A Discussion of the March '68 events in Poland and the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London

Antony Polonsky

On 25 March a discussion was organized at the School of School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, on the events of March 1968 in Poland, when major protests against the communist government led to severe repression, while the government’s antisemitic purge, camouflaged as an ‘anti-Zionist campaign’, culminated in the forced migration of at least 13,000 Polish Jews, many to asylum in Sweden, Denmark, Israel and the United States. Supported by supported by grants from the Polonia Aid Foundation Trust and the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies, it took the form of a round table discussion chaired by Dr. Katarzyna Zechenter, lecturer in Polish at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies and an expert in studies of memory and how the absence of Poland's Jews is reflected in Polish collective memory, with the participation of Krystyna Naszkowska, Joanna Helander and Bo Persson.

Krystyna Naszkowska, a journalist with Gazeta Wyborcza, is the author of Wygnani do raj: szwedzki azyl (Expelled to Paradise: asylum in Sweden, Warsaw, 2017) an account of the lives in Sweden of Polish Jews forced in 1968 to emigrate there and Ani tu ani tam: marzec ’68—powroty (Neither here nor there: March ’68—returns, Warsaw, 2018) on the forty to fifty members of the 1968 emigration who have returned to Poland. Naszkowska described the events of 1968 as the most important experience in her life. Three weeks of hope and solidarity were followed by disillusionment. As a nineteen-year-old she was compelled to decide which side she was on, to think for herself and to conquer the fear, inculcated by her parents, of speaking openly in public on many matters. Suddenly she felt free—naively she and her fellow demonstrators believed that their slogans calling for the abolition of censorship and more freedom (not the overthrow of communism) could be realized. They did not anticipate the brutal government repression, which radicalized their views and led them to abandon hope for reform within the ruling Polish United Workers’ Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza—PZPR). They began now to create alternative structures outside party control and to seek the support of workers who had not, by and large, backed the students in 1968. This paved the way for the emergence in 1976 of the Committee for the Defence of Workers (Komitet Obrony Robotników—KOR), of the Solidarity movement in 1980 and the negotiated end of communism in 1989.

Her book, Wygnani do raj, which is illustrated by photographs taken by Joanna Helander, gives an account of Polish Jews who have settled in Sweden and have made successful careers there in the arts and the professions. They demonstrated how much Poland has lost by their expulsion. When she began her book about those Jews who had returned to Poland, she had hoped that this would provide a happy conclusion to the trauma of 1968. In the event, the number of those who returned permanently turned out to be rather small. They are all alarmed by the resurgence of antisemitism in Poland. One of them told her that Jews were like canaries in a mine which smelled gas before the miners. ‘I can smell something bad here’, he concluded.

Joanna Helander was born in Ruda ÅšlÄ…ska in Silesia and was studying at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow in 1968. Here the demonstrations were less planned and less far-reaching than in Warsaw. They did stimulate her to protest against the Warsaw pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 to put an end to the reforms initiated by Alexander Dubček, for which she spent seven months in jail. The poster she designed bore the inscription, ‘Moskali, rÄ™ce precz z CzechosÅ‚owacji’ (Muscovites, hands off Czechoslovakia), echoing the language of Adam Mickiewicz’s classic play Dziady, whose banning in January 1968 initiated the student protests. She emigrated to Sweden in 1971, where she has been a successful photographer and film-maker, receiving in 1983 the title of ‘photographer of the year’. She has produced albums of photographs of ordinary people in Silesia, of artists and writers, including Wisawa Szymborska and CzesÅ‚aw MiÅ‚osz, about whom she has also made films, and of the presence and absence of Jews in Poland. She has also, with Bo Persson, directed a number of films. Återkomster (1994, Returning) is an attempt to reconstruct the history of her Jewish family, while Wieczorem patrzÄ… na księżyc (Watching The Moon at Night At night, they watch the moon, 2015) is an investigation of the links across Europe and the Middle East of antisemitism and terrorism.

This was a most revealing and valuable discussion, attended by over one hundred people, which brought out both the huge traumas suffered by those forced after 1968 to leave their homeland with documents stating that the holder is ‘not a Polish citizen’. It also highlighted the strong echoes of 1968 in the present-day Polish political climate.