In 1968, Poland embarked on an orchestrated antisemitic campaign that forced thousands of Jews to leave. Now Poland is taking the unprecedented step of investigating state officials for their role in the final collapse of Polish Jewry

Gomulka and Breshnew (photo: Deutsche Bundesarchiv)

Purging itself of the purges?

PUBLISHED IN |  Aug 10, 07

The Six-Day War caught Vera Lechtman quite far from Israel. At that time she was a young pediatrician from Mragowo, a small provincial town in northeastern Poland not far from the border with Belarus and Lithuania (at that time part of the Soviet Union).

On a small television, the only one at the hospital, she anxiously followed the reports of the fighting. When results of the war became known, she was very relieved: At that time she had two cousins in the Israel Defense Forces. Her grandfather, grandmother and several uncles had immigrated to Israel many years earlier.

She celebrated her 29th birthday at the end of June 1967. As was her custom every year, she invited a number of colleagues from work for coffee and cake. Though she was the only Jew at the hospital, during the hard times she experienced while the war was raging, the staff of doctors treated her warmly and she felt comfortable. For that birthday, she recalls, she received an extraordinary number of gifts.

But there was somebody who did not like all this very much. He informed on Lechtman and her friends, saying that they had celebrated Israel’s victory. “I thought that was very funny,” says Lechtman. “I really hadn’t thought of that, I just had a birthday.” The local Communist Party secretary did not find it funny. He told her explicitly that for something like that they could fire her from the hospital.

Similar things, it later emerged, happened to many Polish Jews. That was the opening shot in an orchestrated campaign of anti-Semitism that continued until the end of the 1960s and was a Polish version of the purges and show trials that characterized the Soviet Union of the 1930s. In the wake of economic pressures, dismissals from jobs and an atmosphere of threats, tens of thousands of Jews who still remained there after World War II and the wave of emigration in 1956 emigrated from Poland. This was, in fact, the final note of hundreds of years of Jewish presence in the country.

Now Poland is considering re-opening this chapter of its history. In an unprecedented step, the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), which is responsible for documenting and researching “crimes against the Polish people” during the times of the Nazis and the Communists, has announced an investigation against members of the Communist Party for promoting anti-Semitism. “In the light of the gathered documentation there is no doubting the fact that in 1967 central Communist Party authorities started calling for hatred directed against people of Jewish descent,” states an IPN announcement made at the end of July. “The operation then moved to the local level, setting in across the country.”

The announcement relates to Communist Party members in Lodz who are responsible for the publication of two documents from the period: “Zionism, its Genesis, its Political Character and Anti-Polish Faces” and “The Policies of the Party and its Opponents.” This week the IPN told Haaretz that they are just in the first stages of the investigation and they do not yet have names of specific suspects. The punishment stipulated in Polish law for incitement to racism is up to two years imprisonment.

Pessimistic mood

Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall, 1967 (photo: IDF archive)

Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall, 1967 (photo: IDF archive)

Three weeks before Lechtman’s birthday, in the midst of the Six-Day War, the heads of the Communist parties in East Bloc countries met in Moscow. The atmosphere was chilly: As the conference progressed news was flowing in from the Middle East about the defeat of the Arab states’ armies. Representing Poland at the conference was its president, Wladyslaw Gomulka, who warmly adopted the conference’s recommendations to support the Arab countries and sever diplomatic relations with Israel.

Upon his return to Warsaw, Gomulka shared his pessimistic mood with his colleagues in the leadership, a mood that worsened after he read the reports of the Polish Interior Ministry for June 6, 1967. In these reports there were expressions of support for Israel by Poles of Jewish origin, and young Jews were described as expressing their willingness to go to Israel and participate in the fight against the Arabs.

Historian Dariusz Stola of the University of Warsaw notes that in Poland at that time there were expressions of opinions that stood in total contradiction to the official opinion. In a chapter in the book Kampania antysyjonistyczna w Polsce 1967-1968 (“The Anti-Zionist Campaign in Poland 1967-1968”), Stola notes that Western journalists reported about expressions of support for Israel among non-Jews as well. “Our Jews [the Jews of Poland] are defeating their [the Soviets’] Arabs,” Poles said at the time.

Gomulka’s anger was exacerbated when they found out that in Moscow they knew about the disloyalty among inhabitants of Poland.

The Polish press toed the official line that was dictated by Moscow and exacerbated the anti-Israel campaign in vicious editorials that described the Israeli army’s brutality against a civilian Arab population. The phrase “Israeli aggression” appeared in nearly every news item. The party machine brought out the masses for demonstrations at which everyone declared anti-Israel positions. On June 19, 1967, Gomulka appeared at the Labor Union Congress, which Lechtman, too, remembers well. In his speech Gomulka said that “the Israeli aggression toward the Arab countries has aroused applause among Zionist circles of Polish-Jewish citizens … We do not want a fifth column in this country. We cannot accept with equanimity people … who support the aggressor’s side … Anyone who feels that these remarks are addressed to him – should emigrate.”

This speech marked a new stage in the propaganda campaign, which changed from anti-Israeli to anti-Zionist. Parallel to this, the Polish Interior Ministry prepared surveillance reports on “Jews who are tainted with pernicious Zionism.” According to these reports, which were brought to light after the collapse of communism in 1989, the number of Jews in key positions in government offices was 700 out of 3,500 employees. Of the 382 Jews who were already marked then 76 were journalists and writers, 51 held senior administrative positions, 46 came from the academia and 36 were lawyers.

A new witch-hunt

University of Warsaw, 1968 (photo: Malgorzata Kopczynska)

University of Warsaw, 1968 (photo: Malgorzata Kopczynska)

But this was just the overture to the events of March 1968, most strikingly the student revolt at the universities and its brutal suppression by the authorities. In a strange turn of events, “March 1968” also became a witch-hunt that included anti-Jewish propaganda, organized demonstrations and the expulsion of Jews from the party, workplaces, government offices and the universities. In order to relieve the party of blame for the difficult economic situation in Poland and to provide an answer to the disgruntlement that was expressed in the rioting, the party leadership decided to find a scapegoat that was already very familiar in the history of Poland and all of Europe – the Jews.

It is Jews who are leading the student revolt, charged the party. They are also the ones who are to blame for the crimes of Stalinism. They are also both getting orders from the American Central Intelligence Agency and serving the interests of the Bnei Brith organization. They are not loyal and they are trying to harm the Polish nation because their loyalty is to Zionism and the State of Israel. In this sense, the events of March 1968 in Poland were a combination of familiar Communist purge campaigns and classical anti-Semitism.

It is not as though prior to that there was no anti-Semitism in Poland, says Lechtman. She tells of an educated Jewish student, a woman, who took her aside one day and asked her, “Maybe after all, if everyone says it is true, Jews do use the blood of Jewish children to prepare matza for Passover?” One of her lecturers in medicine at the University of Warsaw giggled together with a number of other students when someone called Lechtman “kike” in class. But Judaism or Zionism were not major elements in Lechtman’s identity. Her parents had left Poland even before World War II, she was born in Paris in 1938 and spent the war in Switzerland with her mother and her younger brother. Her father was caught by the Vichy authorities and sent to the extermination camp at Auschwitz, from which he did not return. Despite all that, at the end of the war her mother wanted to return to Poland.

“Most of the Jews who returned to Poland after the war were communists,” says Lechtman. “My mother thought it was possible to raise children only in a socialist country. She knew that everyone in the family who had stayed in Poland was murdered, at some stage she realized that my father would not come back either and nevertheless she wanted to go back to Poland. At the Polish Embassy in Bern they asked her how she could go back after what had happened at Kielce (a pogrom in July 1946, in which 42 Jews were murdered in the wake of rumors about the use of the blood of a Christian child). She said she was going back to rebuild Poland.”

The commitment to building a new society did not help Lechtman’s mother when informers accused her of being an American spy. She was interrogated and sat in a Communist prison in Poland for five years, from 1949 to 1954, from which she returned a broken woman, physically and mentally. But “neither this nor Stalin’s death in 1953 changed her opinions,” says her daughter. “She never wanted to immigrate to Israel. Things like Zionism, a Jewish state or Israel didn’t speak to her. She believed in what the Communists said, that the Jews had to integrate into the society in which they lived. I was raised as a Pole, not as a Jew. I didn’t know anything about Judaism, except that I had a grandfather in the Land of Israel. I was not in Jewish organizations and I was not a Zionist.”

The events of 1968 shook Lechtman and led her to understand that maybe she thought she was Polish but many Poles saw her as a Jew. Jewish students were thrown out of the universities and secret police investigators told them explicitly that they and their families were no longer welcome in Poland. Young Jewish men were suddenly called up for reserve duty in the army and sent to various units throughout Poland in order to distance them from the focal points of the events. “There was Gomulka’s shouting on radio and television,” relates Lechtman. “They made people take to the streets with placards like ‘Purge the Party of Zionists,’ ‘We shall cut off the head of the anti-Polish Hydra.’

“A friend of my mother’s, an engineer, went through horrible humiliation at her workplace. She was summoned to a meeting and in the presence of 2,000 employees they started to tell her that Jews are responsible for Poland’s economic decline. They told her that she was just pretending to be an engineer. At that same meeting they expelled her from the party and from her job.

“One of Gomulka’s speeches in particular frightened me: It was an anti-Zionist speech that explained that all of the riots were being led by Zionists. What scared me most was that in order to emphasize the Jewishness of the student leaders, he also read out their fathers’ names. I decided that I was not prepared for my children ever to go to prison because of their name.”

Absolutely shattering

Vera Lechtman as a child (source: USHMM)

Vera Lechtman as a child (source: USHMM)

The first to leave Poland was in fact her younger brother. In October 1968, Lechtman was already married to a Christian Pole and the couple had two children. It was easier for her younger brother to leave, but for her mother, who had devoted her life to communist Poland, this was absolutely shattering. At the train station in Warsaw, a few minutes before her son boarded the train, she fainted and lost consciousness. From that day on, the mother had nightmares. The images of her husband who had perished and her son who had left did not give her any rest. Lechtman relates that her mother would cry out in her sleep: “Where have they taken my son? Where have they taken my husband?” She decided the price that she and her family were paying for politics was too high. In 1971 she and her two children left Poland and came to Israel.

Altogether, from 1968 to 1970 about 15,000 Jews left Poland, among them many intellectuals. The historian Stola writes: “This was the most educated wave of emigration Poland has ever known. Thousands of people from the circles of the Polish intelligentsia, among them excellent scientists, artists and writers, left the country. Part of the continuing damage caused by the propaganda campaign was to Poland’s image in the world as a country of incurable anti-Semitism.”

The attempt to combat this image is perhaps one of the reasons for the IPN announcement. In and of itself it is an announcement that is unprecedented, not only in the former Communist bloc but also in all of Europe. However, other historians in Poland are warning of the possibility that this is another attempt to settle political accounts by means of history. Polish historian Jan Grabowski, the head of the history department at the University of Ottawa in Canada, believes that the IPN is currently a tool of the right-wing administration of the brothers Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

“This is a very political organization,” Grabowski told Haaretz, “and everyone who works there is identified with the right. They definitely do not love the Communists and March 1968 is a good opportunity from their perspective to settle accounts. But if they are after those who were responsible for the campaign, it is a matter of thousands, some of whom have undergone a sea change since then and become nationalists who are now close to the Kaczynski twins. It is necessary to see whom they are planning to put on trial and whom they are not, because this could be part of a political agenda. The ideological background of the organization now is Polish nationalist – there were no pogroms against Jews and the Poles always helped the Jews. To open up the anti-Jewish campaign now will be considered an anti-Polish act and therefore I doubt the sincerity of what they are doing.”

Historian Dariusz Libionka, who left the IPN about a month ago arguing that it is not an independent academic organization, also doubts the institute’s motives. “It is logical that they would deal with Lodz,” says Libionka, “because the party branch there was one of the most active in the anti-Zionist campaign. But it still remains to be seen whom they will try to put on trial and who will lead the investigation. To this day, no one in Poland has ever been tried for incitement or promoting anti-Semitism. There does exist a provision in Polish law that enables indictments for such charges, but in practice this is a dead letter. The anti-Semitic campaign of 1967-1968 was a shameful episode in the history of modern Poland, but I’m afraid that the idea of punishing those responsible for it only serves to divert our attention from the very real problem: tolerance of anti-Semitism in contemporary Poland.”