50 Years After: Jews Banned From Poland Once Again Fear for Jewish Community's Fate

In March 1968, the mass exodus of Polish Jews began after a wave of state-backed anti-Semitism. Today’s situation reminds many of dark times they would rather forget

People fleeing police attacks near Warsaw University during the student riots, March 1968, Warsaw, Poland
Tadeusz Zagozdzinski / PAP / CAF

In March 1968, 50 years ago this month, when the Polish communist regime began an anti-Jewish propaganda campaign, Michael Sobelman was only 15 years old. His mother, who was half Jewish, had passed away a few years earlier and he grew up in the city of Sosnowiec with his father, “an elderly Holocaust survivor, closed and very sad,” says Sobelman. He had remained in Poland after World War II.

The wave of student protests, which began at Warsaw University, spread quickly all over the country. In an attempt to silence the criticism of the government, the Communist Party chose to incite the masses against the Jews, claiming they were leading the protests as part of a “Zionist conspiracy,” and began a witch-hunt that included expelling Jews from the party, jobs, government offices and the universities.

“I was in high school at the time and felt the hostile atmosphere in school,” says Sobelman. The geography teacher teased him, saying: “Poor you, what will be with you? Go to Palestine and you won’t be able to eat ham.”

Even from a distance of 50 years, he remembers the speech by Polish leader Wladyslaw Gomulka, in which he called for Jews who demonstrated loyalty to Israel – and not Poland, their homeland – to leave the country immediately. The year before, after the Six-Day War, Poland cut off diplomatic relations with Israel. Gomulka warned at the time: “We don’t want a fifth column in the country.”

After serious soul-searching, Sobelman’s father realized the Jews had no future in Poland and submitted the forms for emigration. Another Jew who left Poland was Prof. Jan Gross, whose grandfather was murdered at Auschwitz and whose father is a Holocaust survivor. In 1968, Gross was a 20-year-old student at Warsaw University and a member of a group of young Jewish intellectuals who took action in support of freedom of speech under the communist regime. One of his friends was Adam Michnik, later the founder of the most important newspaper in Poland, Gazeta Wyborcza. “We were the target of political persecution by the authorities and very quickly we were thrown into prison,” said Gross.

After five months in a Polish prison, he was released and emigrated to the United States with his parents. The decision was his mother’s. She lost her father and first husband in the Holocaust and was now worried about her son’s fate. “We needed to give up our Polish citizenship and declare we wanted to immigrate to Israel, even though I had no such intention because I had no Zionist identity,” he says. With a “one-way document,” the family left their native land and crossed the ocean, says Gross.

For his parents, who were older and worked in professions that were not in very great demand in the United States, the move was very difficult. But for Gross the move was a success and he had an outstanding academic career at Princeton University. Today he is considered persona non grata by the Polish government because of his research into the crimes committed by Poles during the Holocaust period.

Dr. Anat Plocker, an expert in Jewish-Polish relations, says that half of Poland’s Jews, who numbered about 25,000 in March 1968, emigrated in the following months. The government may have accused them of “Zionism,” but most left for North America and Scandinavia, and only about a quarter of them came to Israel.

“It was between expulsion and a forced exit,” she says. “Germans with rifles may not have come and expelled them from their homes in trucks like in the Holocaust, but they threatened the Jews that they had no future in Poland and they could not study, make a living or be members of the [Communist] party,” says Plocker.

Zvi Kelner, the chairman of the Israel-Poland Friendship Association, says the Jews who left Poland in 1968 still feel “bitterness and hostility and cannot forgive Poland for vomiting them out.”

Polish President Andrzej Duda surprised many when he apologized last week for the expulsion of the Jews in 1968.

“You are the elite of the intelligentsia, you are people of remarkable success, respected, but in other countries; your creative powers, your scientific output, your splendid achievements have not done credit to the Republic of Poland. What a shame! I am so sorry!” added Duda.

But behind these noble words, a large number of personal tragedies are tied to this story. Sobelman remembers to this day a mixed couple: A Jewish man and his non-Jewish Polish wife, who sat next to him on the train that took them out of Poland. At the border crossing they were forced to separate. “Even 50 years later I still think about them and wonder whether they met again. There were horrible tragedies during that period,” he says.

In Tel Aviv, where Sobelman arrived with his father, he frequented bookstores with Polish books, where he met others like him who were expelled from their homeland and developed mixed feelings about it. “Miserable people, who cried, kissed the newspapers in Polish and were angry,” he says.

A quarter of a century later, after the fall of the Communist regime, Sobelman returned to Poland.

Today, in addition to working as a translator, he is the spokesman of the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw. This month, when both Poland and Israel are marking the 50th anniversary of the March 1968 events, Sobelman cannot avoid the parallels to the present tensions between Poland and the Jews, which exploded on International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 this year. That is the day the new Polish law banning any mention of involvement by the Polish people, nation or state in Nazi war crimes.

The present period is different, but definitely reminds us of 1968. Today, the official Polish television channels broadcast explicitly anti-Semitic things too, Sobelman says with regret.

Gross, too, who has Polish citizenship, criticizes his homeland from his “exile” in the United States. To a certain extent, what is happening today in Poland is worse than 1968, he says. Because the two Polish governments, the one in 1968 and today’s both encouraged an outburst of anti-Semitic feelings among the public, says Gross. But in 1968, it was a Communist government and today it is a government elected in free elections by Polish citizens, he explains.

At the same time, Gross finds a major difference between 1968 and 2018 because today the Polish press is no longer censored and those who criticize the government, such as many fine newspapers do, are not thrown into prison now – as happened to Gross.

The comparisons between 1968 and 2018 will be at the center of a conference and film screening to be held at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv. The conference, titled, “March 1968: Fifty Years After the Last Jewish Exodus from Poland,” will be held on Sunday at the museum. Among the sponsors are the Institute for the History of Polish Jewry and the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Antisemitism and Racism, both at Tel Aviv University, along with POLIN - The Museum of the History of Polish Jews.