Poland, 1968: the last pogrom

Poland, 1968: the last pogrom

Daniel Korski

(Getty Images)

Are you Jewish?’ the officious-looking Dutch diplomat asked my dad. ‘Yes’, he said, realising at that very moment, everything had changed. He was no longer Polish; the culture he had been born in, the citizenship he held, the language he spoke, the country he loved – it all meant nothing. He was just Jewish. He couldn’t be both. The diplomat stamped my father’s papers and he left for a new life in western Europe.

Up to 20,000 Jews, including my mother, were hounded from Poland at the end of the 1960s. They were accused of supporting Israel in a virulent anti-Semitic campaign led by the communist government. This anti-Jewish campaign was ostensibly sparked in 1967 by the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbours, supported by the Soviet bloc. But in truth, the campaign was the result of a power struggle inside the governing Polish United Workers’ party. In an effort to curry nationalist favour, Władysław Gomułka, Poland’s de facto leader, publicly castigated the last remaining survivors of the Holocaust as a ‘fifth column’ for rejoicing in Israel’s war victory. Jews were purged from government, leading institutions, academia and the military.

In factories, workers spontaneously passed anti-Zionist resolutions, while local branches of the communist party and even sports clubs purged Jewish members.

Like the previous generation, they left their homes, possessions, and in some cases sick and elderly family members. There was physical violence too, especially against students protesting against the communist regime in March 1968 and calling for democratic reforms. My uncle was one of them; he was expelled from university, arrested, beaten and eventually had to flee the country. Others were tortured and drafted into the army, as the regime particularly targeted Jewish protesters. Ordinary Jews were said to be conspiring with ‘Jewish Stalinists’, ‘Zionists’ and, grotesquely, ‘German neo-Nazis’.

In the end, more than half of Poland’s Jewish community was forced into exile. My grandfather had survived the Holocaust by pretending to be a Polish Catholic, exchanging his Jewish-sounding surname Finkel for what he believed was the more convincingly Polish Korski. When the war ended he reverted to Finkel but couldn’t find any work. So he changed it back to his fake name and got a job that day.

It’s been our surname ever since, a reminder of the importance of flexibility but also of the enduring nature of hatred. When, in 1945, my grandfather tried to make it to France where he had studied before the war, he was caught and expelled back to Poland. He concluded that there were anti-Semites everywhere and at least he knew the Polish ones. A year later, Polish soldiers and police officers, as well as average citizens, attacked a group of Jewish refugees in Kielce, killing 42 and wounding 40. My grandparents tried to leave again but were denied the right to travel abroad.

Instead, my grandfather began building the new socialist Poland. This was a Soviet country, one that promised to eliminate the injustices of the past. That sounded pretty appealing to many Holocaust survivors. He served in the Communist party and in various government jobs, negotiating the deal for Fiat to build a car factory in Poland. So much a party man, Henry Korski was even trusted to travel to the West in the 1950s, visiting Spain in 1962 and Italy in 1963 with his son, my father. When a colleague of his was accused of spying for the West and eventually executed for treason, my grandfather was investigated but cleared of all suspicion. His commitment to Poland was clear.

This was what made the events following the Six-Day War so traumatic. Suddenly my grandfather and his family were reduced, once again, to just being Jews. Not Poles. Not communists. Not people, deserving of respect. The medal my grandfather received for his work saving a collapsed mine was worthless. The years of service, irrelevant. They were just Jews.

First, my grandfather lost his job, then my father was expelled from the Communist Youth Movement and was eventually pushed out of university. My father recalls telling his mother as she sat shell-shocked in their small apartment, struggling to come to terms with having to flee for the second time in her life: ‘We are sitting in a nice warm room, but the fire is raging outside; we have to leave’.

Even though the Polish government wanted the Jews to leave, doing so wasn’t easy. The government was arguing that Jews were Israeli agents and would, accordingly, only grant people the right to leave for Israel. However, Israel didn’t have diplomatic representation in Poland, so people had to go to the Netherlands Embassy to get visas. That is how my father found himself in front of a Dutch diplomat being asked the question that changed his life.

My father managed to borrow the money to buy my family plane tickets to Vienna. From there they could decide where to go next. My grandfather wanted to return to France, my grandmother wasn’t keen on going to Israel, and had already Sweden rejected their asylum application. The Korskis eventually set off hoping to make it to Australia where friends had gone. But every step of the way was complicated. At the airport, Polish border guards tried to bar them from getting on the plane and, when they eventually relented because of pressure from the other passengers, the guards made my grandparents leave valuables behind. A final kick from a regime that wanted Jews gone.

In the musical Fiddler on a Roof, Tevye the milkman says in one scene: ‘Dear God… I know, I know we are the chosen people. But once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?’ Many Polish Jews must have felt like Tevye. My father’s family eventually made it to Vienna and, after several days of living as stateless refugees, unexpectedly received asylum from Denmark where they eventually ended up. My mother’s family has a similar story. They ended up in Sweden. Eventually both families made a good life for themselves. ‘We were thrown out to paradise,’ my father once joked. He saw his old friends suffering behind the Iron Curtain and then through the difficult transitions of the 1980s and 1990s.

I was born in Denmark into an idyllic life: cosseted by the Danish welfare state, protected by the US Cold War security guarantee, and raised by a family who, however comfortable they made their lives through hard work, knowing that everything could change immediately; that they might need to pack their bags in the middle of the night and flee. Ask my mother today and she will be able to tell you exactly where she will flee and what possessions she will take with her (currently Canada).

What has always struck me is how little this last pogrom is known, even among Jews.

So this month my friends Daniel Schatz, Philip Boyes, Rene Rechtman and I – all children of expelled Jews – are launching an archive to collect the testimonies of those Jews that were expelled. The end of more than 700 years of Jewish Polish history deserves attention. I have a personal interest in making sure my family’s history is known. But I also think the pogrom carries an important lesson for the modern world.

The current Polish government prefers to argue that the events following the Six Day War were the acts of the communists, not the acts of Poland. The country, they argue, was occupied. In 2018, Polish President Andrzej Duda half-apologised to Jews driven out of the country, saying he regretted the ‘shameful act’ and asked ‘for forgiveness’. This was an important and welcome statement. However, he also made it clear that ‘the Poland of today, my generation, is not responsible and does not need to

For many Jews outside of Poland, this stretches credulity. Thousands of people, including ordinary Poles, participated in the ostracisation. Some who perpetrated the crime continued to climb the professional ladder. General Jaruzelski, for example, was Defence Minister in 1968 and led the anti-Jewish purges in the military. Later he became president and, even after the fall of communism, received a full state pension.

Most Jews who left have not been looking backwards or seeking reparations. But some continue to harbour resentments, passing it on to their children. I am at ease with, and indeed proud of, my Polish heritage. But I know too that the best way to heal the wounds that many still feel is not to caveat any apology. It is dangerous to pretend the events of the past have nothing to do with the present, lest we want to become blind to the horrors that can still happen. When people talk about just being anti-Zionist rather than anti-Semitic, I can’t help but think of my family whose lives were upended because of a similar conceit. Not all of Gomulka’s enforcers were raging ideological anti-Semites – but they didn’t have a problem using anti-Semitism as a political tool when it suited them, and knew even then the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism was fatuous.

The Dutch diplomat asked my father a bureaucratic question. She needed to know what he was in order to know if she could process his asylum application. But the question became so much more. It’s proof that being Jewish isn’t just another identity. It is what we can always be reduced to. It’s who I am when everything else can be stripped from me. And it’s why it’s important that this last anti-Jewish pogrom is more widely known.

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