In 1968, the Polish communist government forced the Jews to leave. Today, the country welcomes refugees.

By Dana Bash and Abbie Sharpe, CNN

Because SS soldiers used the Nożyk Synagogue as a warehouse and stable during World War II, it was the only major Jewish synagogue that the Nazis did not destroy in the Polish capital, Warsaw.

Today it is once again a place of worship, led by the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich.

He says it is not clear how many Jews are in Poland today. Prior to World War II, Poland had a strong Jewish community of around 3.5 million people. The Nazis killed almost 90% of them, and many of those who survived and remained in Poland stopped identifying as Jews.

“They just didn’t say anything. It was too painful. The survivors were too traumatized. They decided it was no longer safe to be Jewish,” Schudrich said.

But Poland’s small Jewish population shrank further in 1968, when the communist government forced thousands out of the country in an anti-Semitic purge. This dark chapter in Polish history contrasts with the country’s generosity and compassion for Ukrainian refugees – partly a lesson learned, perhaps, from its own past.

“In March 1968 there were rumblings in society against the government,” Schudrich said.

Many in Poland have rejected the Communist Party’s tightening grip on the country.

“The government decided that the best way to deal with this social tension – social opposition to the government – was to pretend…that all Jews are doing it,” Schudrich said.

Scapegoating Jews was a tried-and-true tactic used by rulers for millennia, and it worked just as the communists, engaged in an internal power struggle, had hoped. For this story, Dana Bash’s team spoke with members of her extended family in Warsaw and New York.

1968 protests

In the late 1960s, protests raged not only on American college campuses, but also in Polish universities. While American students marched to protest the Vietnam War, students in Warsaw demonstrated against censorship in their country. And the communist government didn’t like that.

After Israel’s victory over its Arab neighbors in the Six-Day War in 1967, Polish Communist Party leader Władysław Gomułka spoke out against a “fifth column” of Polish Jews, in what became known as the “Zionist” speech name – evoking a wave of anti-Semitism.

The inflammatory speech plays on a loop on a bank of televisions in an exhibit at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Joanna Fikus, who heads the museum’s exhibits department, explained its importance to CNN.

“After that speech, this huge wave of anti-Semitic campaigning started,” she said, pointing to the larger screen above her head.

Gomułka spoke about threats against Poland, referring to “traitors”.

“He never mentioned the word ‘Jew’,” Fikus explained. “He didn’t have to.”

“You can imagine people in their 40s and 50s who survived (the) Holocaust and remember how it started,” she said. “They felt (the goosebumps) and they understood that they didn’t know how this could end, but they still went through something like this.”

The communist government attacked the “elites” on university campuses as well as so-called Zionists.

Konstanty Gebert was a Polish high school student in 1968 and described his story from that year as “typical”, which is chilling considering how he tells it.

“When the anti-Semitic campaign started, we started losing friends quickly,” he told CNN, standing in downtown Warsaw last month where he “was beaten in the street because he was a filthy Jew, and then he stood there, rubbing my face and thinking, ‘What was that?’ “

Gebert, who is now a prominent journalist in Poland, was expelled from high school for being “of Zionist origin”, he said.

Her older sister is gone. Most of his friends are gone. Her mother was “de-Zionized” from her job – another anti-Semitic movement cloaked in new language.

“We were a completely assimilated family. My dad wasn’t even Jewish. We never denied that we (were) Jews. It was so unimportant. I had friends who found out they were Jewish only in 1968 when the father said, “Well, son, you’re old enough now to know that”, and that’s when the culprit was revealed. secret. We didn’t care,” he recalls.

Gebert managed to stay in the country. Tens of thousands more were not so lucky.

The communist government forced Jewish citizens to emigrate, said Fikus, who also sits on the board of the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland.

“They were stripped of their citizenship. They were told they had to leave their homes,” she explained, pointing to a display case containing a $5 bill – the only amount of cash they were allowed to carry – and a one-way document. which looked like a passport. But it was not a passport, it was a special document.

“That meant you could only leave Poland and never come back,” she said.

The Gelber family

Bash’s uncle, Alex Gelber, was one of approximately 13,000 Polish Jews given a one-way ticket out of his country.

He was 20 in 1968 and in medical school.

“It was very unpleasant because I was pulled from that fairly sheltered environment into the situation where I’m basically, like, nobody,” he recalled.

The Polish life he described before everything changed was not a life of persecution, but of relative privilege.

“We were young kids, and it was mostly partying and having a good time. And in fact, politics was really not on the horizon. And as far as I am concerned, there is a problem of anti-Semitism which came later. That, to me, was essentially non-existent. And so it was not a problem. Of course, I knew I was Jewish, and my friends knew I was Jewish. But that was no problem,” Alex said.

His father, the late George Gelber, was a prominent doctor and professor in the western Polish town of Szczecin, where they moved after George survived World War II because he was aided and hidden. of the Nazis by his Catholic teacher and community physician. He looked after the children’s medical needs, wrote academic papers, and led a relatively good life considering they were behind the Iron Curtain.

“He was definitely recognized as an excellent doctor,” Alex said.

But none of that mattered in March 1968 when the Communist government purged Polish Jews.

“My father, personally, he was given a choice. They say, ‘You can quit on your own, or we’ll fire you.’ Obviously, it made no difference. And then he said, ‘No. I will not quit. You have to tell me that I’m not worth being here,” remembers Alex.

In the days that followed, Alex recalls a blur of packing and reuniting with friends and family they thought they would never see again.

“You had an official standing over you saying, ‘Well, you can take this item or you can take this piece of anything, property, jewelry or something, and then you don’t. can’t take the other one,” he recalled, although he said his family was allowed to take a bit more than others because their customs officer’s mother was one of his father’s patients. .

“There were a lot of scattered examples of humanity, but overall it was very unpleasant because you’re a refugee,” he said.

This uprooting came just over 25 years after her parents barely survived the Nazis in Poland.

“They tried to build this semi-normal future, and it just didn’t work out well,” Alex said.

For the large family on the non-Jewish side of Alex’s mother who remained in Poland, it was also traumatic.

Wojciech Zaremba, Alex’s cousin, was just a boy in 1968, but he remembers it.

“It was unexpected. It was very, very fast. And so, it was kind of a shock, but what was even worse after that, we lost touch. Because, remember, there was no internet; there was no possibility to call. We were behind the iron curtain. We had no news, no message. … It was like a disappearance of that, in a very quick way,” he said.

To this day, he said he couldn’t believe the Poles drove out people like George Gelber, who spent his life looking after the country’s health, especially in Szczecin, who didn’t part of Poland until after World War II.

“There were no established networks; the appropriate services, the appropriate care. … He was irreplaceable, fundamentally, but it was still the most political reason for him to leave,” Zaremba said.

The fate of the refugee. Where are we going?

George and Anna Gelber traveled to New York in 1969 to stay with relatives and slowly build a new life.

Alex’s sister, Renata Greenspan, had already completed her medical studies in Poland and had also gone to the United States. She joined the U.S. Army, rose through the ranks to the rank of colonel, and shattered glass ceilings as the first female director of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

Alex completed his medical studies in Italy, then joined his parents in New York, where he met my aunt, Dr. Linda Wolf, in 1981 when they were both working at Bellevue Hospital.

Alex’s story has a happy ending, but the memory of being forced to leave his home, his country, his life, still lingers. “This time abroad, he recalls, leaves a mark that will never leave you.”

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February, Poland has taken in nearly 3 million Ukrainian refugees on its border. It is a remarkable show of compassion and humanity for a country that expelled people like my uncle less than 60 years ago.

Like the tens of thousands of people who were forced to leave Poland in 1968, Alex sees today’s conflict through the lens of a former refugee.

“It’s eerily similar,” he said of Ukraine’s refugee crisis. “It’s the same thing. It’s this hatred and (the intolerance). And they’re chasing people, and people are desperate, and they don’t know when will they come back?

“No one who has had this experience would really be against immigration,” he continued, “because that’s the way it should be done. When people are persecuted, they should be accepted elsewhere, regardless. what could happen otherwise.

As Alex watches this new wave of refugees find refuge in a country that couldn’t offer him the same, he hopes it’s a lesson learned for Poland.

“These are ordinary people who opened up their homes and they let people move in – so that’s encouraging. And that is, I suppose, a source of hope.

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