Remembering the Sweeping Expulsion of Poland's Jews—23 Years After the Holocaust | Opinion

If the concrete walls of Dworzec Gdański—a train station in the north of Warsaw—could speak, they would scream with pain. But all visitors to the site can today notice is a small plaque stating: "Here they left behind more than they possessed".

Erected in 1998, the inscription remains the only memory left of the expulsion of Poland's all but last 15,000 Jews—who, 30 years earlier, were forced to leave the country terrorized, broken and excommunicated for no other reason than being Jewish. The anti-Semitic campaign in March 1968, initiated by the then-communist Polish government, led to the forced exodus of renowned figures in the arts and sciences, less than a quarter of a century after the Holocaust.

Following Israel's victory in the Six-Day War with its Arab neighbors, Warsaw Pact member states, with the exception of Romania, broke its diplomatic ties with Israel. The developments in Poland soon took a more dramatic course. In response to the war, Władysław Gomułka, first secretary of the governing Polish United Workers' Party, began a bigoted campaign against Polish Jews.

The last remaining survivors of the Holocaust in a country that, before World War II, had more than 3 million Jewish citizens were declared to be "foreigners," "cosmopolitans," "Zionists", denounced as a "fifth column" and Poland's enemies. The significance of Gomułka's "fifth column" remarks can hardly be overestimated. It invoked a conspiracy theory centered on Poland's small Jewish community, which in 1967 counted no more than 30,000 members out of a population of 32 million.

Gomułka's comments launched a propaganda campaign where "anti-Zionist" resolutions were passed in more than 100,000 public meetings in factories, party offices and even in sports clubs all over the country. Poles of Jewish descent were then subjected to systematic harassment and prosecuted for defaming the Polish state. The victims were ultimately expelled from their jobs and campuses, had their citizenship revoked and were forced to emigrate.

In Łódź, where the antisemitic campaign raged with brutality, the city's newspapers dismissed Jewish journalists while the local eye clinic administration demanded baptism certificates from physicians. The local communist propaganda bureau published educational materials quoting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. After less than two months, Łódź, once a flourishing center of Jewish culture, was judenrein.

Mieczysław Rakowski, the last Prime Minister of communist Poland, recalls how a woman from Kraków with two sons and a sick husband asked Gomułka in a letter how she should tell her children that they had now become pariahs in their own country.

"Do me a favor and send some poison capsules," she wrote. "I have no strength to live anymore and I do not want my sons to spend their whole lives paying for having a Jewish father." In this atmosphere, which, according to Polish historian Dariusz Stola, amounted to a "symbolic pogrom," dozens committed suicide after they had found themselves publicly vilified and socially isolated.

While the Jewish community was spared an actual nation-wide pogrom, physical violence accompanied the brutal campaign which ran parallel to the main event of March 1968—mass protests initiated by students against the state. Poles of Jewish origin were accused of having instigated the rebellious calls for democratic reforms. They were arrested, beaten and subjected to torture and detention.

"We lost all of our human dignity and human rights. There was a general feeling on the streets that Jews could, once again, be freely persecuted," says Jozef Dajczgewand, who was detained on March 12, 1968, tortured, harassed and sentenced to two years in solitary confinement.

He told me that "the police ordered me to take off my pants, screaming 'f---ing Jew' while interrogating me. I closed my eyes, wondering for a second if it was Poles who committed these acts, or the same Nazis who had persecuted my parents." When he was released from prison, all of his friends had fled Poland. "I could feel the echoes of history and decided to leave the country," Dajczgewand says.

The victims were made stateless, and subjected to humiliating exit procedures, which involved the confiscation of their possessions and savings. To this day, no viable solution has been found to resolve the issue of compensation for the dispossessed, nor have any perpetrators been prosecuted. Neither are the tragic events of 1968 widely known in Polish society or in the wider Jewish community.

At Yad Vashem, the world Holocaust remembrance center, the Polish-born Pope John Paul II remembered Poland's Jews and warned the world to be attentive to their unique suffering: "How can we fail to heed their cry? No one can forget or ignore what happened. No one can diminish its scale". As the international community commemorates the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, it is high time Poland heeds this call by compensating old offenses and confronting the remaining ghosts of the past.

Dr. Daniel Schatz is a political scientist, Visiting Scholar at New York University and award-winning writer on international affairs. He has served as a Visiting Fellow at Harvard, Columbia and Stanford University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​