Polish President Andrzej Duda on Thursday apologized to Jews chased out of the country 50 years ago during the communist regime’s anti-Semitic campaign.
“The free and independent Poland of today, my generation, is not responsible and does not need to apologize. But… to those who were driven out then… I’d like to say please forgive the Republic, Poles, the Poland of that time for having carried out such a shameful act,” Duda said.
Poland is marking 50 years since mass student protests against the Moscow-backed communist regime of the time were exploited by the communist party to purge Jews from the party and from Poland.
The result was the expulsion of 13,000 Jews, among them Holocaust survivors and prominent intellectuals including philosopher Leszek Kolakowski and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.
His apology comes amid heightened tension between Poland and Israel over Warsaw’s new controversial Holocaust bill, which the Jewish state sees as a bid to deny that certain Poles participated in the genocide of Jews during World War II.
One key paragraph of the bill states, “Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich… or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes – shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years.”
Poland’s authorities have described the legislation as an attempt to protect the country’s reputation from what it believes is confusion about who bears responsibility for Auschwitz and other death camps Nazi Germany set up in occupied Poland.
Many events were being held throughout Poland on Thursday, including lectures recalling the dramatic events of 50 years ago.
The anniversary had long been expected to be commemorated with a celebratory message about how far Poland has distanced itself from anti-Semitic demons of the past. Instead, it follows a new wave of anti-Jewish prejudice sparked by the recent diplomatic dispute with Israel over the Holocaust law.
However, many Polish officials are also working to tamp down the emotions of the past weeks. The lower house of Parliament, the Sejm, overwhelmingly passed a resolution Tuesday that condemned the anti-Semitic campaign and honored the anti-communist protests.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Wednesday also denounced anti-Semitism. While claiming the legacy of the student protests for Poland, he also sought to shift the blame for the anti-Semitic purge onto Moscow, which controlled Poland for the decades of the Cold War.
“Today we often hear that March ’68 should be a reason for shame for us,” Morawiecki said in a speech at Warsaw University, where the mass protests began. “I believe that March ’68 should be a reason for pride.”
In March 1968, students staged mass protests against censorship and in support of academic freedom that were brutally quashed by the regime.
The protests were triggered when the regime banned a play by the Polish Romantic-era poet Adam Mickiewicz which was seen as having an anti-Russian message. When two students contested the ban they were expelled from Warsaw University, prompting other students to hold a demonstration on March 8 and triggering other protests nationwide.
Rival factions in the communist party exploited the protests in their pursuit of party control, with the crisis climaxing in the purge of Jews from within the party. Without party membership, many lost their careers and were forced to renounce their possessions and their Polish citizenship and to leave the country.