Żydowska Warszawa

Bożena Irene Werbart

My March 1968 and Górskiego Street

In 1968, Bożena Irene Werbart was a second-year student of Polish and world archaeology. Simultaneously, she also studied Mediterranean archaeology under Prof. Kazimierz Michałowski.

Bożena Irene Werbart. Photo: Marianna Sowińska

The lectures were held at the Department of Archaeology at 10 Widok Street and on Krakowskie Przedmieście Street, where Professor Michałowski was to deliver a lecture on March 8th. Instead, on that day Bożena and her fellow students witnessed momentous events.

1.Górskiego Street 4

I lived at 4 Górskiego Street, in the “arcade” house, which had two gates: one on Górskiego Street (with a view of the “Dom Chłopa” hotel and the Palace of Culture), the other on Juliana Tuwima Street (extension of Kubusia Puchatka Street). The two entrances played an important role during the March events, when Józek Dajczgewand, one of the leaders of the student protests, hid in my flat for a few days. As a child, I lived there with my parents and my brother Andrzej. In the years 1967-1968 my parents worked in Baghdad, Iraq. My father had a job with Polservice, where he was responsible for sending Polish water engineers (dam specialists) to developing countries. For my parents, it was a traumatic time, because after the Six-Day War, Saddam Hussein, who was already in power, started to hang Iraqi Jews in the Baghdad square. It was a shocking experience that made my parents decide to leave the country, but they only returned to Poland after the March events, both fired from their jobs in absentia. Before that, my mother had worked at the editorial office of “Wiadomości Lekarskie” [Medical News].

As a first- and second-year archaeology student, I lived in the three-room flat alone; my boyfriend Marek, who also studied archaeology, moved in with me later. I could come and go as I pleased. Life was good until March 8th. My brother was already married, although our parents had had to give written consent – he was not yet twenty when he got married. My brother and his wife lived elsewhere.

They had many guests in their flat, including Adam Michnik, Jan Lityński, and above all Józek Dajczgewand, whom I got to know very well. One evening, March 7th, my brother phoned me and said: “Don't go to your lectures tomorrow, there will be student beatings, the militia is coming with a special unit from Golędzinów. Well, if you really have to go, wear your sheepskin coat, I beg you”. I obviously did not listen, but put on the coat. What I lived through was shocking and dramatic, but at the time I did not realize how long the trauma would last…

2.Krakowskie Przedmieście Street 26/28

We went to the main courtyard of the University and joined the sit-down strike. I clearly remember how the demonstration was dispersed; I was beaten on the legs with a truncheon (my coat was short). That was also when I saw, even at the beginning, that the most common targets were girls, women and boys with distinctly Semitic features. It was March 8th, Women's Day. Together with other students, Marek threw chairs at the Golędzin militia out of the windows of the University Library. Unaware of the danger, I found myself alone in front of a crowd of heavily armed militiamen. I lost sight of Marek and suspected the worst. At moments like this, people tend to be overcome with unconscious heroism (or desperation, maybe?), so I started walking toward them with my head held high. I walked through the troop and they did not even touch me. I had nowhere to run anyway...

3.3 Krakowskie Przedmieście Street

I stumbled upon Marek, and together we ran from the police into a crowd of people. I saw students burst into the Church of the Holy Cross, but we did not go in (it turned into a bloodbath later), instead we ran towards a student cafeteria on Sewerynów Street. It was empty. We were glad we had made it, and it was just a short way from our home on Górskiego Street. Suddenly, we heard terrible wails and cries of a man being beaten. On the ground we saw a scrawny guy. Afterwards we learned that he was a student from our university's history department, Eugeniusz Temkin. He never left Poland, became a historian and worked at the Lenin Museum. Born in a prison camp in Siberia, brought up by his mother, he was fatherless, almost a cripple, and he wore hearing aids. That small, frail boy was being tortured by a band of Golędzin militia. Terrified, we started to scream at the top of our lungs: “Gestapo! Gestapo!”. After that, we were both arrested; I was detained briefly, Marek was released two days later.

The interrogators asked me about my brother Andrzej. I did not know that he had also been arrested. He was later assigned to a penal military unit for a few months. My parents only found out when they were about to leave Iraq.

I was released quickly, but first, I remember a colonel that came into the room and started to yell at me horribly. When he closed the door behind him, I started to scream even louder and said that as long as he yelled at me, I refused to say anything at all. Then he changed tactics; he brought a huge box of chocolates; I did not like chocolate, but decided to take revenge and eat the whole box; of course I ended up feeling sick. As I was eating the chocolates out of revenge, he was asking me absolutely ridiculous questions, for example: “What is the nature of the relationship between your brother Andrzej W. and your fiance Marek W.?”, to which I said “sexual”, to defuse the situation, because what kind of nonsense was that? Then I heard that there was a hollow in a tree in the Saxon Garden, which my brother and fiance used to exchange anti-government information intended for foreign journalists. Even the interrogators themselves must have seen the absurdity of that idea. I just kept laughing and they released me in the end.

4.Nowy Świat Street

The next day, when Marek was also free, we sat at home on Górskiego Street, but kept hearing what went on in the streets, on Nowy Świat. Józek Dajczgewand was still free; he had escaped and stayed in hiding in our flat on Górskiego Street for a few days. All of my brother's fellow philosophy students knew we had a “free house”. That did not help; he was caught anyway, but I remember the gatherings we had in the evenings with all the students who were not arrested yet. I found it extremely interesting, all the discussions about politics and philosophy. It was all fascinating, but terrifying at the same time – the image of that boy beaten bloody haunted me at night. That is something I will never forget…

In the end, Józek was arrested. A white Nysa car was always parked in front of the gate on Górskiego Street. In the morning we would get up and look out to check for the white Nysa: “Józek, you stay here and don't come out”. “They” never came upstairs, but kept track of where we were. A few days later, we thought the white Nysa was gone. We just didn't notice it, hidden under trees and pillars. Józek came out the other side, onto Tuwima Street, and was arrested.

5.10 Widok Street

A few days later on the way to our department at 10 Widok Street we met Ass. Prof. Jan Machnik, who said: “What are you doing here? You were in a demonstration, you're going to be expelled from the university!” We turned to Prof. Waldemar Chmielewski. “No, everything is fine, I'll make sure they don't touch you”, he said. We were thrown out anyway. We were only expelled for participating in a demonstration because we were caught and our personal information was revealed. But there was also another story. On the same day, March 8th, many people were brutalized, among others our friend from university. There were very few Jewish archaeology students, and in our year we were the only ones. Our friend Ula (she currently works at the National Archaeological Museum in Warsaw), a Pole from Konin, had visibly Semitic features. That was the reason she was targeted. She did not even know what was going on, because on that day lectures were to be held at the University, and not, as usual, at 10 Widok Street. Her jaw was broken and she was horribly battered. The next day, when we went to visit her at the hospital, she still had no idea what happened, but in time she grew to love us and Jews in general.

Our fellow students, when they learned about our expulsion, turned cold and distant – everyone except Ula, who sympathized with us, and a few other decent people who remained on speaking terms with us. The rest were not hostile, but clearly detached from us. There were some comments along the lines of “You Jews, you…”, but most were simply afraid and did not want to take any risks by associating with us. Professor Chmielewski told us: “Yes, you've been expelled, but you should still come to all the lectures, I will handle it. Take your exams, even if I cannot enter the results in your student books; I will still note them down and I hope you are allowed to come back”.

My parents returned from Iraq and my brother was still in the army, unsure when he would be discharged, nervous because he had applied for an exit permit to Israel for the autumn of 1968. We all wanted to go, but that was not possible right away. My father approached his chief boss in Polservice; he had been fired by then, but still had his party membership card. He tore it up into tiny pieces and threw it in the boss's face, saying: “You sons of bitches!”. That's the kind of man my father was! He knew we would get to Israel eventually.

6.Nowy Świat Street

Marek and I got married in August 1968 because we knew we would apply for emigration. Besides, we had already lived together for two years. We had the ceremony at the Registry Office of the Nowy Świat nieghborhood on 4 August 1968. Our marriage had a “political” character. I was twenty years old. All our friends who had been released from prison were there, but we missed Józek Dajczgewand, who was still behind bars.

We started selling our furniture immediately, but we ran into enormous problems and ended up waiting two years to leave. My brother left in 1969, but my parents were detained, and Marek and I with them. Since my brother was the first to submit the papers, he got his permit immediately, then came the first of many refusals for the rest of the family. Meanwhile, we had nothing to live on. My parents gradually sold all their possessions, burned through their savings from Iraq, then started to sell all the furniture, hoping they would be able to leave soon. Marek and I found ourselves homeless, so we all had to move in together. We stayed in my childhood room at my parents' place, sleeping on a field bed; the furniture had been sold. We wrote our master's theses at a folding camping table – that's how long we waited for the permits. We were only allowed to leave in May 1971, after Gierek came to power.

By then, the whole family was destitute. My mother did proofreading jobs at night to earn some money; my father once went to the Jewish Theatre and found out that the ticket clerk had left for Israel or resigned from the job, so they needed a clerk and an usher. He worked at the ticket box at the Jewish Theatre until we departured.

The two of us started a painting business. Our partners included Dolly Korewa (1926-2014; collaborator of the Workers' Defence Committee and the NOWA Independent Publishing House, a graduate of philosophy and theatre school) and other dissidents released from prison, an assistant from the philosophy department, a sociologist… I do not remember all of their names. There were five or six of us; the brain of the project was Dolly, much older than the rest of us and probably the only one who knew anything about economics. She said we needed to earn a lot of money to afford the trip. Therefore we studied and worked at the same time. We would dress very smartly, put hats on our heads, then knock on the doors of wealthy farmers or other rich owners of houses near Warsaw, saying we were from cooperative so-and-so (obviously made-up), and offered our services painting. Our best argument was that the job would take less than three weeks, because unlike other painters we did not drink vodka, and we would paint the whole house in just five days. People believed us, and we really did a great job! We earned up to 20,000 zlotys per job (to share, of course).

We lived comfortably until the money ran out; then we took another painting job. There was a funny scene I remember; I was carrying out some chairs and tables from a flat into the stairwell to paint them white with oil paint, and a woman walking downstairs said to her little daughter: “See, if you don't study, you will end up like this lady here!”.

Those two years of waiting were torture for everyone – we lived all together, often without money, in difficult conditions, without furniture, you can imagine what an ordeal it was! We waited; every rejection brought a new bout of depression.

7.Dworzec Gdański

In early May, I received my master's degree in archaeology and at the same time I was granted a travel permit. Finally, on 5 May 1971 we were allowed to leave Poland. We boarded a train from Warsaw to Stockholm via Berlin. My brother had lived there for two years already. (In 2007 Leopold Sobel interviewed me about the journey in Mullsjö, Sweden, and published the result in “Plotkies”, issue 38/2008, under the title “Holocaust, emigracja i archeologia”.)

The plague at Dworzec Gdański train station commemorating March emigrants. Source: Public Domain

Before departure, you had to handle a mass of red tape in municipal offices: settle your accounts with the People's Republic. The first step was to apply to the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Warsaw for a permit to travel to Israel. Then I had to resign from my flat on Górskiego Street (which involved numerous applications with revenue stamps and official seals). The treatment we received was polite or rude, depending on the particular office and staff. The officials at the Dutch embassy were nicest.

We packed (and numbered, as required by the Customs Office) our books ourselves, then brought our crates of books and personal items to customs clearance in the Nowe Miasto neighborhood. The officials lingered over every detail: for example, I was not allowed to take a guide to the Tatra Mountains, because it had been published before the war. Another proof of those officials' utter incompetence was their assessment of antiques. We were allowed to take a wedding gift, a 19th-century oil lamp, but not a gnome figurine from Cepelia!

My parents had to pay for their flat, even though it had been state property all along. University education was free in 1971, but we still had to pay for a multitude of stamps and for permits to take our student books, graduation diplomas and any other possible certificate out of the country. We bought almost nothing new for the journey (because we couldn't afford anything) and only took the essentials. Any furniture we did not manage to sell, we gave away to the neighbours for free. Some came to see our second-floor flat at 4 Górskiego Street, just waiting for us to leave and apparently hoping to take over the Jews' place.

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