Rahul Sharma (Editor)

1968 Polish political crisis

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Date  March, 1968
1968 Polish political crisis
Location  Several biggest agglomerations across Poland, including Warsaw, Kraków, Lublin, Gliwice, Wrocław, Gdańsk, Poznań, and Łódź
Causes  Pro-democracy protests. Political crisis within the Polish United Workers' Party.

The Polish 1968 political crisis, also known in Poland as March 1968 or March events (Polish: Marzec 1968; wydarzenia, wypadki marcowe), pertains to a major student and intellectual protest action against the government of the Polish People's Republic. The crisis resulted in the suppression of student strikes by security forces in all major academic centres across the country and the subsequent repression of the Polish dissident movement. It was also accompanied by a mass emigration following an antisemitic (internally branded "anti-Zionist" at the time) campaign waged by the minister of internal affairs, General Mieczysław Moczar, with the approval of First Secretary Władysław Gomułka of the Polish United Workers' Party. The protests coincided with the events of the Prague Spring in neighboring Czechoslovakia – raising new hopes of democratic reforms among the intelligentsia. The unrest culminated in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia on 20 August 1968.


The anti-Jewish campaign had already begun in 1967. The policy was carried out in conjunction with the Soviet withdrawal of all diplomatic relations with Israel after the Six-Day War, but also involved a power struggle within the Polish communist party itself. The subsequent purges within the ruling party, led by Mieczysław Moczar and his faction, failed to topple Gomułka's government, but resulted in an expulsion from Poland of thousands of individuals of Jewish ancestry, including professionals, party officials and the secret police functionaries blamed for the crimes of the Stalinist period. In carefully staged public displays of support, factory workers across Poland were forced to publicly denounce Zionism. At least 13,000 Poles of Jewish origin emigrated in 1968–72 as a result of being fired from their positions and various other forms of harassment.


Political turmoil of the late 1960s – exemplified in the West by the increasingly violent protests against the Vietnam War – were reflected in the East by the events of the Prague Spring which began on 5 January 1968. A growing wave of protests in Czechoslovakia marked the highpoint of a broader series of dissident social mobilization. The protests within the framework of Comecon had a partial precedent in the Polish 1956 worker protests and the Polish October events. Numerous instances of protest and revolt, especially among students, reverberated across the continent in 1968.

A growing crisis of communist party control over universities, the literary community, and intellectuals more generally, marked the mid-1960s. In Poland, those persecuted for political activism on campus included Jacek Kuroń, Adam Michnik, Karol Modzelewski, Barbara Toruńczyk, and numerous others.

Polish student and intellectual protest

The outbreak of the March 1968 unrest was seemingly triggered by a series of events in Warsaw, but in reality it was a culmination of trends accumulating in Poland over several years. The economic situation was deteriorating and a drastic increase in the prices of meat came into effect in 1967. In 1968, the market was destabilized further by the rumors of an upcoming currency exchange and an ensuing panic. Higher norms were enforced for industrial productivity with wages reduced at the same time. First Secretary Gomułka was afraid of all changes. The increasingly heavy censorship stifled intellectual life, the boredom of stagnation and the mood of hopelessness (lack of career prospects) generated social conflict. The disparity between the expectations raised by the Polish October movement of 1956 and the actuality of the "real socialism" life of the 1960s led to mounting frustration.

At the end of January 1968, after its poor reception at the Central Committee of the communist Polish United Workers' Party, the government authorities banned the performance of a Romantic play by Adam Mickiewicz called Dziady (written in 1824), directed by Kazimierz Dejmek at the National Theatre in Warsaw, on the grounds that it contained Russophobic and "anti-Soviet" references and represented an unduly pro-religious stance. The play had been staged 14 times, the last time on January 30. The ban was followed by a demonstration after the final performance, resulting in numerous police detentions. Dejmek was expelled from the Party and subsequently fired from the National Theatre. He left Poland and returned in 1973, to continue directing theatrical productions.

In mid-February, a petition signed by 3,000 people (or over 4,200) protesting the censorship of Dziady was submitted to parliament by the student protester Irena Lasota. Gathered for an extraordinary meeting on February 29 (over 400 attended), the Warsaw chapter of the Polish Writers' Union condemned the ban and other encroachments on free speech rights. The speakers blamed the faction of Minister Moczar and the Party in general for antisemitic incidents, as that campaign was just gaining traction. On March 4, the removal of dissidents Adam Michnik and Henryk Szlajfer from the University of Warsaw was announced by officials. A crowd of some 500 rallying students (or about 1,000) at the University on March 8 was met with a violent attack from the state-mobilized "worker squad" (probably plainclothes police) as well as police in uniform. Nonetheless, other institutions of higher learning in Warsaw joined the protest a day later.

Attack by security forces

Historian Dariusz Gawin of the Polish Academy of Sciences pointed out that the March 1968 events have been mythologized in subsequent decades beyond their modest original aims, under the lasting influence of the originally left-wing Komandosi, a student political activity group. During the 1968 crisis, the dissident academic circles produced very little in the area of written accounts or programs, mostly because of the moral shock of the lies spread by the government (propaganda misrepresentations of the participants' intentions and actions) and the unexpectedly violent repressions. They also experienced an ideological shock, caused by the reaction of the authorities (aggression) and society (indifference) to their idealistic attempts to subject the People's Republic to revolutionary reform. The alienation of the reform movement from the ostensibly socialist system had begun.

The students were naïve in terms of practical politics, but their leaders professed strongly leftist convictions, expressed in brief proclamations distributed in 1968 (following the spirit of the 1964 "revisionist" manifesto by Karol Modzelewski and Jacek Kuroń), demanding respect for the ideals of the Marxist–Leninist dictatorship of the proletariat and principles of socialism. The students were singing "The Internationale" anthem (in later accounts, the founding mythology of Poland's civil society movement (late 1970s) and then of the establishment of the new democratic-liberal Poland would obliterate the socialist, leftist and revolutionary aspects of the March 1968 movement). Therefore, the storming of Warsaw University by the (fake) factory workers came as a total surprise to the students. The 1,000 participants (possibly many more) of the 8 March rally were met with violent beatings from ORMO volunteer reserve and ZOMO riot squads just as they were about to go home. The disproportionately brutal reaction of the security forces appeared to many observers to be a provocation perpetrated to aggravate the unrest and facilitate further rounds of repression, in their political leaders' self-interest. A demonstration of similar size originated on March 9 at the Warsaw Polytechnic and was also followed by confrontations with the police and arrests. Kuroń, Modzelewski and Michnik were imprisoned again and a majority of the Komandosi members were detained.

Within a few days protests spread to Kraków, Lublin, Gliwice, Katowice, and Łódź (from March 11), Wrocław, Gdańsk, and Poznań (March 12). The frequent demonstrations at the above locations were brutally suppressed by the police. Mass student strikes took place in Wrocław on March 14–16, Kraków on March 14–20, and Opole. A student committee at Warsaw University (March 11) and an inter-university committee in Kraków (March 13) were formed, attempts to organize were also made in Łódź and Wrocław. Efforts aimed at getting industrial workers involved, for example employees of the state enterprises in Gdańsk, Wrocław and Kraków's Nowa Huta, produced no tangible effects. But on March 15 in Gdańsk, 20,000 students and workers marched and fought into the late evening the security forces of 3,700 men.

The actual university students comprised less than 25% of those arrested for participating in the opposition activities in March and April (their predominance was a part of the subsequent myth, wrote Łukasz Kamiński of the Institute of National Remembrance), while the leading role in the countrywide street protests was played mainly by young factory workers assisted by high school students.

Eastern Bloc condemnation of Arab-Israeli war of 1967

As the Israeli-Arab Six-Day War started on June 5, 1967, the Polish Politburo met the following day and made policy determinations, declaring condemnation of "Israel's aggression" and full support for the "just struggle of the Arab countries". Gomułka and Cyrankiewicz then went to Moscow on June 9 for a Middle East conference of communist leaders. The participants deliberated in a depressed atmosphere. The decisions made included the Warsaw Pact's continuation of military and financial support for the Arab states and the breaking of diplomatic relations with Israel, in which only Romania refused to participate. The events of 1967 altered the relatively correct relations between People's Poland and Israel.

A media campaign commenced in Poland and was soon followed by "anti-Israeli imperialism" rallies held in various towns and places of employment. After the government delegation's return to Warsaw, Gomułka, pessimistic and fearful of a possible nuclear confrontation and irritated by the reports of support for Israel among many Polish Jews, on June 19 proclaimed at the Trade Union Congress that Israel's aggression had been "met with applause in Zionist circles of Jews – Polish citizens." Gomułka specifically invited "those who feel that these words are addressed to them" to emigrate, but Edward Ochab and some other Politburo members objected and the statement was deleted before the speech's publication. Gomułka did not issue a call for anti-Jewish personnel purges, but the so-called "anti-Zionist" campaign got underway anyway, supported by his close associates Kliszko and Ignacy Loga-Sowiński. It was eagerly amplified by General Mieczysław Moczar, minister of internal affairs and by some military leaders among others, who had long been waiting for an opportunity to "settle with the Jews". A list of 382 "Zionists" was presented at the Ministry on June 28 and the purge slowly developed, beginning with Jewish generals and other high-ranking officers of the Polish armed forces. About 150 Jewish military officers were fired in 1967–68, including Czesław Mankiewicz, national air defense chief. Minister of Defense Marian Spychalski tried to defend Mankiewicz and by doing so compromised his own position. The Ministry of Internal Affairs renewed its proposal to ban the Jewish organizations from receiving the Joint Committee foreign contributions. This time, unlike on previous occasions, the request was quickly granted by the Secretariat of the PZPR's Central Committee and the well-developed Jewish social, educational and cultural organized activities in Poland faced their stiff reduction or even practical liquidation.

Only about 200 people lost their jobs and were removed from the Party in 1967, including the chief editor of Trybuna Ludu, the Party's main daily newspaper. Leon Kasman was Moczar's hated rival from the time of the war, when Kasman arrived from the Soviet Union and was parachuted in Poland. After March 1968, when Moczar's ministry was finally given the free hand it had long sought, 40 employees were fired from the editorial staff of the Polish Scientific Publishers (PWN). The major state publishing house had produced a number of volumes of the official Great Universal Encyclopedia. Moczar and others protested in the fall of 1967 the supposedly unbalanced treatment of World War II issues, namely the stressing of the Jewish martyrdom and the unique to that ethnicity Nazi death camp losses.

In the words of Polish scholar Włodzimierz Rozenbaum, the Six-Day War "provided Gomułka with an opportunity 'to kill several birds with one stone': he could use an 'anti-Zionist' policy to undercut the appeal of the liberal wing of the Party; he could bring forward the Jewish issue to weaken the support for the nationalist faction (in the Party) and make his own position even stronger...", while securing political prospects for his own supporters.

In the 19 June 1967 speech Gomułka warned: "We don't want an establishment of a fifth column in our country" (sentence deleted from a published version). Such views he repeated and developed further in successive speeches, for example on 19 March 1968. On 27 June 1967, the first secretary characterized Romania's position as shameful, predicted production of nuclear arms by Israel and spoke of consequences in respect to people who had "two souls and two fatherlands", but refrained from making any concrete recommendations. After Gomułka's initiation of the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propaganda, the security services began screening officials of Jewish origin and looking for 'hidden Zionists' in Polish institutions.

Political purges and propaganda

In March 1968, the anti-Jewish smear campaign, loud propaganda and mass mobilization were greatly intensified and the process of purging Jewish and other officials, ex-Stalinists, high-ranking rival communists, and moral supporters of the ongoing liberal opposition movement activity, was accelerated. Roman Zambrowski, Stefan Staszewski, Edward Ochab, Adam Rapacki and Marian Spychalski were among the top echelon party leaders removed or neutralized. Zambrowski, a Jewish veteran of the Polish communist movement, was singled out and purged from the Party first (March 13), even though he had been politically inactive for several years and had nothing to do with the current crisis. Former first secretary Ochab resigned his several high offices to protest "against the antisemitic campaign". On April 11, 1968, the Sejm instituted changes in some major leadership positions. Spychalski, leaving the Ministry of Defense, replaced Ochab in the more titular role as the chairman of the Council of State. Wojciech Jaruzelski became the new minister of defense. Rapacki, another opponent of antisemitic purges, was replaced by Stefan Jędrychowski at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A new higher education statute was designed to give the government greater control over the academic environment.

Gomułka, who thought of revisionism rather than "Zionism" as the main "danger" and, according to historian Dariusz Stola, harbored no antisemitic prejudices (his wife was Jewish), opportunistically and instrumentally allowed and accepted the anti-Jewish initiative of Minister Moczar and the secret services he controlled. The campaign gave Gomułka the tools he needed to combat the intellectual rebellion, prevent it from spreading into the worker masses (by "mobilizing" them and channeling their frustration against the stealth and alien "enemy"), resolve the party rivalries ultimately to his own advantage and stabilize the situation in Poland at the dangerous for the Party at the time of the Prague Spring liberalizing movement in Czechoslavakia. Many Poles (irrespective of background) were accused of being Zionists, expelled from the Party and/or had their careers terminated by policies that were cynical, prejudicial, or both. Long (sometimes conducted over several days) Party meetings and discussions at the end of March and in early April, within the various state institutions and enterprises, dealt with the "Zionism" issue and were devoted to the identification of those responsible and guilty (within the institution's own ranks), their expulsion from the Party and demands for their removal from the positions they held.

Attempts were made to steer the attention of the general public away from the student movement and the advocacy for social reform, centred around the defense of the freedom of speech for intellectuals and artists and the right to criticize the regime and its policies. Moczar, the leader of the hardline Stalinist faction of the Party, blamed the student protests on "Zionists" and used the protest activity as a pretext for a larger antisemitic campaign (officially described as "anti-Zionist") and Party purges. In reality, the student and intellectual protests were generally not related to Zionism or other Jewish issues. The idea of propagating the "Zionist inspiration" of the student rebellion was based in part on the phenomenon of a number of children of Jewish communists active among those contesting the political order, including prominently the members of the Komandosi group. To augment their numbers, figures of speech such as "Michniks, Szlajfers, Zambrowskis" were used. The national strike call from Warsaw (March 13) opposed both antisemitism and Zionism. One banner hung at a Rzeszów high school on April 27 read: "We hail our Zionist comrades."

However, Gomułka warned that "Zionism and antisemitism are two sides of the same nationalist medal", and insisted communism rejects all forms of nationalism. Gomulka rejected the allegations of antisemitism, saying, "Official circles in the United States had involved themselves in the dirty anti-Polish campaign by making statements accusing Poland of antisemitism. We propose that the ruling circles in the United States check whether American citizens of Polish descent have ever had or now have the same opportunities that Polish citizens of Jewish descent have for living conditions and education and for occupying responsible positions. Then it would clearly emerge who might accuse whom of national discrimination." Gomułka went on to say that "Western Zionist centers that today charge us with antisemitism failed to lift a finger when Hitler's genocide was exterminating Jews in subjugated Poland, punishing with death Poles who hid and helped the Jews." The Party leader was responding to a wave of Western criticism and took advantage of some published reports that were incompatible with the Polish collective memory of historical events, especially World War II and the Holocaust.

The Moczar's challenge, often presented in terms of competing political visions (he was the informal head of the nationalist communist party faction known as "the Partisans"), according to the historian Andrzej Chojnowski reflected primarily a push for a generational change in the Party leadership and on the levels of the multitude of other positions emanating from the leadership, throughout the country. By 1968, Gomułka was unpopular and had lost touch with the population he ruled; his public relations skills were very poor. Personnel changes, resisted by Gomułka, were generally desired and expected, and General Moczar, the competing Party leader, was the alternative, even though he had not articulated a real leadership program of his own. Large numbers of second row (generally younger) party and state functionaries mobilized behind him, motivated by the opportunity to advance their lagging careers. Finding scapegoats and becoming their replacements in 1968 meant making progress in that direction. It could suffice to just say that someone was enthusiastic about the Israeli victory. The Moczar faction's activity was one of the major factors that contributed to the 1968 uproar, but the overdue generational change within the Party fully materialized only when Edward Gierek replaced Gomułka in December 1970. Moczar himself campaigned ruthlessly in an ultimately failed attempt to become Gomułka's replacement or successor.


A media campaign besmirching targeted groups and individuals was conducted from March 11. The Stalinist and Jewish ("non-Polish") roots of the supposed instigators were "exposed" and most printed press participated in the propagation of slander, with the notable exceptions of Polityka and Tygodnik Powszechny. Mass "spontaneous" rallies at places of employment and in squares of major cities occurred at the same time. The participants demanded that "Students resume their studies, writers their writing", "Zionists go to Zion!", or threatened "We'll tear off the head of the anti-Polish hydra". On March 14, the regional party secretary Edward Gierek in Katowice used surprisingly strong language while addressing the Upper Silesian crowds: (people who want to) "make our peaceful Silesian water more turbid (...) those Zambrowskis, Staszewskis, Słonimskis and the company of the Kisielewski and Jasienica kind (...) revisionists, Zionists, lackeys of imperialism (...) Silesian water will crush their bones (...)". Gierek introduced a new element during his speech: a statement of support for First Secretary Władysław Gomułka, who until then had been silent on the student protests, Zionism and other currently pressing issues.

This initial puzzling reluctance of the top leadership to express their position ended with a hardline speech by Gomułka on March 19, which eliminated the possibility of government negotiations with the strikers, and, for many protest participants, extinguished the hope for a quick favorable settlement. Gomułka's speech, delivered before the three thousand ("outstanding during the difficult days") party activists gathered, was full of anti-intelligentsia accusations. The party management realized, he made it clear, that it was too early to fully comprehend and evaluate the nature and scope of the present difficulties. Gomułka sharply attacked the opposition leaders and named the few writers he particularly abhorred (Kisielewski, Jasienica and Szpotański), but offered a complex and differentiated analysis of the situation in Poland (Słonimski, a 'cosmopolitan', was of a different breed, while Zambrowski and Staszewski were not mentioned at all). The First Secretary attempted to pacify the growing antisemitic wave, asserting that most citizens of Jewish origin were loyal to Poland and were not a threat. Loyalty to Poland and socialism, not ethnicity, was the only criterion, the Party valued highly those who had contributed and was opposed to any phenomena of antisemitic nature. It was understood that some people could be ambivalent about where they belonged, and those who definitely felt more closely connected with Israel, Gomułka expected to emigrate eventually. It may have been too late for reasoned arguments and the carefully screened audience did not react positively: their collective display of hatred was shown on national television. Gomułka's remarks (reviewed, corrected and approved in advance by other members of the Politburo and the Central Committee) were criticized a few days later at the meeting of first secretaries of the provincial party committees and the anti-Jewish campaign continued unabated. Also the internal bulletin of Mieczysław Moczar's Ministry of Internal Affairs spoke of a lack of clear declaration on Zionism on Gomułka's part and of "public hiding of criminals". Such instances of criticism of top leaders were unheard of and indicated the increasing influence and determination of Moczar's faction. Publicly Moczar himself concentrated on condemning the communists who came after the war from the Soviet Union and persecuted Polish patriots (including Gomułka from 1948, which may in part explain the first secretary's failure to dissociate himself from and in reality his approval of the anti-Jewish propaganda and actions). The purges and resolutions of the power struggle at the Party's top circles entered their accelerated phase.

The mass protest movement and the repressions continued throughout March and April. The revolt was met with dissolution of entire academic departments, expulsion of thousands of students and many sympathizing faculty members (including Zygmunt Bauman, Leszek Kołakowski and Stefan Żółkiewski), arrests and court trials. National coordination by the students was attempted through a March 25 meeting in Wrocław; most of its attendees were jailed by the end of April. On March 28, students at Warsaw University reacted to the firing of prominent faculty by adopting the Declaration of the Student Movement, which proposed a framework of mature systemic reforms for Poland, laying a conceptual foundation for the future Solidarity opposition movement. The authorities responded by eliminating several university departments and enlisting many students in the military. The student protest activities planned for April 22 were prevented by the arrest campaign conducted in Warsaw, Kraków and Wrocław.

At least 2,725 people were arrested between March 7 and April 6. According to internal government reports, the suppression was effective, although students were still able to disrupt the May Day ceremonies in Wrocław. Except for the relatively few well-recognized protest leaders, the known participants of the 1968 revolt generally had not reappeared in the later waves of opposition movement in Poland.

By mid-March, the protest campaign had spread to smaller towns. The distribution of fliers was reported in 100 towns in March, 40 in April, and, despite numerous arrests, continued even during the later months. Street demonstrations occurred in several localities in March. In different cities, the arrests and trials proceeded at different pace, in part because of the discretion exercised by the local authorities. Gdańsk had by far the highest rate of both the "penal-administrative procedures" and the cases that actually went to the courts. The largest proportion of the arrested and detained nationwide during the March/April unrest belonged to the "workers" category.

A few dared to openly defend the students, including some writers, bishops, and the small parliamentary Znak group of Catholic deputies, led by Jerzy Zawieyski. Znak submitted an official interpellation on March 11, questioning the brutal anti-student interventions by the police, inquiring about the government's intentions regarding the democratic demands of the students and the "broad public opinion" and addressed to the prime minister.

Following the April 8 Politburo meeting, during which Stefan Jędrychowski strongly criticized the antisemitic campaign, but a majority of the participants expressed the opposite view or supported Gomułka's "middle" course, a Sejm session indirectly dealt with the crisis on April 9–11. The Radio Free Europe used the Znak interpellation for its propaganda, asserted Prime Minister Józef Cyrankiewicz. Other speakers claimed that the interpellation was primarily aimed at getting the hostile foreign interests involved in Poland's affairs. Zawieyski spoke in a conciliatory tone, directing his comments and appealing to Gomułka and Zenon Kliszko, recognizing them as victims of past political persecution. He interpreted the recent beating by "unknown assailants" of Stefan Kisielewski, a Catholic publicist, as an attack on a representative of the Polish culture. The communist leaders terminated Zawieyski's membership in the Council of State, a collective head of state organ, and banned him from holding a political office in the future. The participants in the public Sejm debate concentrated on attacking Znak and avoided altogether relating to the events and issues of the March protests, or their suppression (the subjects of the interpellation).

The effectiveness of the ORMO interventions on university campuses and the eruption of further citizen discontent (see Polish 1970 protests) prompted the Ministry of Public Security to engage in massive expansion of this force, which at its peak in 1979 reached over 450,000 members.

Emigration of Polish citizens of Jewish origin

In a parliamentary speech on 11 April 1968 Prime Minister Cyrankiewicz spelled out the government's official position: "Loyalty to socialist Poland and imperialist Israel is not possible simultaneously. (...) Whoever wants to face these consequences in the form of emigration will not encounter any obstacle." The departing had their Polish citizenship revoked.

Historian David Engel of the YIVO Institute wrote: "The Interior Ministry compiled a card index of all Polish citizens of Jewish origin, even those who had been detached from organized Jewish life for generations. Jews were removed from jobs in public service, including from teaching positions in schools and universities. Pressure was placed upon them to leave the country by bureaucratic actions aimed at undermining their sources of livelihood and sometimes even by physical brutality." According to Dariusz Stola of the Polish Academy of Sciences, "the term 'anti-Zionist campaign' is misleading in two ways, since the campaign began as an anti-Israeli policy but quickly turned into an anti-Jewish campaign, and this evident anti-Jewish character remained its distinctive feature". The propaganda equated Jewish origins with Zionist sympathies and thus disloyalty to communist Poland. Antisemitic slogans were used in rallies. Prominent Jews, supposedly of Zionist beliefs, including academics, managers and journalists, lost their jobs. According to the Polish state's Institute of National Remembrance, "in each case the decision of dismissal was preceded by a Party resolution about expelling from the Party".

Most Polish Jews who claimed their nationality status at the end of World War II, including Holocaust survivors who registered with the Central Committee of Polish Jews in 1945, had already emigrated from postwar Poland in its first years of existence. According to the David Engel's estimates, of the fewer than 281,000 Jews present in Poland at different times before July 1946, only about 90,000 were left in the country by the middle of 1947. Fewer than 80,000 remained by 1951, when the government prohibited emigration to Israel. Additional 30,000 arrived from the Soviet Union in 1957, but almost 50,000, typically people actively expressing the Jewish identity, left Poland in 1957–59, under Gomułka and with his government's encouragement. Approximately 25,000–30,000 Jews lived in Poland by 1967. As a group, they had become increasingly assimilated and secular and had well-developed and functioning secular institutions. Of the Jews who stayed in Poland, many had political and career reasons for doing so. Their situation changed after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the 1968 Polish academic revolt, when the Jews were used as scapegoats by the warring party factions and pressured to emigrate en masse once more. According to Engel, some 25,000 Jews left Poland during the 1968–70 period, leaving in the country between 5,000 and 10,000 Jews.

From the end of World War II, the Soviet imposed government in Poland, lacking strong popular support, found it expedient to depend disproportionately on Jews for performing clerical and administrative jobs and many Jews rose to high positions within the political and internal security ranks. Consequently, as noted by historian Michael C. Steinlauf – "their group profile ever more closely resembled the mythic Żydokomuna" (Judeo-Communism). As with Polish citizens from other ethnicities, Jews held positions of repressive authority under the communist administration. In March 1968, they became the center of an organized campaign to equate Jewish origins with Stalinist sympathies and crimes. The political purges, often ostensibly directed at those Jews who had held office during the Stalinist era, marked by gross abuse of power and widespread persecutions, affected all Polish Jews regardless of background.

Prior to the 1968 outburst of heavy anti-Jewish propaganda, Polish-Jewish relations had been a taboo subject in communist Poland. Available information was limited to the dissemination of shallow and distorted official versions of historical events, while much of the traditional social antisemitic resentment was brewing under the surface (despite the postwar scarcity of Jewish targets), ready to be exploited, as it turned out. The popular antisemitism of the postwar years was closely linked to anticommunist and anti-Soviet attitudes and as such was fought against by the authorities. Because of this historically right-wing orientation of Polish antisemitism, the Jews generally felt safe in communist Poland and experienced the "March shock" when many in the ruling regime adopted the antisemitic views of prewar Polish nationalists to justify an application of the historically communist methods of aggressive propaganda and terror (now mostly psychological). The actual Stalinist in many respects character of the campaign was paradoxically combined with anti-Stalinist and anti-Żydokomuna rhetoric. The media "exposed" various past and present Jewish conspiracies directed against socialist Poland, often using prejudicial Jewish stereotypes supposedly adding up to a grand Jewish anti-Polish scheme. Externally, West German-Israeli and American-Zionist anti-Poland blocs were "revealed"; at home, it was claimed, the old Jewish Stalinist comrades were secretly preparing their own return to power, to thwart the Polish October gains and bring back Stalinism. The small number of Jews remaining in Poland were subjected to unbearable pressures generated by the totalitarian monopolistic media, often dominated by sympathizers of Minister Moczar. Many Jews and non-Jews were smeared and removed by their local Basic Party Organizations (POP), which necessitated them to be sacked from whatever high positions they held. Many professionals and non-members of the Party fell victims as well.

Most of the last wave (1968–69) of emigrants chose destinations other than Israel, which contradicted the government claim of their pro-Israeli devotion. Disproportionately in Polish society, they represented highly educated, professional and accomplished people. Some communist party activists previously perceived this factor as an undue "density" of the Jews in positions of importance, a remnant of the Stalinist times, which resulted in calls for their marginalization and removal from the country.

Over a thousand former hardline Stalinists of Jewish origin left Poland in and after 1968, among them former prosecutor Helena Wolińska-Brus and judge Stefan Michnik. The Institute of National Remembrance had investigated Stalinist crimes committed by some of the March 1968 emigrants including Michnik who settled in Sweden, and Wolińska-Brus residing in the United Kingdom. Both were accused of being an "accessory to a court murder". Applications were made for their extradition based on the European Arrest Warrants.

Between 1961 and 1967, the average rate of Jewish emigration from Poland was 500–900 persons per year. In 1968, a total of 3,900 Jews applied to leave the country. A year later, between January and August 1969, the number of emigrating Jews was almost 7,300, all according to records of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The security organs maintained comprehensive data on persons with "family background in Israel" or of Jewish origin, including those dismissed from their positions and those who did not hold any official positions but applied for emigration to Israel.

End of government campaign

On April 11, 1968, Secretary of the Central Committee Artur Starewicz gave Gomułka a comprehensive letter, pointing out the destructiveness of the demagoguery, anti-Jewish obsession and other aspects of the campaign. In late April, Gomułka realized that the campaign he allowed had outlived its usefulness and was getting out of control, many participants became overzealous and complaints from various quarters multiplied. Ending it and restoring the normal Party control and discipline took several weeks of repeated warnings and other efforts. On June 24, Gomułka sharply criticized Stefan Olszowski, the Party propaganda chief, and the role played by the PAX publications. Both were heavily involved in the "anti-Zionist", but also "nationalistic" media campaign from March 11. On July 1, Leopold Domb, the former chairman of the Social-Cultural Association of Jews (in Poland), wrote a letter to his party boss Gomułka. Domb bitterly complained of the progressive liquidation of the thousand years of Polish-Jewish civilizational achievement and listed numerous instances of such destruction of society and culture taking place in contemporary communist Poland. On July 5, Gomułka acknowledged "certain problems" with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and announced the removal of Minister Moczar from the cabinet position, which disconnected him from his power base at that department. Moczar's sidelining was presented as a "promotion": he became a secretary of the Central Committee and a deputy member of the Politburo. "Comrade Moczar is a disciplined man and he'll do as he is told", was how Gomułka saw the resolution. Gomułka's ability to decisively dismantle the Internal Affairs' anti-Jewish smear campaign and punish its perpetrators (for challenging the party leadership) shows that he could have done so earlier, had he chosen to act in a timely manner. During the XII Plenum of the Central Committee, on July 8 and 9, Zenon Kliszko officially closed the "anti-Zionist" campaign. Internal attacks and obstruction within the Party, the military and the Security Service (SB), now directed against Gomulka and Kliszko, continued for some time. In reality, SB's "anti-Zionist" activities had never been completely abandoned. During 1970–80, General Jaruzelski demoted to the rank of private 1,348 Jewish officers who had emigrated, not only around 1968. Such continued activities were conducted in secret.

The media propaganda machine was by early summer preoccupied with denouncing the Prague Spring. In August, the Polish Army participated in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The Fifth Congress of the Party took place in November, under Gomułka' s active lead. His position was confirmed. The gathering, numerically dominated by the supporters of Moczar, was maneuvered into complying with Gomułka faction's personnel decisions. The Party now had 2.1 million members (only 40% were workers), after the recent purging of over 230,000 members. The Jewish activists were gone, but many other veterans remained, as the generational change in the communist leadership was beginning to take place. Gomułka was able to rule with his few close associates until December 1970, but his prestige suffered in Poland, abroad, and among the Soviet and other Eastern Bloc leaders.

A consequence of the protest events and their repercussions was the alienation of the regime from the leftist intelligentsia, who were disgusted at the official promotion of antisemitism and the adoption of nationalistic rhetoric. Many Polish intellectuals opposed the government campaign, often openly. Another effect was the activity by Polish emigrants to the West in organizations that encouraged opposition within Poland.

The alienation of Polish intelligentsia had a long afterlife, and eventually contributed to the downfall of the communist dictatorship: the 1968 events were a turning point in the ideological evolution of those who would challenge the system in the years to come. Jacek Kuroń, for example, twice a member of the Party and an activist imprisoned for his role in the events, became a highly effective adviser of the Solidarity workers' movement in Poland. The events of 1968, preceded by those in 1956 and followed by those of 1970, 1976 and 1980, showed that Poland, with its strong nationalist traditions, a civil society, and the never fully repressed Catholic Church, was the source of instability and weakness in the Eastern Bloc. The dangers to the Party presented by the "reactionary" coalition of 1968, against which back then some had warned, turned out not to be imaginary, but their realization took another two decades.

The antisemitic, anti-intellectual and anti-student campaign damaged Poland's reputation, particularly in the West. Despite the worldwide condemnation of the March 1968 repressions, for many years the communist government did not admit the antisemitic nature of the "anti-Zionist" campaign, though some newspapers were allowed to publish critical articles. In February and March 1988, the Polish government announced official "apologies" for the anti-Semitic "excesses" of 1968: first in Israel at a conference on Polish Jewry, and then in a statement printed in Trybuna Ludu. A Central Committee report even suggested an introduction of double citizenship to improve the relations with the Jews who left Poland.


After the fall of the communist rule, the Sejm in 1998 issued an official condemnation of the antisemitism of the March 1968 events that were considered until then as anti-Zionist rather than antisemitic. In 2000, President Aleksander Kwaśniewski gave his own apology in front of a group of Jewish students "as the president of Poland and as a Pole".

On the 30th anniversary of their departures, a memorial plaque was placed at Warszawa Gdańska train station, from which most of the exiled Poles took a train to Vienna.


1968 Polish political crisis Wikipedia

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