Żydowska Warszawa

Seweryn Blumsztajn

Crates Full of Books

In 1968 Seweryn Blumsztajn was about to graduate in Political Economy from the University of Warsaw. Before he became an iconic anti-communist oppositionist (“those Michniks, Kurońs, Szlajfers, Blumsztajns, Dajczgewands...”), as a boy he belonged to a youth Walter Troop founded by Jacek Kuroń. The first time he was arrested by the Security Service was in March 1965 for distributing Kuroń and Modzelewski's “Open letter to the Party”. After the events of March 1968 he was sentenced to two years in prison for belonging to “a union that intended – by means of provoking public anti-government and anti-Party demonstrations – to implement a ‘political agenda’ hostile to the People's Republic of Poland”. In 1969 his whole family immigrated to Sweden. From 1976 he cooperated with the Workers' Defence Committee (Polish: Komitet Obrony Robotników, KOR), which he joined in 1977. Afterwards he was a journalist for “Solidarity”. He was in France when he learned about the introduction of martial law in Poland. In 1989 he returned to Poland and worked for “Gazeta Wyborcza”.

Seweryn Blumsztajn. Photo: A. Kokowska

The “March Events” of 1968 were not a Jewish affair, contrary to their usual portrayal. March 1968 was a rebellion of the Polish intelligentsia, mostly students, in defence of fundamental democratic liberties, especially the freedom of culture. All of that had nothing to do with Judaism, even for those participants of the student revolt who had Jewish origins. The Jewish layer was added to the discourse about the student protest of 1968 by the authorities to fuel an anti-Semitic campaign.

The campaign actually started back in 1967 after the defeat of the Arab countries in the Six Day War, when at the Congress of Trade Unions on June 19th  Władysław Gomułka said: “Israeli aggression against the Arab countries was met with applause in Zionist circles of Jews – citizens of Poland”. He also mentioned the existence of a Jewish “fifth column” and urged “those in favour of the aggressor” to leave the country. “Our view is that every Polish citizen should only have one homeland, the People's Republic of Poland,” he said.

When they think back to that period, many Jews mention the horror Gomułka's speech aroused in those who remembered the Holocaust and postwar pogroms. The younger ones, as always, lacked the imagination.

However, there was no panic yet. The chief target of the press campaign was the state of Israel, not Jews. Anti-Jewish purges were already underway in the army, but that was a separate world. Antoni Słonimski offered the most accurate comment on the situation: “I understand that a person can only have one homeland, but why does it have to be Egypt?”.

1.Krakowskie Przedmieście 26/28 (University of Warsaw)

The police beating up protesting students, 8 March 1968. Source: Public Domain

The avalanche was set in motion on 11 March 1968, two days after the pacification of a student rally at the University of  Warsaw, when “Trybuna Ludu” and the press organ of PAX, “Słowo Powszechne”, printed articles that presented the official interpretation of the events. That was when a “Zionist conspiracy” against the party and the people's government was first mentioned. In the following days the press, radio, and TV launched an all-out anti-Zionist campaign. Allegedly, university students of Jewish ancestry, children of party officials and Jewish oppressors from the Stalinist secret police, stirred by Zionist-revisionist agents, had tricked naive Polish youth into taking part in anti-Party shenanigans. The student revolt was presented as a coup aiming to break Poland out of the close-knit camp of socialist states supporting the Arab countries. 

The campaign continued outside of the media. All regional committees of the Polish United Workers’ Party organized huge rallies (the largest, with 100,000 participants, in Katowice), where Zionist instigators were condemned. Afterwards, open Party meetings were held at all institutions, offices and factories, where participants condemned local Zionists and demanded that they be fired from their jobs. If no Jew could be found, a suspicious-looking intellectual or someone with a foreign-sounding name was chosen as the scapegoat. The press regularly published reports from such gatherings and lists of people with Jewish names discharged from their jobs. As long as the names listed belonged to officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, journalists, publishers, directors, managers of central offices and even scientists, it was still plausible that Poland was being cleansed of a Jewish clique scheming to seize the power. But in more remote areas, there were no Jews in high places. Local press in Łódź and Wrocław reported on shoemakers and tailors discharged from work for taking part in the Zionist conspiracy.

The absurdity of this narrative begins with the swapping of the word “Jew” to “Zionist”. Newspapers were full of pictures of banners from numerous rallies urging Zionists to go away to Israel. Reportedly, one bore the slogan “Zionists go to Siam”, but no actual witnesses have been found. A popular joke at the time was: “Daddy, how do you spell Zionist? I don't know, son, but before the war it was spelled J-E-W.”

Neither the common people nor the intellectuals had any doubt that it was not about Zionists – the last ones had left Poland back in the 1940s – it was about Jews. Any remaining doubts could be dispelled by seeing the Jewish names of the parents of students involved in the “March events” published in the press (the iconic Adam Michnik, son of Ozjasz Szechter) and the favourite figure of speech used by March journalists: using such names in the plural: “Szlajfers, Dajczgewands, Blumsztajns”.

The press did not reveal any details about the Zionist-Israeli conspiracy in Poland; instead, one of the popular topics was exposing the profligate lifestyle of children of Jewish dignitaries, who ended up in jail. This group “saw the world through the windows of their fathers' business cars”, and included the daughter of the Chairman of the Warsaw National Council (President of Warsaw), who “stubbed out her cigarettes in jam” and the son of one of the undersecretaries of state, who kept a donkey in a village near Warsaw and took it on hikes to the Bieszczady mountains.

Dariusz Stola refers to the anti-Zionist campaign as a “grim grotesque”. In fact, the absurdity of the accusations defied rational counterarguments. The only option was mockery. In one of his satirical works about March Events, Janusz Szpotański wrote: “At the Bard's statue, on a lovely evening, two men held congress, a Dajan and a Michnik”. Another satirist, Natan Tenenbaum, wrote:
 

Wyszyński and Kuroń, with Mao's support
tried to sell Poland to the Jewish cohort,
extend Israel to the Baltic sea and send
peasants from Zamość up to Sinai.

The scale and intensity of the March campaign, the rallies and gatherings of hundreds of thousands of people, can only be compared with propaganda campaigns under Stalinist rule. The choice of Jews as the target immediately brings up associations with the Holocaust. Polish Jews and everyone who had not forgotten the war made the connection immediately. Irena Sendler started to renew her help network. Anna Radziwiłł, history teacher in the Żoliborz district, was asked to provide refuge for her old school friend's son. A Warsaw doctor, saved from the ghetto as a six-year-old girl, arranged for her three little daughters to be baptized and sent them to a convent school. In a country which was in fact one great Jewish cemetery, parallels with the Second World War and the Holocaust were obvious and natural. They were immediately reflected in the language of that period.

Natan Tenenbaum, quoted above, in an open letter to the First Secretary of the PZPR, Władysław Gomułka, said:

Although our sun no longer shines on any “Mosiek” in a yarmulka,
just the odd “zionist” on the sidelines... still not enough for you, Herr Gomulka!?

[…]

The wind of change is in the air, and with new courage from above
national socialists will clear the Judenfrage, still unsolved.

2.Dworzec Gdański

The Gdańska Railway Station, the starting point for trains to Vienna (boarded by those leaving for Israel), was dubbed “the Umschlagplatz”. Accidentally, it was not far from where Jews had been put aboard trains to Treblinka.

Dworzec Gdański railway station. Photo: J. Bakalarz

Polish Jews were once again put to trial for their Jewishness. Almost all war survivors had been completely assimilated into Polish culture, almost no one was religious. Young people often did not identify as Jews, even if they were aware of their origins. Some only learned they were Jews from interrogators or when they found themselves expelled from university. The young were furious and distressed, while their elders, who remembered the war, were just afraid of what would happen next. What everyone shared was a sense of fear and loneliness. Many felt resentment towards the colleagues who did not speak up in meetings when they were accused of Zionism and fired from their job, or the neighbours who stopped greeting them in the street. Another shared experience from those times was a silent home where no one had to rush to work or to lectures any more.

In his programmatic speech from 19 March, Gomułka once again urged “those who regard Israel as their homeland to leave” and promised that exit passports would be granted to every applicant. Discussions of emigration began.

It was by no means an easy decision to make. The young considered themselves citizens of Poland and the old found it hard to start their life all over again. Everyone feel excluded and wronged. A popular March joke went: “Who will stay in Poland when the borders are opened? Just a few indecisive Jews.”

The wave of emigration lasted over a year. In June 1969 the authorities announced that exit passports would be issued to “Polish citizens of Jewish nationality” only until 1 September. That mobilized the indecisive. In total, approximately 15,000 people left the country.

3.Theatre Square 3 (National Theatre)

A route dedicated to the student protests of March 1968 would probably start at the National Theatre, where “Dziady” was staged and which after the final performance was the starting point of the first protest march to the statue of Adam Mickiewicz in Krakowskie Przedmieście Street on 30 January 1968. It would pass the University: the site of protests and strikes, and continue along Krakowskie Przedmieście, where the militia pacified successive demonstrations. It would go on past the University of Technology, another site of rallies and strikes, and the scene of the longest battles with the militia. The next stop would be the great auditorium at the Central School of Planning and Statistics (currently Warsaw School of Economics), where student rallies were held.

4.Rakowiecka Street 37

The prison at Rakowiecka street today. Source: Public Domain

The adjacent building was the Rakowiecka Street prison. It marks the end of the student revolt for protesters who were detained. This student route is a path of defeat, but also revolt and rebellion. It bears the mark of pride and heroism. On the other hand, there was no heroism in the “Jewish March” 1968 – just the horrifying absurdity of the anti-Semitic campaign, the pain of separation from one's homeland, friends and usually part of the family, and the humiliating exit procedures.

5.Wiśniowa Street 40

The “Jewish March” route started in Wiśniowa Street, Mokotów district, at the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which represented Israel after Poland broke off diplomatic relations. That was where preliminary Israeli visas were issued. An Israeli visa was necessary to start the exit procedure regardless of the actual destination. From the perspective of Polish authorities Israel was the only option. After all, the ones leaving Poland were not Jews, but Zionists. The Dutch embassy also issued certificates of the coverage of travel expenses. 

6.Nowolipie Street 2 (Mostowski Palace)

The next stop was the Warsaw Metropolitan Militia Headquarters in the Mostowski Palace in Muranów, in the area of the former ghetto. This was where requests for revocation of Polish citizenship were submitted to the Council of State and travel permits were issued. Completing the lengthy questionnaire and above all renouncing their citizenship was a painful experience that many emigrants remember to this day.

The decision, however, was not granted automatically. The Security Service made sure that the Jewish emigration privilege was not exercised by those who committed Rassenschande. Many non-Jews in mixed Polish-Jewish marriages were denied travel permits. Some candidates had to prove their Jewish ancestry. The most famous case was Count Andrzej Plater (related to Emilia Plater). His application was accepted (foreign-sounding name), but he was called in for questioning. When asked why he posed as a Jew, he argued that if there can be Poles of Jewish origin, there are also Jews of Polish origin, and that was the case with him. In the end, however, he was not allowed to go.

The groups least likely to be granted permits were former military or senior officials who, according to the authorities, might reveal military and economic secrets. It was two or three years before they were allowed to leave the country.

The wait time for a travel permit – a one-way ticket stating nothing more than “the holder of this document is not a citizen of the People's Republic of Poland” – was several weeks. It was a hectic time of settling accounts with the Polish state and preparing for departure. 

The route led through all the offices possible: one needed to obtain a clearance certificate from the tax office, turn in one's military service book at the Military Draft Office, and arrange for a termination of the employment contract and clearance certificate from the workplace. Students had to obtain a similar document from their university. Academic scholarships needed to be paid back, and recent graduates who had received a work order had to pay for their studies. Some universities required a fee to release one's student book, while others simply took the student books away. The next step was to obtain confirmation from libraries that all borrowed books had been returned, and finally the most important document of all: a certificate from the Housing Department of the regional National Council confirming that one has vacated their residence.

Cleaning out the flat was another epic story. Deciding what to take, what could be sold, what should be given away to neighbours and friends… Some things were more difficult to get rid of than others. One of the March expatriates remembers how their whole family took volumes of the Soviet encyclopaedia outside to bury them in the snow because they had no idea what else to do with them. As always when Jews were vanishing, there were people trying to turn a profit: “We advertised in a newspaper; a lady came, looked over our furniture and quoted her price. There was no discussion. Some people came and took all our things,” one of the Warsaw expatriates recalls.

Pożydki (Jewish leftovers) was the name of possessions given away by departing Jews and their abandoned flats, assigned to apparatchiki and secret police. New tenants frequently showed up at the flat even before it was cleared out by previous owners. Unperturbed, they evaluated the rooms, planning where to put their furniture.

What to take? Nobody knew what to expect; some went so far as to take wall units, Soviet refrigerators or Frania washing machines. Everybody took books. To this day in Tel Aviv, Stockholm or Copenhagen you can find shelves filled with Polish books. A renowned Israeli theatre expert said: “In my Israeli school, I read all the world literature in Polish”.

Purchases for a new life. It was prohibited to take gold, silver or more than 5 dollars per person. Some icons of the crude PRL reality could leave the country: down comforters and pillows (to gather dust for years in wardrobes in Israel), carpets from Kowary, china from Ćmielów, Gerlach silverware or regional craftworks bought in Cepelia. Those travelling to Sweden or Denmark made the obligatory trip to Garwolin or Nowy Targ to stock up on sheepskin coats.

Packing. A call was made to a freight company - usually Hartwig or Węgiełek, but there were many others. An expert came to assess the load to determine what size of crate was needed.

Customs officers demanded a detailed inventory of the items being transported. It is impossible to forget the tedious process of noting down every book and piece of underwear. It was forbidden to take anything older than 1945, even family photographs required the stamp of an art conservator. 

7.Dworzec Gdański

Customs clearance took place in the halls of the Warszawa Gdańska Towarowa railway station. In some cases, it lasted for several days. Item by item was unpacked and checked against the inventory. A customs officer might dispute anything: a book, because it was in a foreign language or appeared to be published before the war, handwritten notes or family papers, anything that looked too new or too old. To many, the customs office was the most humiliating part of the experience.

Dworzec Gdański railway station. Photo: J. Bakalarz

People started their journey at different stations: trains from the Central Station took those bound for Sweden and Denmark to the coast, others travelled to Vienna from Wrocław or Katowice, but the Gdańska station became an icon of the March emigration. Between the autumn of 1968 and the end of the summer of 1969, a train to Vienna departed from Warszawa Gdańska every day. Many people saw dozens of trains take their loved ones away before they eventually boarded one as well. For March emigrants, the saddest, most often recalled memory is saying their farewells at the Gdańska station.

It marked the start of their new life.

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