anti-Semitism that existed in Poland in the late 1960s

"Dzienniki Polityczne: 1967-1968" ("Political Diaries: 1967-1968"), by Mieczyslaw F. Rakowski, 411 pages

"Miedzy Tragedia Podloscia" ("Between Tragedy and Evil"), edited by Grzegorz Soltysiak and Jozef Stepien, Profil, 469 pages

"Political Diaries" and "Between Tragedy and Evil" are very different books, but they touch on a common theme: events in Poland during 1967-1968. One is the personal diary of journalist Mieczyslaw Rakowski, who went on to become the deputy prime minister of Poland, the last president of the People's Republic of Poland, and the last First Secretary of the Communist Party (a position he held until January 1990). The other is a selection of classified documents. Apart from a brief introduction, this volume offers no commentary, but does provide important historical background for the issues discussed in Rakowski's diary.

An underlying current of intrigue and discord in the party ruling Poland at the time - the Polish United Worker's Party (PZPR) - set the stage for the events of March 1968. The Polish minister of interior, Mieczyslaw Moczar, alluded to this in an interview kicking off that year's national remembrance month.

Discussing the First Army of the Polish armed forces, which had been established on Soviet soil during World War II and fought side by side with the Red Army, Moczar broached a topic that he claimed had been hushed up: "Along with our brave soldiers," he said, "a number of politicians returned to Poland dressed in officers' uniforms, believing that this entitled them to lead the country and decide what was best for the Polish people."

Among these men in uniform, he implies, were communists, many of them Jewish, sent by Moscow to set up the kind of regime the Soviets wished to see in Poland. In fact, the Jews did help strengthen communist rule in Poland, occupying senior positions in the government and the military. The trouble is that Moczar and his supporters, the "partisans," turned their struggle against these Jewish communists into a campaign against all Jews living on Polish soil. It became a nationalist, anti-Semitic crusade bringing back memories of Hitlerian genocide and the Holocaust.

PZPR leaders Zambroski and Berman had not held positions of power since 1956, but Moczar insisted that they were the inciters of the uprising in March 1968. Not that anti-Semitism in the political echelons was anything new. From the moment Wladyslaw Gomulka was reinstated as prime minister and head of the Communist Party, steps were taken to purge the security services, armed forces and government ministries of Jews. In the early 1960s, the dismissal of Jews from government posts was stepped up.

Nationalistic `tidal wave'

Rakowski's diary is full of references to the growing wave of prejudice against the Jews in political life and the work place. He discusses the complex relations in the Eastern bloc, including those between Poland and Germany, and especially the events surrounding the "Spring of Prague" in 1968 and the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, in which Polish troops also took part. Then chief editor of the weekly Politika, Rakowski explored these issues from two perspectives: that of a professional journalist and that of an active party member critical of his party's conduct.

The diary is overflowing with observations and data that the author could not publish in his newspaper due to the strict censorship of the time. Included are cautionary letters he wrote to Gomulka, in whose integrity he continued to believe almost until the end, along with painful expressions of regret over the leader's "mistakes" and "political blindness." One wonders if Rakowski's faith in Gomulka was really so innocent after all.

At any rate, Moczar and his cohorts are clearly perceived as forces of darkness and conservatism, out to undermine the authority of Gomulka and the last vestiges of democracy. Rakowski worried about a tidal wave of nationalism. He was not wrong.

The conflict in the Middle East and the outbreak of the Six-Day War were the pretext for an outburst of anti-Zionism in Poland. Moscow forced its satellites to toe the Soviet propaganda line: an unequivocal condemnation of Israeli "aggression" and a declaration of full support for the Arabs.

Yet Rakowski notes that broad sectors of the Polish public were actually pleased that "our Jews" were beating those "Russian Arabs." It was a source of satisfaction to many Poles that the massive shipments of Soviet arms delivered to the Arabs proved ineffectual against Israel's modern weaponry.

The Polish authorities may have been responding to this mood when they launched their propaganda campaign, which was rabidly anti-Zionist, and hence anti-Jewish, from day one. The Interior Ministry dispatched memos to the PZPR central committee reporting that the Jews and newspaper editors in Warsaw were "celebrating Israel's victory."

The Isaac Babel society, affiliated with the Polish Jewish cultural association (TSK), was branded a Zionist den. Rakovski attended a Babel meeting. "The mood was militant and emotional," he writes. "They accused the USSR of helping the fascist Nasser, and were critical of our leader as well. I fear there may be grave consequences."

The confidential report of the Interior Ministry offered a few more details: "Babel: 200 participants, mostly young people." After the lecture, unrelated remarks were heard which "revolved around events in the Middle East." Some of the speakers delivered "prepared statements." A few of them read straight from the paper. The tone of these remarks was "provocative."

Commenting on Gomulka's speech at the Sixth Congress of Professional Trade Unions on June 19, 1967, Rakowski relates that the leader "fiercely attacked the West for supporting Israel," and then lashed out at Polish Zionists. "We do not want a fifth column in Poland," he exclaimed. This statement was followed by loud applause, and "opened a new chapter in Polish politics." It helped Gomulka's "partisans" to undermine the credibility of those they regarded as undesireable.

"All the uproar over Zionism, Israeli aggression, etc. has become an opportunity for charlatans to settle their personal accounts," writes Rakowski. "In general, we are talking about incompetents who have suddenly found Jews blocking their careers. We are the only country in the world, apart from the Arab nations, in which one's attitude toward the war in the Middle East is a criterion for loyalty to one's country."

`Pure' Polish army

The Interior Ministry reports on mass assemblies all over the country at which Gomulka's speech was read aloud, followed by a vote denouncing the Zionists. The documents in "Between Tragedy and Evil" even attest to such an assembly, in a godforsaken village in the province of Olczten, where a resolution condemning Zionists and Revisionists was presented and signed.

"Finally, a pure Polish army," Rakowski notes with irony, at the news that the General Staff had been purged of all its Jewish officers. In the wake of this action, Politika was inundated with letters, some of them revealing family and personal tragedies. A woman from Krakow with two sons and a sick husband, a former officer in the Polish army, wrote to ask Gomulka how she should explain to her sons that they were pariahs in their own country. "Do me a favor and send some poison capsules," she said. "I have no strength to live anymore and I do not want my sons to spend their whole lives paying for having a Jewish father."

As an example of quiet protest and heroism, Rakowski tells the story of the Orlinskys, who committed suicide after the husband, General Orlinsky, was expelled from the army for being a Jew, and his non-Jewish wife, a dentist, lost her job for being married to a Jew.

The harassment of Polish Jews in the wake of anti-Zionist sloganeering was bad enough until December 1967. But from that point on, attacks on the intelligentsia, Jewish and non-Jewish, intensified greatly. In November 1967, one of Poland's leading theater directors, Kazimierz Deijmak, staged "Dziady," a play by the Polish national poet, Adam Mickiewicz. The authorities found that large numbers of students were flocking to the play, cheering at those parts protesting the tyranny of the Russian czar.

In December, the authorities began to record the names of the theater-goers, especially public figures. On January 31, 1968, the play was shut down, sparking a great wave of protest from the country's intellectuals. The students demonstrated and the Warsaw branch of the Polish Writers Association (ZLP) held a stormy rally that ended in arrests and bloodshed. Deijmak was expelled from the party, along with all of Poland's most prominent authors - including Jews. Immediately, these authors were blacklisted by the censors, who banned the publication of their work.

On the recommendation of the central committee press office, the Warsaw branch of the PZPR assembled a committee to rid the media of "Zionists." One of the documents in "Between Tragedy and Evil" is a lengthy bulletin put out by the press office on the "personnel changes" taking place in Polish magazines and newspapers. Both Jewish and non-Jewish journalists lost their jobs in this "cleansing" campaign.

The demonstrations on the campus of the University of Warsaw and the brutality of the police and "workers" (i.e., the secret police) triggered riots and solidarity marches all over Poland. The "enlisted" media attributed the student unrest to the provocation of anti-socialists, endlessly repeating the family names of the "instigators" and their parents - well-known figures in the Jewish community.

"For the people, the events of this March have been a political education," Rakowski sums up. "All our years of effort never produced such results. A mass phenomenon: Tuning in to broadcasts from Free Europe. Everyone is running to the shops that sell radios." On the other hand, he admits to a gnawing sense of shame. From the letters sent in by readers of Politika and from talks with the employees of various institutions, he realizes that "anti-Zionist propaganda is bearing fruit. Anti-Semitism is a real political and moral category."

The events of March 1968 and the anti-Zionist policies of the PZPR and the security services were draining the Polish intelligentsia, Rakowski charged. With dozens of eminent scholars expelled from the University of Warsaw and the Warsaw Polytechnical Institute, many faculties had been affected. The University of Warsaw's philosophy department closed, and the departments of mathematics, Polish linguistics and biochemistry were downsized. The historical institute of the Polish Academy of Science no longer employed Jews, and the same was true for the Polish movie industry. The list of banished academics and noted professionals was long, very long.

Rakowski's diary is a shocking testament to the rampant anti-Semitism in Poland, of which he was painfully ashamed. As a Polish citizen, he was mortified at the humiliation of honest, virtuous people, among them close friends. So distraught was he at the "exodus" of Poland's remaining Jews and the blot it left on his country's reputation, that he even considered turning in his membership card and quitting the party so dear to his heart.

Dr. Bina Kadare is a researcher at Tel Aviv University's Diaspora Research Institute. Her book about the Jewish work force in Poland between the two world wars will be published in Poland.