Warsaw — The Jews of Poland marked an important anniversary last week, and the world paid attention.
The president of Israel came for an official commemoration of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; the government of France presented a medal of honor to the last remaining leader of the uprising; Polish television and newspapers offered blanket coverage of the anniversary events, and the Jewish community sponsored a seder in the street in the former ghetto area to coincide with the eve of Passover, when the Nazi attack on the Jewish residents and the partisans’ reprisals had begun.
Polish Jewry marks another crucial anniversary this year, but it is drawing less attention outside of Poland’s borders.
This year is the 40th anniversary of the government-orchestrated anti-Semitic attacks that effectively marked the end of post-war open Jewish life in Poland, completing the exodus that had begun in the wave of killings of Holocaust survivors in the years after World War II, and the founding of Israel in 1948.
Mention “’68” to any Jew here and they know what you mean.
An estimated 15,000 Jews left Poland in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the few thousand who remained – the remnants of the world’s largest and most-vibrant Jewish community before the Shoah, numbering more than 3 million – avoided Jewish events and ceased to identify themselves as Jews.
“Before ’68, some kind of Jewish life existed here,” subject to the communist-dictated controls as in all Iron Curtain countries, says Andrzej Zozula, managing director of The Union of Jewish Communities in Poland. After ’68, “all of that ceased.”
“It changed my life,” says Zozula, who was involved in a fledgling romance that year and persuaded his parents to stay here.
Many of his Jewish schoolmates and teachers left.
At school, as throughout Polish society, anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Zionism flourished; the government, in an attempt to curry Russia’s favor the year after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, blamed Jews for a series of student strikes that peaked in March, 1968.
Jewish workers were fired, Jewish students were expelled and Zozula’s father lost his job.
Andrzej Zozula, in his last year of high school, witnessed the school’s director taking a stand against Israel. “The director was also a Jew,” he says. “He was afraid for his job.”
Jewish life and Jewish activities largely remained underground until Communism fell in 1989. Then, Zozula says, “the process started [of] people becoming less scared” to openly affiliate as Jewish.
“Some of them,” he adds, “are [still] afraid today.”
“For my generation,” who came of age in the late 1960s and who were scarred by the open expressions of anti-Semitism, “the area of ’68 is very important,” Zozula says.
While Jews of all ages attended the Ghetto Uprising activities, he noticed that people around his age – 58 – comprised a disproportionate amount of the crowd at the ’68 commemoration and academic events.
One conference here earlier this month, co-sponsored by the municipality and several Jewish organizations, was called “The Jewish March 1968/2008.”
“For people younger, in their 30s, even in their 40s, ’68 is [ancient] history,” he says. For Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust, the anniversary of the Ghetto Uprising is pre-eminent.
Many Polish Jews who left here in ’68 are returning this year for anniversary events, many for the first time in 40 years. Old friends and schoolmates are reuniting.
As part of the anniversary commemoration, the Polish government recently announced that it will restore Polish citizenship to Jews who were forced out in ’68.
“This was an evil and shameful period in our country, one that was very detrimental to Poland,” said President Lech Kaczynski, in a speech at Warsaw’s train station, where many Polish Jews began their exodus.
A memorial plaque was unveiled at the train station, which symbolizes all train stations across the land, said Golda Tencer, an actress in Warsaw’s Jewish Theater and an activist in Polish-Jewish life. “This is a monument to those who left and those who stayed. A reminder of the pain.
“My wonderful world ended that March,” Tencer said. “Everything ended overnight.”
The Jewish community had lobbied for the restoration of citizenship, Zozula said.
“This decision will help right an injustice dating back to the Soviet era,” Piotr Kadlcik, president of the Jewish Communities of Poland, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It will also give all Polish citizens the option of moving to [elsewhere in the European Union] since Poland is a member.”
Although the restoration of citizenship offers economic benefits, particularly to Polish-born Jewish investors wishing to do business here, a limited number of one-time Polish Jews are expected to apply for citizenship, Zozula said.
The government announcement is primarily symbolic, reflecting a post-communist openness to ties with Israel and a rebirth of Jewish life here.
“It shows that we as a Polish Jewish community can have dialogue with the Polish government,” Kadlcik said. “It is important.”