March ’68

Prof. Dariusz Stola
Director of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

On the 50th anniversary of the dramatic events of March 1968, we are looking back on what happened in Poland that year and exploring the meaning it holds for the history of Polish Jews. We will present the experiences of Polish citizens targeted by a vile smear campaign which resulted in many of them migrating from Poland.

It all started with the anti-Israeli campaign of June 1967, when communist Poland, following in the footsteps of its Soviet Big Brother, condemned Israel as the aggressor in the Six-Day War and gave its support to the Arab states alongside other countries of the Eastern Bloc.

Israeli tanks on the Golan Heights, 1967. Photo: Israel National Photo Collection

Władysław Gomułka, at the time the First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, returned from the meeting of communist leaders in Moscow with a heavy heart. He worried that the struggle for influence in the Middle East would spark the outbreak of another world war. He believed that the defeat of the Arab countries would force the Eastern Bloc to close ranks against “imperialists”.

Gomułka, formally first among equals in the party Politburo, was the most important and powerful man in the country. The speech denouncing the “fifth column,” referring to Polish citizens of Jewish origin, was therefore given at the Trade Unions Congress in June 1967 by the highest-ranking official in Poland. Gomułka did not consult his speech with the Politburo and was subsequently accused of infringing the rule of “collective leadership” by several of his comrades, but he paid them no mind. He claimed that he had modified the speech at the last second. He probably saw it convenient that the conflict between him and his adversaries from the Politburo had broken out over a Jewish-related issue. This gave him the upper hand in the contest for power.

“I understand that everyone needs to have one homeland. But why does my homeland have to be Egypt?,” Antoni Słonimski quipped bitterly. There was a period of time when many believed the conflict would not escalate beyond stark criticism of Israel and verbal attacks. There were instances of Jewish military officers being removed from the army, but contrary to the expectations of the Ministry of the Inferior, which wished for a purge to be carried out in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other institutions, a widespread anti-Jewish campaign was not yet to move into full swing. Mieczysław Moczar, Minister of the Interior, called for an investigation of the so-called covert Zionists in Poland, arguing: “Comrades, we are making our preparations, but the decision must be made by the Party.” The Party, however, took its time, and Moczar’s supporters and subordinates had no choice but to aim to steer it in the right direction and wait for the opportune moment to act.

Kazimierz Opaliński in a performance of “Dziady” at the National Theatre, Warsaw, 1967. Photo: PAP

The chain of thus arranged events was set in motion in January 1968, when the theatrical performance of Adam Mickiewicz’s Dziady directed by Kazimierz Dejmek was cancelled by the authorities – probably due to the intervention of an overzealous apparatchik who had noticed anti-Soviet motifs in the play.

The action of the censorship sparked protests among the youth and intelligentsia. Discontent among the society had been growing over several years. The process of de-Stalinisation, which culminated in October 1956, brought about vital and welcome changes in the policy of the party, but it aroused even higher expectations among the general public. These never came to be fulfilled – once Gomułka solidified his position as the First Secretary in 1957, the authorities started to gradually withdraw from the previously made concessions, with time starting to once again “turn the screws” on Polish citizens.

At the same time, Poland was experiencing major social changes. In the 1960s, the generation of the post-war baby boom raised in socialist Poland was entering adulthood. They understood the slogans praising freedom and justice quite literally, and had access to Western cultural trends thanks to the cracks appearing in the “Iron Curtain.” Many started to notice that the Polish People’s Republic was not the country it wanted to present itself as. Many young people reacted to this with anger and defiance. When the authorities went after those protesting the Dziady ban and censorship, a group of students from the University of Warsaw organised a rally in support of their repressed colleagues. It took place on 8 March, with the militia and volunteering worker forces brutally suppressing the demonstration.

This was the opportunity long awaited by Moczar and his entourage. The reports drawn up by the Security Service provided the party leaders with a list of young Jewish people who had allegedly incited the rally. This version of events was then spread by the propaganda, which presented a paranoid vision of a Jewish and neo-Nazi conspiracy. The youth revolt was believed to be the consequence of such covert machinations, as argued by the authors of an article published in Słowo Powszechne, a newspaper owned by the “Pax” Association – a group of “progressive Catholics” cooperating with the communist regime and led by Bolesław Piasecki, a pre-war fascist. The German threat was a staple of propaganda in the Polish Republic of Poland throughout its existence, but the motif of “Zionists” made its first appearance since the Stalinist era.

Labor Day official celebrations, Marszałkowska Street, Warsaw, 01/05/1968. Visible slogans – “Down with Zionist provocations!”, “We condemn revisionists and Zionists!” and “We condemn Israel’s aggression!”. Photo: Wojtek Laski / East News

Over the next several days the public opinion became flooded with aggressive propaganda. The party put all its efforts into the attack against the alleged enemies of the state, using smear tactics developed in the Stalinist era. Television, radio, popular newspapers, posters, banners, and even writings on walls all vilified “Zionists.” Tens of thousands of assemblies were organised – from big marches attended by 100,000 people to small meetings in individual workplaces.

Many people decided to move out of their homeland, not being able to live in a country steeped in so much hatred. “I migrated from Poland because it was the only country where I was not allowed to be Polish,” said one of the migrants. He could be a Pole in Sweden, he could become a Pole in the United States but not in Poland, where an entire group of citizens was expelled from the society because of their ethnicity.

March 1986 was not the first hate campaign organised by the authorities of the Polish People’s Republic. In the 1950s, similar actions were taken almost incessantly: against the “imperialists,” “reactionary midgets of the Home Army,” “kulaks,” “enemies of the people,” and so on. Two years before the March events, the party attacked Catholic bishops. None of these campaign, however, caused quite as strong emotional reaction as the March campaign, which must have hit a raw nerve. The party, presenting itself as the opponent of racism and nationalism, started to incite anti-Semitism with all the zeal of pre-war right-wing nationalists, barely veiling it under the pretence of “anti-Zionism.” Over the course of the campaign, many were swayed by the propaganda, others took it as an opportunity to demonstrate their subservience in the name of career goals or settling personal scores, hatemongers felt free to give rein to their resentment, loyal citizens supported the government, while the meek-hearted kept their heads down. A lot of people took note of the vile character of the campaign, protested against it, and showed kindness and compassion for the victims, but their voices were drowned out by the hateful noise. The March campaign was also strongly anti-intellectualist. It relied on the negative feelings of the so-called “common people” and disguised itself as a renewal movement, giving the society freedom to criticise the entitlement of the establishment – as long as the criticism was presented as “anti-Zionist.”

Władysław Gomułka addressing the 4th Congress of Trade Unions in the Congress Hall of the Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw, 19/06/1967. Photo: PAP / Cezary Marek Langda

Gomułka played his cards right during 1968. Not only did he manage to quell the revolt of the youth by isolating it from the working class, but he also removed his opponents from the Politburo and hampered the development of Moczar’s professional career. Was he persuaded by the narrative of a Jewish conspiracy proposed by the Security Service or did he independently decide that such approach would prove useful in dealing with the party’s internal squabbles? This remains uncertain. It is true that he disliked several of his Jewish comrades, but he did not want for the anti-Jewish campaign to become as intense as it did. He eventually made attempts to tone it down and draw a clear line not to be crossed, but it was all too little, too late. As the leader of the United Workers’ Party and the most important person in the country, he is morally and politically responsible for the events of March 1968.

From the perspective of the thousand-year long history of Jews in Poland, the March campaign was far from being its most dramatic event. After all, it was not as cruel and bloody as the pogroms taking place during the Khmelnytsky Uprising in the 17th century or the anti-Jewish riots of the 1930s. It did, however, take place only 50 years ago, barely 23 years after World War II and the Holocaust.

The community of several million people, reduced to only several hundred thousand after the Holocaust and then to several dozen thousand after the wave of post-war migration, was greatly affected by the March events, which drove almost 15,000 people out of the country and left those who stayed in the country feeling estranged and unwelcome. Mass migration and repressions inflicted on Polish Jews resulted in a crisis of the Jewish social and cultural life in Poland. In the 1970s, it seemed that the history of Polish Jews was coming to an end. It was not until the great post-1989 transformations that the small community could be revived.

Farewells at Warsaw’s Gdański Railway Station, 1969. Photo: Elżbieta Turlejska

On the 50th anniversary of the March events we want to look back on what happened in the spring of 1968 and shed light on the experiences of those who fell victim to the campaign. This requires certain effort and imagination, as well as deliberate ignorance of the eventual outcome of the events. The people taken to prison in 1968 had no way of knowing when they would be released. Those relegated from universities with “wolf tickets” did not know whether they would ever be able to resume their studies or find a decent job. Emigrants were unsure whether they would find a new home anywhere, whether it would ever be possible to return to Poland or even visit the country.

We want for historical materials regarding March 1968 to become a starting point for the reflection on current issues: the mechanisms of spreading defamatory lies in new media, manifestations of exclusion and discrimination, relations between the majority and minorities, or attitudes towards “aliens,” such as refugees from remote countries. In order to be well-prepared for the challenges of the modern world, we should take note of our past experiences, both negative and positive. The lesson drawn from March 1968 remains as relevant is ever.

We encourage everyone to participate in the Estranged. March ’68 and Its Aftermath programme. Its most significant aspect is a temporary exhibition in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, shown from 9 March until 24 September 2018. The programme also encompasses lectures, meetings with witnesses of history, academic conferences, theatrical projects, and educational workshops. Throughout the period of the exhibition we will be collecting keepsakes and oral history accounts for the purposes of our museum collection.

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