Monday, March 03, 2008

The Polish 68-ers

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…

Radical theatre

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.


Anonymous said...

But few in the West have heard of the names associated with events in Poland of that year: Jacek Kuron, Adam Michnik…

And of those few who had heard of them, most would have said or still say that Kuron was a Jew.

Yul Brynner would have been proud of them.

He also played the lead in the Taras Bulba (the Cossack guy) movie.

C'mon BR, don't be so misanthropic about the young ones! My guess is that while they are not so much into protest and getting their heads whacked, there will be more than a few who push scientific progress beyond any of our dreams, even if they wipe out humanity in the process.

Couldn't resist, sorry.

But the problem is when $$$ leads science instead of when science progresses towards truth and good without all the dollar signs being the measurement of that progress. Or something like that.

beatroot said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
beatroot said...

there will be more than a few who push scientific progress beyond any of our dreams, even if they wipe out humanity in the process.

I agree with you there up until the comma.

But that is technological progress you are talking about there. I am talking about political inspiration and guts and commitment. I see none. Useless.

My dad used to complain that my generation were idealistic nutballs. Maybe we were. But my generation was more radical than the one following. That's unique, I think in the west.

Anonymous said...

A lot of what happened in terms of the flash in the pan radical political movement in the US in the 60s was predicated upon the hope and enthusiasms generated by JFK. Yea, he was a war mongerer, too, but he signalled something new and exciting. Something Obama's doing, too. Yea, his politics fit a certian mould, too. But I think something good could come out of him getting elected -- but I don't think he's gonna be able to pull it off.

Baltic Zephyr said...

Very nice review of a tragic time in Polish history but why the slag on Polish youth?

What about the hundreds of thousands that are braving new countries to make a living and a career for themselves abroad? Or the ones who are trying to fight against rigid convention to modernize Poland and achieve its potential at home?

The heavy hand of communism required a heavy handed response, a much dafter hand is required to build then to fight.

YouNotSneaky! said...

My dad recalled showing up to high school one day in 1968 and finding half his teachers just gone. People who no one ever knew were Jewish. Hell, some of them probably didn't know they were Jewish themselves.

Also, I agree with Baltic zephyr above. Those were different times. These days these young so called "activists" (the equivalent word in Polish "dzialacz" has a well deserved bad reputation) are just plain 'ol annoying and uninformed, jumping on the latest "cause of the week" bandwagon.

Anonymous said...

The jew has no place in Poland, sorry, they want to return to cause more problems, let them stay where they are. Poland for Poland

beatroot said...

Zephyr et al...
...why the slag on Polish youth?

You miss my point. I was talking globally, not about Poland. Back in those days students were seen as a focus for social change. 1968 marked the shift in focus of expecting the working class to be the bringers of change – the revolutionary agent – to the middle class.

This was the case too in Poland. Workers revolts seem to be going nowhere. In fact they had been bought off before with promises of more from the commies. And then the students revolted – all over the world.

Of course Poland also showed that you have to create solidarity between different social groups to being about change. Real change, not the Obama variety (whatever that maybe be).

It was an exciting time, politically, in 1968. Not now.

Anonymous said...

1968 was one thing, Solidarnosc another.

A very small percentage of students were involved in student protests in 1968 but managed to ingeniously manipulate the media to portray this movement in terms of being a critical mass. Silly.

Certainly, Solidarnosc was much more broadbased, as noted.

But Obamamania is very broadbased and is generating excitement like I haven't experienced since, well, the 60s. And I'm a tired old fart on the way out.

And the US is diverse in ways that Poland isn't. Who the hell knows what kind of change this phenonemon will stir up? I'm willing to give the guy a chance. I'm mighty tired of endless skepticism. Doesn't excite me at all.

YouNotSneaky! said...

Also, now for some reason I'm thinking that the "Siamists go back to Siam" thing was a later Jacek Federowicz parody.

beatroot said...

Both of you. Read Kurlansky. And the Siam thing is well known here.

Baltic Zephyr said...

Let me start with an oximoron: All generalizations are poor arguments. Nostalgia spoglada przez rozowe okulary. Your discourse was very plainly stated, I am sure that I did not miss the point.

I believe that the contrast, globally speaking, between then and now is that the fifties were a time when establishments were projecting and implementing notions of permanence; utopist concepts were not meant to change so the people were able to revolt by demonstrating change. This was reflected globally through movements such as the hippie movements in the west, student movements in Europe and later in Asia (Think Tienamin Square).

We now live in a time of rapid global change, as such people have a sense of trying to keep up rather then provoke more change. Yet, where there are hard targets we very often see opposition, usually in the form of student movements. Think about GATT protests, G8 summits, Greenpeace, the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, Rose revolution in Georgia, Burmese protests against military junta, or yesterday’s protests in Moscow. It is an exciting time now, perhaps more then any in history because of this change.

As a sidebar, Polish Solidarity is a typically Polish oxymoron; Solidarity, with this rare exception, has hardly been a characteristic of Polish society.

Anonymous said...

How will reading Kurlansky challenge my reading of the 60s vis-a-vis now?

I've now read a few of the reviews.

The big difference seems to be media coverage rather than actual events. And it seems, at least from what I've gathered from the reviews, that he relied heavily on Time, Life, etc. to gauge what was going on back in 1968.

To be sure, TV was for the first time carrying the 1968 events on network news and feeding them across the globe. Students in Poland fed off of what was going on in the US and elsewhere. And students knew how to manipulate the media.

Those times are gone. The media is not going to be manipulated by students, workers, but rather by their corporate overlords. So go figure that there isn't all that much coverage of protests these days.

And to tell you the truth, I don't think that's where it's at anymore. Back then it was all change perculating from the bottom-up. I don't care if it's being initiated by the likes of Obama from the top-down these days. I'll even settle, very reluctantly, if it comes from Clinton. Eventually, if some breathing room is opened up, the tides will start moving again and there will be some bottom-up again. Koestlers' pendulum of history.

sonia said...

Israelis are also none too pleased about having to go through a rigorous procedure that many see as demeaning.

Well, it's either that or the Hamas's and Hezbollah's rockets...

Anonymous said...

The events of 1968 in Poland had little relevance to the social unrest of the 1960’s in the west, they were unrelated matters.

The tens of thousands of Jews who were expelled from Poland in 1968 after the communist inspired anti-Semitic campaign of that year are trying to regain Polish citizenship and an apology. This is purely an economic matter as without Polish citizenship one cannot seek financial restitution. The idea behind the apology is once given it sets into play legal liability for the current Polish state. Should any of this occur it would set the legal precedent that the German expellees require to proceed against Poland for restitution.

No apology and no automatic citizenship.

The solution to this dilemma is two fold, firstly we send all remaining communist functionaries who were involved in this to Israel for prosecution and secondly allow automatic citizenship to any former Polish citizen who chooses to reside in Poland for a five-year period.

Problem solved.

Baltic Zephyr said...

Legal precedence is a feature of common law not Romanic/Tort law. Regardless of this very important legal oversight, there would be no legal precedence as such because the expulsion of the Jewish community happened at the end of the 60’s, deep into socialism; this was a time when there was virtually no private ownership regardless of heritage, property was allocated by the State to whom all belonged.

Secondly, the expulsion of Germans was founded upon the justification of the war being waged against Poland by Germany, as such, no restitution is required.

Thirdly, the Polish government that fought against communism for the freedom of the nation from Soviet proxy rule should not have to apologize for the actions of the government which they fought against.

Finally, the statement of extraordinary rendition of communists, regardless of their nationality (with the notable exception of those who are Israeli citizens) is pure fantasy and emotional rationalization.

Problem unsolved.

michael farris said...

"The tens of thousands of Jews who were expelled from Poland"

I bet some of them thought of themselves as Poles first. Stupid Jews, that'll show 'em.

And isn't it interesting that anonymous thinks that no one could actually have emotional ties to Poland.

This is a big blot of shame on post-communist Poland and it does no Polish government any credit that this wasn't rectified in 1990.

They deserve Polish citizenship if they want it and economic consequences be damned. Right is right.

Anonymous said...

In a just world (ha-ha-ha-ha), the Russians and/or German governments would be required to pay restitution to the Jews and their forebears who lost their property in Poland. And then some.

beatroot said...

The events of 1968 in Poland had little relevance to the social unrest of the 1960’s in the west, they were unrelated matters.

This is where the Kurlansky book is instructive. He shows how Michnik and others were inspired by the civil rights movement and students protests in Europe and the US.

The fact that the protest revolved around a cultural production is also important. This is how things were developing elsewhere too. Conflict had gone from economic, class based struggles to cultural ones, and the Polish 68 ers were no different.

And here is the contradiction. One of the slogans of that year by the students was ‘freedom before bread.’ Of course the working class opposition in Poland thought they were nuts. ‘What is the use of freedom is you have nothing to eat.’ It was that difference that kept the workers away from the protests – in fact they offered no help at all.

In 1970 the intellectuals did nothing much to help our the workers either.

That all changed in 1976 with the setting up of the workers defence committee which sought to make allies between intellectuals and workers – hence solidarity four years later.

So if you want a perspective of how the events of 68 in Poland were connected to protets elsewhere I recommend Kurlansky’s book. And when you have read that one read the brilliant Salt – a histiry of salt. Sounds dull but it is actually one of the best history books I ever read.

michael farris said...

And in breaking news:

Keeping the spirit of 68 alive (but which side?) President Kaczynski did not invite Michnik to the commemoration ceremony and one honoree turned down a decoration from the president.

beakerkin said...


Are you so Gin impaired that you are clueless. Anti-semitism is central to Communism and has been so since its inception. Populist anti-semitism has always been Central to the cause of Communism.

Funny talk of Zionist cabals show trials seems familiar....... Fast forward to today and we hear the same crap with neocons and a few new conspiracy angles thrown in.
If you go in a time machine into the future it will be the same thing. Commies are and have always be anti-semites.

kalimak said...

Torańska's interviews with people who left Poland 1968 were stunning. The utter stupidity of attempts to tear apart their identities by denying their Polishness was encapsulated by the idiotic placards from the 1968 film chronicle--just as Beatroot said, the "anti-Zionists" couldn't even spell "Zion," many of them had merely a faint idea of what they were trying to do.

One of the commenters above was arrogant enough to put forward the neo-Nazi (yes, you have not misread) slogan "Poland for Poles." I suggest shutting up, seeing Torańska's documentary, listening carefully to what you hear, and putting things together.

Contrasted with the idiocy of the placards and the obnoxious spelling mistakes on them, the language spoken by the interviewees really makes you wonder what it means to be a Pole and who could possibly be allowed to decide about who is Polish and who is not. Most of the interviewees had not been to Poland since 1968, yet their Polish sounded rich and sophisticated. No traces of a foreign accent, no searching for words. Banished from a country they had long ago thought of as home, they still felt a bond strong enough to make the language part of everyday life.

What happened in Poland in 1968 was shameful and painful not just for the ones who left. As one of the interviewees described it, they left the country as Poles, Polish Jews. The exile made them Jews. In 1968 Poland lost many great minds. Anyone who believes they are allowed to pass judgment as to the ethnicity and belonging of those minds is just like one of those idiots holding placards with spelling mistakes.

Putting forward notions of 'ethnic purity' in Poland is a severe case of stupidity. The last thing that country needs is neo-nazism. To the forgetful: Poles were not the masters in that narrative, but the slave race. If you embrace an ideology, according to which you are a base creature, you are proving yourself as mentally deficient as your enemies would like to have you.

Given the great number of Polish Jews before WWII and the self-definition of those who were banished in 1968, ideas of 'ethnic purity' in the context of Poland seem to be a form of self-hatred. Just when you think you can call the shots, someone else could come and for an arbitrarily chosen reason, call you un-Polish. Until it's just blond people with that particular shape of cheekbones and religious paranoia burning their brains.

Polishness is not a toy you can take from someone because you 'feel like it.' What would Polish literature be without Leśmian and Schulz? What would Polish politics and journalism be without Kuroń and Michnik? What if the 1968 communist scheme was a way to thwart the possibility of an uprising against Soviet control? "Divide and rule." If we help the divisions ourselves, we really aren't worth much.