The ceremonies commemorating the events of March 1968 took place at Gdańsk Station in Warsaw, on Friday afternoon.
Polish and Warsaw authorities, as well as the representatives of the Shalom foundation and the living witnesses of the events from 51 years ago laid flowers by the plaque bricked in the station’s wall.
Gdańsk Station was the place of departure for several thousands of Jewish people that were forced to leave Poland in 1968 due to the anti-semitic and anti-intelligentsia campaign launched by the then ruling Polish United Workers' Party.
Zygmunt Stępiński, the director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, said that the memories from 51 years ago were still alive, and for him, the station is the saddest place in Warsaw, since many of his friends were forced to flee the country.
In 1968 Polish students at many universities protested against a decision by the authorities to ban the staging of a modern day version of a play by Polish writer Adam Mickiewicz, “The Forefathers”. The way the play was staged became controversial because of the uncompromising way it portrayed Polish-Russian relations. That was unwelcome by the Soviet Embassy and the ruling communists.
But these protests were preceded by a campaign inside the communist party against Jews.This conflict had its roots in the fact that many communists of Jewish origin took part in Stalinist purges against communists with a Polish nationalist background back in the 1940s.
The campaign initiated by nationalist elements inside the Polish communists party used the Israeli-Arab war of 1967 to question the loyalty of Jews towards Poland and the USSR. Poland backed the Arabs and the leader of the communist party Władysław Gomułka who argued that Jews constituted a ‘fifth column’ inside Poland.
The banning of further staging of the Mickiewicz play sparked off protests among students and writers as it was part of a clamp-down by censors and the anti-Jewish campaign. They took place in many universities and spilled onto the streets when the police and communist vigilantes attacked students on campus
The communists did not stop at police actions against the demonstrators. In a speech on 19 March the communist leader Władysław Gomułka blamed Jews and anti-communist elements for the protests. Meetings in workplaces were organized to condemn the protesters too with a definite anti-semitic tinge.
Many academics lost their jobs and many students were expelled. And a wave of migration from poland to Israel followed as the communists openly put pressure on people to leave.
These events are remembered to this day as a source of shame. The communists openly used anti-semitism in their internal conflicts and provoked a wave of anti-semitism in society. The disoriented working class did not support the students on that occasion. Two years later in 1970 when the workers went on strike on the Baltic coast student support for them was rather meagre. But by 1980 the workers, students, the intelligentsia, and even the peasants, were all singing from the same hymn sheet after the Papal visit of 1979 and Solidarity was born marking the beginning of the end for communist rule in Poland and beyond.