WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A new exhibition opened Friday in Warsaw that looks at how 1968, a year of youthful rebellion across much of Europe and America, played out behind the Iron Curtain in Poland.
In the West, young people protested the US war in Vietnam, imperialism, sexism and racism, escalating social conflicts that eventually brought revolutionary change and emancipation to many.
But in communist Eastern Europe, yearnings for freedom and openness were crushed, not only in the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia of 1968, but also by a hard-line regime in Poland that cracked down on students protesting censorship and that persecuted Jews.
It would take Eastern Europeans 21 more years — until 1989 — to finally celebrate the crumbling of oppressive regimes that had spied on its citizens, restricted their travel to the West and kept them mired in poverty.
The Polish anti-Semitic campaign of March 1968, which turned half of the country’s Jews into refugees forced to rebuild their lives in strange new lands, is the main subject of “Estranged: March ’68 and its Aftermath ” at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
The exhibition begins by presenting 1968 as a year of revolt, with the postwar baby-boomer generation coming of age and revolting against the constrictive social norms of their elders. German youth demanded de-Nazification, Spaniards protested the Franco regime, and black Americans were on the streets of Memphis, Tennessee, demanding their civil rights.
“In Poland they were fighting for democratic socialism, against communist dictatorship,” said Dariusz Stola, the director of the POLIN museum. “So there was a global ’68 — there was something similar in the generational rebellion — but the conditions made them rebel against different things.”
The exhibition then turns to the complex story of the anti-Jewish persecution, with anti-Zionism first used as a propaganda tool in 1967 when Israel inflicted a crushing defeat on Arab armies in the Six Day War.
Initially, Polish society welcomed the victory of Israel, a state whose founders and settlers included many Jews from Poland. A Polish saying at the time, “Our Jews beat Russia’s Arabs” reflected the pro-Israeli sentiment, as well as hostility toward the Soviet Union, which controlled Poland’s own communist regime.
It was then that the regime began referring to Jews in Poland as a “fifth column,” that is, a group that threatened the nation from within.
The anti-Semitic campaign intensified in March 1968 in reaction to student protests crushed by the security forces. They used the fact that some prominent student leaders were from Jewish families to discredit the entire student movement.
The eventual result was the mass departure of 13,000 Polish Jews, among them Holocaust survivors, only 23 years after the end of World War II.
The exhibition ends with quotes of contemporary hate speech, some of it targeting refugees, which could be easily mistaken for the language used in 1968.
“It’s a warning that if we are not cautious enough, it can happen again,” said Justyna Koszarska-Szulc, one of the curators.
In a bitter irony, an exhibition long planned to mark the 50th anniversary this March finally opens after a new wave of anti-Semitism erupted in Poland in late January amid a dispute with Israel — the first large-scale manifestation of anti-Jewish prejudice in Poland since those dramatic days.
The new outbreak of anti-Semitism has left Poland’s Jewish community, which had been growing in the democratic era, frightened and uncertain of what the future holds for them now.
The exhibition runs until Sept. 24.