When Lena Stanley-Clamp was 18 years old, she was denied entrance to university.
Her father, a civil engineer in Poland, was fired from his job without explanation.
Within a few months, her entire family was stripped of its Polish citizenship and forced to leave the country.
They were just a few of the 20,000 Polish Jews forced to emigrate as a result of a vicious anti-Semitic campaign launched by Poland’s Communist regime in March 1968.
“It was very painful,” recalls Stanley-Clamp, who fled with her family first to Vienna and then to Belgium. She now lives in England.
“I had a totally secular upbringing, and we felt quite assimilated — more Polish than Jewish. Then to be confronted by this persecution. We had to give up our citizenship while we were still in Poland, and were given special travel documents in order to leave.”
Polish authorities are now trying to make amends for the 1968 persecutions. The Polish government has announced it will restore Polish citizenship to Jews driven out in 1968 to individuals who request it.
Within a week of this announcement a dozen or so applications had come in, but it was unclear how many Jews would – or could – take advantage of the offer. Some countries where Polish Jews settled in 1968 do not allow dual citizenship.
For her part, Stanley-Clamp, who now lives in England, said she would not apply for citizenship.
“But this does not mean I do not care,” she added. “In fact, I feel that since it was taken away illegally, it should be automatically restored.”
Official state ceremonies, as well as Jewish-organized events, are being held to commemorate what in Poland are referred to simply as the “March events.” Jews who fled in 1968 have been invited back to reunions in Poland and in Sweden — where many of the refugees found haven.
A plaque with an inscription commemorating “those who traveled out of Poland after March 1968 with one-way travel documents” has been unveiled at the Warsaw train station from which many refugees departed.
“We remember, and we are ashamed,” President Aleksander Kwasniewski, himself an ex-Communist, said at a ceremony earlier this month.
“It is not they who abandoned Poland. Poland abandoned them.
“Today one thing must be said clearly: March 1968 was a shameful page in Polish history.”
Other symbolic events are taking place as Poles continue to try and define their post-Communist relations with Jews.
Hundreds of Poles protested Sunday the removal of a 26-foot-high cross that had stood near Auschwitz, which many Jews had said was offensive.
About 300,000 Polish Jews survived the Holocaust out of a prewar Jewish population of more than 3 million. Most survivors left in the late 1940s in the wake of postwar anti-Semitic violence.
But most of this year’s focus has been on the tragic events of 30 years ago. The Jews driven out of Poland in 1968 were those who, after surviving the Holocaust in hiding, in concentration camps or in exile in the Soviet Union, chose to construct new lives in Communist Poland. Professionals and intellectuals, they comprised much of Poland’s elite.
Anti-Jewish sentiment started becoming part of official polish Communist policy after the Six-Day War in 1967, when most Communist states broke relations with Israel. The situation exploded on March 8, 1968, when a Communist-inspired mob in Warsaw attacked anti-government student demonstrators.
The Polish government branded student demonstrators and their supporters “Zionist elements” who were mounting an “open attack” on the state.
Over the next few months, Jews were scapegoated as part of a power struggle within the Communist Party and a broader campaign against dissident intellectuals by a nationalist, Communist faction. Amid a vicious anti-Semitic propaganda campaign, thousands of Jews were purged from their jobs.
Stanley-Clamp, who today works for the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London, says the experience was an emotional and physical watershed for her.
“Out of this negative and painful experience came good in the end,” she said in an interview.
“It helped me, once in the West, find my Jewish identity. I still feel affinity to Polish culture, but after going from Poland to Belgium to England, I realize that one needs portable roots, and that the Jewish identity is stronger.”
For the Jews who stayed in Poland, it was a turning point as well.
Some of the current leaders of the Polish Jewish community, which has seen a revival since the fall of communism, also trace their interest in Judaism and their desire to claim their Jewish identity from the sudden persecution they faced in 1968.
Jerzy Kichler, who was a student in 1968, now heads the association of Jewish religious congregations in the country. “In a way my world collapsed,” he told the weekly Wpost. “Jewish existence is social. It is hard to be a Jew alone.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.