Even on a clear day, history hangs over Warsaw like smog. Flattened during the Nazi German wartime occupation and rebuilt during communist rule, what Poland’s capital may lack in architectural charm it makes up for with a litany of monuments, statues, plaques and shrines dedicated to collective suffering and individual sacrifice.
One lesser-known memorial is a small plaque on the wall of the Warszawa Gdańska railway station, a nondescript socialist-era building on the north side of the city. It was from here that many Poles of Jewish origin departed in the wake of the “anti-Zionist campaign” in March 1968, when cold war politics and a power struggle within the Polish Communist party led to an antisemitic propaganda campaign forcing thousands of Polish Jews to leave the country.
“Loyalty to socialist Poland and imperialist Israel is not possible simultaneously,” prime minister Józef Cyrankiewicz had declared in 1968. “Whoever wants to face these consequences in the form of emigration will not encounter any obstacle.” The plaque bears a tribute from the Polish-Jewish writer Henryk Grynberg: “For those who emigrated from Poland after March 1968 with a one-way ticket. They left behind more than they had possessed.”
In a few weeks’ time, Poland’s Jewish community will mark the 50th anniversary of the events of March 1968. They will do so in the wake of arguably the most serious crisis in Polish-Jewish relations since the fall of communism in 1989, after the passage of controversial legislation criminalising the attribution to the Polish state or Polish nation of complicity in the crimes committed by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.
The ensuing controversy has sparked a war of words between Polish and Israeli politicians, and an outpouring of antisemitic rhetoric in Poland as nationalist and pro-government media seek to portray the country as under attack from an international anti-Polish campaign orchestrated by foreign powers and Jewish advocacy groups abroad.
Speaking to the Observer, members of the Polish-Jewish community and activists involved in Polish-Jewish dialogue and reconciliation have expressed their shock and dismay at this deterioration in public discourse. While stressing that the present crisis is not comparable to that of March 1968, many said that, with their loyalties once again being called into question, the echoes of the rhetoric of the “anti-Zionist campaign” were too uncomfortable to ignore.
Speaking from his office in the neo-romanesque Nożyk Synagogue, Warsaw’s only Jewish place of worship to have survived the war physically intact, Poland’s chief rabbi Michael Schudrich acknowledged that the rhetoric of recent days had left some questioning their future.
“In the last week I’ve heard more young Jews think about leaving Poland than I have ever before,” he said. “They say, literally: ‘Rabbi, is it time to leave?’ That’s a challenge for the Polish government: some of their citizens no longer feel comfortable living in their country.”
My report from Warsaw for the Observer can be found here.