In 1968, the communist government of Poland forced the Jews to leave. Today the country accepts refugees.

Now it is again a prayer house, which is run by the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich.

“They just didn’t say. It hurt too much. The survivors were too traumatized. They made the decision that it was no longer safe to be Jewish,” Schudrich said.

“In March 1968, there were public protests against the government,” Schudrich said.

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

“The government has decided that the best way to deal with this social tension – social opposition to the government – is to say … that all this is done by Jews,” Schudrich said.

Making Jews scapegoats was a tried and true tactic used by leaders for millennia, and it worked exactly as the communists involved in the internal power struggle hoped. For this story, Dana Basch’s team spoke to 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 protested against censorship in their country. And the communist government did not like it.

After Israel’s victory over its Arab neighbors in the 1967 Six Day War, Polish Communist Party leader Władysław Gomułka spoke out against the “fifth column” of Polish Jews in a so-called “Zionist” speech, sparking a wave of anti-Semitism.

The pep talk is played on several televisions at an exhibition at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Joanna Ficus, head of exhibitions at the museum, explained its meaning to CNN.

“After this speech, this huge wave of anti-Semitic campaign began,” she said, pointing to the largest screen above her head.

Gomułka spoke about the threats to Poland, citing “traitors”.

“He never mentioned the word Jew,” Fikus explained. “He shouldn’t have.”

“You can imagine people in their 40s and 50s who survived the Holocaust and remembered how it started,” she said. “They felt (goosebumps) and they knew they didn’t know how it could end, but they went through something similar again.”

The communist government persecuted the “elite” of the university campuses as well as the so-called Zionists.

Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland, speaks during a memorial service at the Nozhikov synagogue in Warsaw May 18, 2008.

Konstantin Gebert was a Polish high school student in 1968 and described his story from that year as “typical,” which is frightening given the way he tells it.

“When the anti-Semitic campaign started, we started to lose friends quickly,” he told CNN, standing in downtown Warsaw last month, where he was “beaten in the street for being a dirty Jew, and then standing there rubbing my face and wondering, “What was that?”

Hebert, who is now a well-known journalist in Poland, was expelled from high school for his “Zionist background,” he said.

His older sister is gone. Most of his friends are gone. His mother was “de-Sionized” from work, another anti-Semitic move disguised in new language.

“We were a completely assimilated family. My father wasn’t even Jewish. We never denied that we were Jews. It didn’t matter. I had friends who found out they were Jews only in ’68, when my father said:” Well, son, you’re old enough to know that,” and that’s where the crime secret comes in. We didn’t care,” he recalled.

Gebert managed to stay in the country. Tens of thousands of others were less fortunate.

The communist government forced Jewish citizens to emigrate, said Fikus, who is also a board member of Poland’s Jewish Historical Institute.

“They were deprived of their citizenship. They were told that they had to leave their house,” she explained, pointing to a display case with a five-dollar bill – the only amount of money they are allowed to carry with them – and one … By the way, a document that resembled 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 Nozhyk Synagogue, the only surviving synagogue in Warsaw before World War II, stands under a modern office building on April 12, 2018.

Gelber family

Basch’s uncle, Alex Gelber, was one of about 13,000 Polish Jews who were issued a one-way ticket from his country.

In 1968, he was 20 years old, and he studied at the medical institute.

“It was very frustrating, because I was pulled out of this rather protected environment into a situation in which I, in fact, like no one else,” he recalled.

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

“We were little kids and it was mostly parties and good times. And in fact, there really was no politics on the horizon. And, as far as I know, there is the problem of anti-Semitism, which came later. … It didn’t really exist for me. So it wasn’t a problem. Obviously, I knew that I was Jewish, and my friends knew that I was Jewish. But that wasn’t a problem,” Alex said.

His father, the late George Gelber, was a well-known doctor and professor in the western Polish city of Szczecin, where they moved after George survived World War II because he was helped and hidden from the Nazis by his Catholic professor and doctor in the community. He cared for children for medical purposes, wrote academic papers, and lived a relatively good life considering they were behind the Iron Curtain.

“He was definitely well known as a great doctor,” Alex said.

But none of this mattered in March 1968, when the communist government was purging Polish Jews.

“My father was personally given the choice. They say: “You can resign yourself, or we will fire you.” Obviously it didn’t matter. And then he said, “No. I’m not going to retire. You have to tell me that I’m not worth being here,” Alex recalled.

In the days that follow, Alex remembers how they got together and got together with friends and family they thought they would never see again.

“You had an official who stood over you and said: “Well, you can take this item or you can take this piece of anything, some property, jewelry or something else, and then you cannot take another” he recalled. although he said his family was allowed to take a little 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 in general it was very unpleasant because you are a refugee,” he said.

This eviction came a little over 25 years after his parents barely survived the Nazis in Poland.

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

For the large non-Jewish family of Alex’s mother, who remained in Poland, this was also a trauma.

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

“It was unexpected. It was very, very fast. So, it was some kind of shock, but even worse, after that we lost contact. Because, remember, there was no Internet, there was no way to call. We were behind the Iron Curtain. We had no news, no messages … It was like the disappearance of this, and very quickly, ”he said.

To this day, he said he couldn’t believe that the Poles kicked out people like George Gelber, who cared about the country’s health all his life, especially in Szczecin, which only became part of Poland after World War II.

“There were no well-established networks, proper services, proper care… He was indispensable, in principle, but nevertheless it was the most political reason for his departure,” Zaremba said.

Left: Women's cult at the Nozhik Synagogue in Warsaw, April 12, 2018.

The fate of a refugee Where are we going?

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

Alex’s sister, Renata Greenspan, has already graduated from medical school in Poland and also left for the United States. She joined the US Army, rose to the rank of colonel, and shattered the glass ceiling to become the first female director of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

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

Alex’s story has a happy ending, but the memory of being kicked out of his home, country, life is still alive. “This trip abroad,” he recalled, “leaves a trace that does not leave you.”

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February, Poland has taken in about 3 million Ukrainian refugees across its border. This is a wonderful display 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 looks at today’s conflict through the lens of a former refugee.

“It’s incredibly similar,” he said of the refugee crisis in Ukraine. “This is the same. It is hatred and (intolerance). And they kick people out, and people are desperate, and they don’t know when they’re coming back?”

“No person who has had such an experience would be strongly opposed to immigration,” he continued, “because that’s how it should be. When people are persecuted, they should be taken elsewhere, despite everything that might otherwise happen.” .”

Watching this new wave of refugees take refuge in a country that can’t offer him the same, Alex hopes it’s a lesson for Poland.

“These are ordinary people who have opened their homes and let people in – so it’s encouraging. And that, I think, is a source of hope.”

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