After the collapse of the Soviet system in 1989, it was anticipated that Western-style liberal democracy would take root across the former Eastern bloc. Authoritarian regimes in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland that had been governed by dead Marxist orthodoxies would inevitably embrace liberal norms.
Instead, those countries are now ruled by a parallel ‘illiberal Europe’, that is in every way opposed to the mainstream. Parties like Jobbik in Hungary draw inspiration directly from Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda and openly deride democratic participation. And in Poland in particular, anti-Semitism forms a recognizable part of that new political landscape. Not for the first time in historical terms – it is a bad time to be a Polish Jew.
1968 was a year of global turmoil. No country in the West was immune: the murder of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in the US; massive protest against the war Vietnam; the barricades in Paris; the attempt to kill the student leader Rudi Dutschke in Berlin; and in Prague, the Warsaw Pact tanks rolled in, putting paid to visions for an alternative “Socialism with a human face.”
That turmoil touched Poland too in the form of the March student revolt of ’68. That revolutionary moment had enormous consequences for Polish Jewry. For my family and almost all Polish Jews, the crushing of the student revolt in Warsaw extinguished any chance of improving their lot through the political system. March 1968 brought together many of the elements that poison today’s politics: virulent assertions of national identity that left no space for minorities or dissident challenge and created long-enduring splits in the political establishment and fractured social life.
The revolt began when Poland’s Communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka declared that the country’s Jews had become a “fifth column” and urged them to leave for Israel. Irritated by signs of support for Israel within Polish society following the Six Day War in 1967, the communist regime severed diplomatic ties with Jerusalem and launched an “anti-Zionist” campaign. Thousands of Polish Jewish students, academics, journalists, actors and doctors lost their livelihoods. Many, ousted by the regime, were left with no choice but to emigrate. A little more than two decades after the Holocaust – in which almost three million Polish Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis – Poland was effectively kicking out the few Jews who remained. By 1969 almost 20,000 Polish Jews were exiled from Poland.
And the parallels between that time of turmoil and conflict with Poland’s present are troubling, particularly for the small Jewish community that still calls Poland home.
“We know about ugly times,” says one ’68er, a retired journalist, “We can spot their beginnings and we know the pattern they will follow.”
Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief Rabbi, agreed: “I hear people saying there’s no future for us here.”
The Polish government’s 2018 Holocaust law introduces prison sentences of up to three years for statements that accuse the “Polish nation” of complicity in the Holocaust
My Grandmother was born Chaja Langer but – like many Polish Jews at the start of the Second World War – changed her name in order to conceal her Jewish identity. Calling herself Hela, she spent most of the war as a partisan with a cyanide capsule around her neck, wading through Warsaw’s sewers, smuggling messages and identifying Nazi-collaborators who were then shot in public by her fellow partisans as a warning to others. Hela was a convinced Socialist and fought the Nazis as part of the People’s Army, a Communist partisan force, separate from the Home Army, Poland’s dominant resistance faction, which contained ant-Semitic elements.
My grandparents met in a field hospital. Hela was wounded, shot by the Nazis – Zygmunt, a fellow socialist, was the doctor who removed the bullet.
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They survived the war full of confidence in a new Socialist Poland. Then, it had seemed to them and their generation that a new Poland could be created that wasn’t bound by backward-looking resentment of Jews and outsiders. Communism could be a modernising force, representative of a new order, that was – they believed – committed to abolishing poverty and intolerance.
Hela’s closest friends were the Baumritter family, fellow Holocaust survivors. Jerzy Baumritter was a Communist journalist and deputy head of Poland’s leading publishing house. He managed to escape Poland shortly after the war broke out in 1939. His parents could not be persuaded to join him – his mother and aunt committed suicide by gas poisoning, his father was shot on the street by a Nazi soldier. He spent the war in the Soviet Union and met his future wife, Tula, a surgeon, in Moscow. My grandmother Hela and the Baumritters were true believers in Socialism who had lost their entire families in the Holocaust. They were Jews who had survived and out of that survival had drawn a common conclusion: that a socialist Poland would stamp out anti-Semitism, it would guarantee them equality and protection.
Both families lived in the same building in apartments once occupied by Nazi officers. My mother, Farida, and the four Baumritter children went to the same Warsaw schools and moved in the same privileged circles; many gravitated towards each other driven by a sense of common identity – hardly any of them had grandparents or extended family. Hela and the other parents never talked about their childhood or what they had gone through during the war.
It was March 1968 that put an end to that silence. The protests in Berlin and Paris originated as radical protests against staid politics and the bourgeois state. The Polish students, in contrast, took to the streets in defence of fundamental democratic values, in particular freedom of speech and the end of censorship. In neighbouring Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubcek had just launched his “Socialism with a human face” reforms. Now, Adam Michnik, Jan Litynski and Seweryn Blumsztajn and some of the other student leaders chanted that they wanted their own Dubcek. By that time my Mother had gone to university and many of my mother’s friends, including the older Baumritter children, joined the demonstrations. Others were restrained by their parents. Fearing for her safety and possible repercussions for themselves, my grandparents locked my mother in the bathroom so that she couldn’t join in.
By March the situation was spiralling out of control. Hundreds of students were arrested. Poland’s leader Gomulka denounced the student activists as “Zionist agents”, setting in motion a brutal anti-Semitic campaign. Government-backed press outlets made sure to stress the Jewish roots of the student leaders. Suddenly Jewish parents who had repressed their Jewishness – and who had denied the awareness of being Jewish to their children – were ousted by the Communist regime. Turned on by their own colleagues, targeted suddenly by the propaganda machine many of them had helped create, Jews became victims again.
For the older generation, who had survived the Holocaust, the regime’s aggressive anti-Semitic rhetoric, brought back memories of that time and gave a new urgency to fears that had begun to be forgotten in the decades that followed. Huddled around a television set in our family’s apartment, my grandparents and the Baumritters broke into tears as Gomulka told them they were unwelcome in Poland. “It has only been 20 years,” Hela cried. Her elderly Polish Catholic housekeeper told her that she would hide her family “when the time comes.” Hela’s brothers lost their jobs. One of them, Lulek, was accused by fellow comrades of holding “conspiratorial meetings” in Yiddish (his daughter thinks he was almost certainly telling Yiddish jokes). The Baumritter parents were also forced out of their jobs and most of my mother’s closest friends were kicked out of university.
Those who decided to emigrate were given a few weeks to have their Polish passports annulled, sell their apartments and pack up their whole lives into one wooden container. To this day, Tel-Aviv’s hipster cafes are filled with bookshelves lined with Warsaw University library books. Stripped of Polish citizenship the émigrés-in-waiting were, irrespective of their final destination, provided with a travel document which stated: “The carrier of this document is not a Polish citizen. Only valid for departure to Israel.” Ironically, many of them had been unaware of their Jewish roots until a few weeks earlier, having been shielded by their parent’s silence and their dobry wyglad (literally ‘good looks,’ a crude term used by Poles when referring to someone who doesn’t look Jewish).
Looking back at this time of purgatory, my mother’s friends remember feeling confused and angry – and betrayed: many of their Polish neighbours had stopped saying hello. Others speak of the eerily quiet homes. Sacked from their jobs, kicked out of university, many Polish Jews sat silently together in their now half-empty apartments, waiting for their departure date. For my mother and grandmother this time meant daily pilgrimages to Warsaw’s Gdansk Railway Station, from where most of their friends took the train to Vienna, one of the few ways out of the country. Older Jews dubbed the train station Umschlagplatz after the holding area set up by the Nazis following the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto where the Jews had been put on cattle trucks and transported to the concentration camps.
March 1968 split families. The eldest of the Baumritter daughters was sent to Sweden, her younger sisters would later emigrate to the United States. Their parents stayed on in Warsaw, their son still in prison. He would eventually be released but he took his life a few months later. Hela’s brothers took their children to the United Kingdom and Austria. My mother, an only child, stayed with her parents in Warsaw. A family friend and neighbour remember a fierce row between my grandparents. After breaking some crockery, Hela ran out of her apartment in her nightgown, wine bottle in hand, and yelled at her husband: “I didn’t fight for this kind of socialism.” Robbed of hope and purpose, and now of her closest friends, Hela died in 1970 after overdosing on painkillers.
Many of those who left continued to live in perpetual uncertainty – ‘unpacked suitcase syndrome’ according to one 68er – even after they had been granted citizenship by the countries that had taken them in. For many decades the Polish exiles had a troubled relationship with Poland. They were bitter and disgusted by the Polish regime but at the same time missed their homeland and their friends. They never stopped feeling Polish, even if most of them chose not to move back to Poland after Communism collapsed. Some – but not all – accepted the identity forced onto them by the Polish authorities and became more Jewish in outlook.
By 1969 two-thirds of Poland’s Jews had left the country. Many of those who stayed did so out of a sense of duty – no longer to the communist party, rather to family members, and to colleagues who protected them during the March turmoil. The editorial staff at Polityka, Poland’s leading highbrow weekly, which my mother joined as a journalist after university, was largely made up of socialist reformers of Jewish origin. Many of them were Holocaust survivors. Marian Turski, who joined Polityka in the late 1950s, survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald concentration camps, as well as two death marches. Daniel Passent, the paper’s economic commentator, spent most of the war in a small closet, hidden by friends of his parents, who were both shot after being denounced to the Nazis.
They were among Poland’s few Jews who managed to keep their jobs and livelihoods, in large part due to the protection offered by Polityka’s Editor-in-Chief, acting in defiance of the Party leadership. During the peak of the regime’s anti-Semitic campaign, Polityka’s journalists would prepare four to five versions of each article – in anticipation that the party’s censors would block the first three. For these survivors, Socialism had finally lost its allure. But, buoyed by personal friendships and loyalty to their boss, they still saw ways to work the system and draw out concessions. They became cautious supporters of a reformist brand of Socialism and in some cases made wrong calls, imagining that the imposition of martial law could save the Polish model. Nowadays many are champions of an open Poland and staunch opponents of the hard-right government.
Daniel Passent, who still writes a weekly column for Polityka, sees the new Holocaust law as a reminder that anti-Semitism still falls on fertile ground in Poland. For Poland, he says, the Jewish issue is like a little pebble stuck in a shoe – not very significant, but a cause of constant discomfort. Until recently, Jew-hatred belonged to far-right nationalists and football hooligans, the preserve of fringe groups. As a child in Warsaw I remember seeing anti-Semitic graffiti – stars of David attached to hangman-nooses scrawled on defunct bus stops and neglected courtyard buildings.
But now, anti-Semitism has returned unabashedly to plain view, ever-present in society and in parliament.
Take this comment, now fairly typical, from a member of parliament for the ruling Law and Justice party: “there is a fifth column in Poland composed of individuals without Polish genes, disgracefully attacking the country they reside in. They have infiltrated the Sejm, media, local government and are murdering Polishness. When will this end?”
This language is a carbon copy of kind propagated by the state-led anti-Semitism of 1968.
A charitable reading of the Law and Justice leadership is that it is not wilfully anti-Semitic and the Holocaust law was not conceived with the explicit goal of antagonising Jews. Rather it was meant to appease the ruling party’s fervently nationalist base and thus cement its hold on power. As Konstanty Gebert, a journalist and prominent member of Warsaw’s Jewish community, said recently: “I don’t think this government wants to see anti-Semitism in the streets, but they don’t want to pay the political price to condemn it, either.”
But, whatever the intention, it has evoked dark spirits. Flare-carrying Poles on the fringes of an Independence Day march in Warsaw last November chanted: “Pure Poland, Jew-free Poland” and “Jews out of Poland.” Poland’s Jewish organizations recently voiced their concern about the return of anti-Semitism, issuing a statement that read: “On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the anti-Semitic events of March 1968 and 75 years after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Polish Jews do not feel safe in Poland.”
The Polish government’s attempts to reassure Jews at home and abroad have so far failed – speaking about the Holocaust law at a conference of world leaders in Munich last month, Prime Minister Morawiecki claimed that there were also Jewish perpetrators of the Holocaust. He also suggested that Poland cannot be held accountable for the purges in ’68 as Poland did not have a status as a nation: “It was the Communist regime that treated the Jews so badly back then,” he said.
It would be reckless to ignore the lessons of ’68. One more positive lesson from that time is that generations do have the power to change the past and reinvent the present. The children of Holocaust survivors protested against their socialist parents, were punished and exiled but went on to form the germ of the Solidarity revolution and the post-communist liberal establishment. To this day, former student leaders Adam Michnik and Seweryn Blumsztajn form the intellectual backbone of daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, one of Poland’s last liberal bastions. Today, with the Solidarity revolution splintered, Michnik says that the country is divided between those who believe in an open or a backward-looking nation. The divisions of Left and right are irrelevant. It remains to be seen whether Poland will choose liberal values over authoritarian government.
I sought out the great survivor, Marian Turski. Fifty years on, now aged 92, Turski is still at Polityka, still full of energy, driving himself between editorial conferences and meetings with foreign dignitaries at the impressive POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, which he helped create. Built on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto, the museum has become one of Poland’s biggest tourist destinations since it opened its doors in 2014.
We met for lunch at the museum and warmed up with Cholent, a hearty Jewish stew – Turski has his own special recipe and has taught the canteen staff how to prepare it the way he likes it. After lunch he led me to a temporary exhibition in the museum dedicated to Jewish music with hundreds of old vinyl records and headsets. We listened to a 1937 recording of a Warsaw synagogue cantor singing El Malei Rachamim, the prayer for the dead. He held my hand and began to cry.