The Shalom Foundation in Warsaw wants tens of thousands of Jews who were expelled from Poland in 1968 after the communist inspired anti-Semitic campaign of that year to regain Polish citizenship.
Commemorations of what happened that year will take place on March 5.
The Communists took away Polish passports and gave Jews a one-way ticket, usually to Austria, where most went on to reside in Israel.
In 2006, when President Lech Kaczynski was in Israel trying to mend difficult relations between the two countries over the decades, promised that any Jewish Pole who wanted their citizenship back could have it, ‘as if they had never been away’.
Problem is – it isn’t in the president’s power to give back their passports. The local authorities, as I understand it, have that privilage, and many are not too keen. Giving back their citizenship would also give them back property rights. Israelis are also none too pleased about having to go through a rigorous procedure that many see as demeaning.
1968 – the year that rocked
Mark Kurlansky’s 1968: the year that rocked the world – available in Polish and English language bookshops - unravels the connections between the revolutionary events of that year in Paris, Prague, America and Poland.
Like 1945 or 1989, 1968 is one of those years that are seen as pivotal to the history of the 20th century.
We were only one year away from the first human being walking on the moon. It was a time of civil rights and anti-war protests, of new and inventive music and sub-cultures, of scientific and social experiment. A very different time, then, from the one we live in today, characterized as it is by aversion to risk and a fear of the new.
The motor of this movement for social change were young, mostly middle class sons and daughters of the old ruling elites. It was a time when students were concentrating more of sit-ins and love-ins than they were on their study-ins. It was a time of hallucinogenic drugs, which my granny used to tell me made one want to jump from the top of multi-story car parks in the mistaken impression that one was an albatross.
Most people, except perhaps the most historically challenged, will have heard of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Abie Hoffman in the US; or in France, Henri Comte and Jean Paul Satire; or in the Czechoslovak capital, the students and Alexander Dubcek. All over the world, ruling elites had lost their legitimacy and were under pressure.
But few in the West have heard of the names associated with events in Poland of that year: Jacek Kuron, Adam Michnik…
In Warsaw, it all started with an evening at the theatre. The Polish National Theatre decided to stage a new radical interpretation of Dziady. – which is sometimes translated in English as Forefathers’ Eve – by Poland’s most celebrated poet, Adam Mickiewicz. The play, written in the early nineteenth century, tells the story of Polish political prisoners under czarist Russia. As well as a being a political play it is also interpreted by theatre and literary critics as being a mystical, religious piece of work.
The communists had no problem with the political content, but they weren’t too keen on all the religious stuff, which had undertones of a pre-communist Poland they would rather people forgot. They saw this version of the play as being subtly subversive, and with a stupidity characteristic of the regime, decided that they were going to ban it.
On the last night of the performance, about 300 students from Warsaw University picketed outside the theatre and then marched through the center of town in protest. They were met by police and so-called workers-militia (who were basically a bunch of thugs) who beat them up and the police arrested anyone trying to get away from them.
The next day thousands of students joined in the demonstrations on the university campus, refused to go to classes, called for more freedom of expression and held sit-ins outside the Dean’s office, just as they had seen American students do on television. Before long, students from other universities had joined the struggle. All were met by the workers militias, and were beaten and arrested.
These protests had a similar character to those in Paris, or New York; mostly middle class kids from good homes, connected to parents who were part of the establishment. Another thing that the leaders of these protests had in common was that many of them were Jewish.
But in Poland, as ever, there was an extra twist.
The communist party in the late sixties was divided into two factions: those who had fled Poland as the Nazis invaded, or lived in areas in the east of the country grabbed by Stalin in 1939. Many of these people were taken to the gulags, only to team up with the Soviet army as a way of freeing themselves from Stalin’s grip. Many, maybe not surprisingly, were Jews. The other group, more nationalist in their outlook – the self-styled Partisans – came from communist cells within the underground movement, who fought the Nazis from within Poland.
Many of the ‘Partisans’ were anti-Semites and wanted to get rid of Jews from the party, who they accused of being ‘Zionists’. Remember, 1968 came just a year after the Israeli-Arab conflict, in which Moscow sided with the Arab states – the losing side.
Jews in Poland had become communism’s scapegoats. And with many sons and daughters of Jewish members of the party taking part in the student protests, the opportunity for an anti-Jewish purge was just too tempting to be turned down.
The ‘Partisans’ organized counter-demonstrations, leading chants such as: “Zionists go back to Zion.” Unfortunately, the mob that the party had assembled were simple folk who had never even heard of Zionism. In fact, they thought that the militias were shouting, “Siamists go back to Siam”, and chanted along with gusto.
Yul Brynner would have been proud of them.
Meanwhile, the communist regime had given most of Poland’s remaining Jews one-way tickets to the West, stripping them of their passports.
Jacek Kuron, Adam Michnik and many of the other protest leaders were arrested again and thrown in jail. The demonstrations gradually ran out of steam, and a potentially dangerous ‘counter-revolutionary’ movement was snuffed out.
One of the failures of the demos in Poland, as elsewhere, was that the intellectuals failed to make connections with the workers. It was only when, in the late 1970’s, intellectuals such as Kuron connected up with workers such as Lech Welasa that the opposition movement really gained steam. And that is why the name of Solidarity was chosen for the first independent trade union in the communist bloc: it was a solidarity between workers and intellectuals – two parts of Polish society that were finally, and mutually, dependant on each other.
In the book, 1968, the year that rocked the world, American journalist, Mark Kurlansky tells this story well, and captures the spirit of adventure that was so characteristic among university students all over the world back in 1968.
Fast forward to today and look at the university students. Do you see that same idealistic, brave, adventurist spirit? If you do, then maybe you have been ingesting some of those chemicals that granny said make you want to jump off the roof of multi-story car parks.
Monday, March 03, 2008
Posted by beatroot at 3/03/2008