The prime minister of Poland said his countrymen should be proud rather than ashamed of student protests 50 years ago that ultimately unleashed widespread anti-Semitism and drove thousands of Jews to leave.
Mateusz Morawiecki during a debate at the University of Warsaw titled “March ’68, National Social Movement against Communism” blamed the Soviet Union, which controlled Poland until the USSR’s collapse, for fomenting anti-Semitism.
Last month, Morawiecki triggered a furious reaction from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when the Polish leader said the Holocaust had some Jewish perpetrators. That same month, Poland stirred controversy when it enacted a law that criminalizes blaming Poland for Nazi crimes. Israel, Jewish groups and historians are among those who have blasted the measure.
In a speech preceding the debate, Morawiecki said: “We often hear that March ’68 should be a reason for shame for Poland. For Poles who have fought for freedom, they should be a source of pride.”
Polskie Radio’s report of his remarks did not include an explanation by Morawiecki as to why exactly Poles should be proud of the month. His remark appears to be a reference to a failed student uprising after which Jews were vilified in media outlets closely controlled by the state.
Starting in March 1968, students defending a banned anti-totalitarian play, based on the work of Romantic period poet Adam Mickiewicz, staged mass protests that were brutally quashed. The uprising had erupted over the expulsion of two Jewish students, Adam Michnik and Henryk Szlajfer, for their criticism of human rights abuses under communism. Rival factions in the ruling communist party exploited the protests in their pursuit of party control. The crisis climaxed in the purge of Jews from the ruling party’s ranks and from across the society.
Some 13,000 Jews were forced to leave Poland and were stripped of Polish citizenship that year. The purge has continued to weigh on relations between Poles and Jews, which generally have been good since Poland became a democracy in 1989.
But Poland cannot be blamed for this, Morawiecki said, as it “was not an independent and sovereign state, it was dependent on another superpower.”
The slogan “Zionists to Zion,” which was common during the incitement period, “did not necessarily come from Poles who wanted freedom, from Polish society,” he said. “This foreign power, which was the representative of a great power, implemented its plan and used anti-Semitism.”