WARSAW — Protesters against a law that would make it a crime to blame Poland for events surrounding the Holocaust heckled the Polish president and an adviser as they spoke Thursday to mark the 50th anniversary of an anti-Semitic purge in the country.
Hecklers at the University of Warsaw shouted “shame,” “hypocrite” and “go away from the campus” at President Andrzej Duda as he spoke at an event where he asked forgiveness for an anti-Jewish wave that drove Jews from the country in March 1968.
Duda said today’s Poland is not responsible for the events of 50 years ago.
“I bow my head with great regret as president. To those who have been expelled, I would like to say ‘Please, forgive me, forgive Poland and Polish people,’” Duda said Thursday at a commemoration of the events in Poland known as March 1968.
A number of the protesters, opponents of the current government held white roses as a symbol of their protest.
At a simultaneous commemoration at the Dworzec Gdański railway station in Warsaw, an adviser to Duda, Zofia Romaszewska, also was heckled as she read remarks from the president condemning anti-Semitism. One person in the audience shouted “now the authorities do the same” — that is, encourage anti-Semitism..Romaszewska recalled coming to the railway station 50 years ago to say good-bye to her Jewish friends.
Duda is allied with the ruling Law and Justice party whose nationalist polices are blamed by critics for sparking a rise in xenophobia and a recent dispute with Israel.
In March 1968, students staged protests against censorship and in support of academic freedom that were brutally quashed by the regime.
The protests were initially triggered by a ban on a play by the Polish Romantic-era poet Adam Mickiewicz seen as having an anti-regime message. Two of the students protesting the ban were expelled from Warsaw University, prompting a nationwide demonstration in their defense.
Rival factions in the ruling communist party exploited the protests in their pursuit of party control, with the crisis climaxing in the purge of Jews from the party and from jobs that then went to non-Jews. Many lost their careers and were forced to renounce all of their possessions, their Polish citizenship and to leave the country.
Israel’s ambassador to Poland, Anna Azari, received warm applause during her remarks at the train station. She said she has lived in Poland for over three years and for a long time could not understand until recently how and why in 1968 a decision could be made to organize an anti-Semitic campaign and expel Jews from Poland.
“For the last one and a half months months I now know how easy it is to awake in Poland anti-Semitic demons, even when there are hardly any Jews in the country,” Azari said. “I would like the view of history to be open and honest. The truth helps not only to understand the past, but also helps to create a democratic and tolerant society today.”
Many other events were held across the country to mark the anniversary, including lectures and meetings with some of those expelled, who now freely visit democratic Poland.
Lydia Bauman, the daughter of the late sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, was in Warsaw with her two sisters to mark the events. She said she did so with mixed feelings because the recent expressions of anti-Jewish feelings seemed similar to 1968.
“I am all in favor of forgive and forget, but how can we forget if we are being reminded?” said Bauman, an artist based in London who was 12 when her family was forced to leave.
Some Polish officials are also working to tamp down the emotions of the past weeks. The lower house of Parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution Tuesday that condemned the anti-Semitic campaign and honored the anti-communist protests.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Wednesday denounced anti-Semitism, and sought to shift the blame for the anti-Semitic purge onto Moscow, which controlled Poland during the decades of the Cold War.
“Today we often hear that March ’68 should be a reason for shame for us,” Morawiecki said. “I believe that March ’68 should be a reason for pride” because of the pro-freedom protests.