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Forced Out: The Fate of Polish Jewry in Communist Poland
Fenestra Books, May 31, 2004
Trim: 5.5 x 8.5
“Easily readable and well researched using both English and Polish sources, the book is not only a commentary on Polish anti-semitism, but on Polish communism as well…. Summing up: Recommended. Anyone interested in modern Polish history or the history of anti-semitism.”
“Arthur Wolak has given us a thorough and fair-minded history of the 1967–1968 ‘anti-Zionist’ campaign of Poland’s communist government toward the small Jewish population of Poland which still lived in Poland after the Holocaust.”
“[Forced Out] ... brought back memories of the events and political climate of the People’s Republic of Poland where between March 8 and 14, 1968, as a freshman at the Warsaw University of Technology, I and thousands of my colleagues rioted against the oppressive regime on the streets of Warsaw.”
“Thoughtful, literate, well-researched ... as accessible to the lay reader as it is to sociologists and historians. Highly recommended…”
In the late 1960s, after the Holocaust had brought about the almost total destruction of centuries of Jewish civilization in Poland, senior leaders of the ruling Communist Party initiated a domestic terror campaign that resulted in the unceremonious eviction of thousands of Polish Jews. Why did the leadership of a nation that professed equality among all peoples suddenly drive them into exile? In Forced Out, Arthur Wolak explores this turbulent era, revealing a period in modern European history that offers important lessons about the dangers of political opportunism and the inherent evils of totalitarianism.
Surveying the Jewish experience in Poland from the reign of Poland’s kings to the present day, Forced Out details this important yet little-known era in Poland, a nation that has since broken through the Iron Curtain to emerge as one of the West’s staunchest allies as a member of NATO and the European Union.
Reflecting on the momentous events that occurred in Eastern Europe in 1968, the world’s memory tends to focus on the aftermath of Czechoslovakia’s “Prague Spring,” when Alexander Dubček’s policy of economic and political liberalization was crushed in the month of August by a Soviet-led invasion that restored oppressive Communist totalitarianism in the Soviet sphere of influence. Just as ominous, however, were the events that took place in Poland between 1967 and 1968. Although no invasion was launched from outside Poland to quell rising anti-Communist sentiments, the Polish government carried out fierce repressive measures to achieve this aim from within.
Among the actions seemingly intended to strengthen Communist control inside the People’s Republic of Poland was the nefarious policy to eliminate members of a specific ethnic group—Poles of Jewish descent—from positions of influence within Polish society. Emanating from the leadership of the ruling Communist Party of Poland, the anti-Zionist rhetoric that swept across the country during 1967–68—also a feature of the 1968 pro-Soviet clampdown on Czechoslovakia’s reform-minded regime—led to severe reprisals against Jewish citizens of Poland, culminating in their effective expulsion. The majority of Jews who had remained in Poland following the Second World War emigrated as a consequence of the Polish government’s anti-Semitic campaign.
While the reprehensible actions that took place in Poland during 1967–68 were fundamentally unjust, they were not new, original, or unprecedented. Whether the Near East of biblical times, or Europe and Russia of the twentieth century, throughout history Jews have been victims of rampant persecution, including state-imposed discriminatory policies, widespread massacres, and expulsions from numerous jurisdictions. Until the modern era, however, Poland had been among the few politically tolerant European nations in which the Jews had lived. That the authorities of a country that once welcomed and protected the Jews would, centuries later, force them out is indeed one of the sad ironies of European history.
This chronicle of Poland—the period from 1967 through 1968—has not received much attention in general surveys of European history, either because this particular era is still too recent to have made the pages of popular history books, or because for many popular twentieth-century European history writers, attention to the Jewish experience in Poland tends to begin and end with the Holocaust. The latter reason is understandable since global awareness of the Nazi genocide of the Jews is essential, not only so the sins of the past are not repeated but so they are never forgotten for the profound lessons they contain about immorality, intolerance, injustice, and inhumanity.
As a reflection of relatively recent history, however, this account has much to offer. What may not be widely known to general readers is that the Jewish presence in Poland did not end with the evils perpetrated by the Nazis largely on Polish soil during the Second World War. While most Holocaust survivors chose to emigrate, a small but significant number of Poles of Jewish ancestry chose to stay in Poland following the Second World War. One such Polish Jew was Władysław Szpilman, the Polish pianist whose autobiographical account of his survival in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation, The Pianist, was transformed into a widely acclaimed, internationally award-winning motion picture by Roman Polański, himself a Holocaust survivor who, like most Jews of his generation, left Poland in the decades following the war.
One evening during a visit to Poland in the autumn of 2002, I sat in a Warsaw movie theater and watched The Pianist. It was a packed house comprised of curious Poles who saw a chapter of their nation’s past depicted onscreen. Larger numbers of Poles—among others throughout Europe and the rest of the world—should also see this film, for it will remind them of a people who populated Poland in significant numbers before the Nazi genocide, followed just two decades later by Poland’s Communist regime’s fierce domestic campaign of coerced emigration, virtually wiped them out.
The significance of Szpilman’s story is multifaceted. While it depicts one man’s survival during the Holocaust, it also reveals a postwar Jewish presence in Poland that cannot be denied. A portrayal of the horrors of the Holocaust, this film also depicts a Jewish individual who remained in Poland after the war for his own reasons, to continue his musical career, adding much to Poland’s postwar culture through his innumerable compositions and stage and radio performances.
Although the Jewish population that stayed on in postwar Poland did not reflect or replicate the thriving Jewish religious scholarship and social culture prevalent in Poland for centuries prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, this was neither within their ability, due to the overwhelming destruction of Jewish life, nor was it their intent. Their reasons for remaining in Poland after the war reflected many different motives, from shared ideological and political beliefs on the one hand, to non-political but cultural, linguistic, occupational, or emotional attachment to the country of their birth on the other.
Despite the small number of Jews residing in postwar Poland relative to the number that resided in Poland before the war, their impact on Poland, as Szpilman exemplifies, was never trivial. This book is therefore about what ultimately happened to the majority of Jews who remained in Communist Poland in the decades following the Second World War. This era of Polish and general history should not be forgotten, for it holds valuable lessons about the evils of state persecution and the inherent dangers of totalitarian regimes. As such, Poland’s 1967–68 “anti-Zionist” campaign deserves a hard-earned position in the files of twentieth-century injustices.
While it is not the intent of this book to suggest that Jews were the sole victims of the Polish government’s repressive policies of 1967–68—since non-Jewish opponents of the Polish regime also suffered from the government’s oppressive actions—this book focuses on the Polish leadership’s specific exploitation of political anti-Semitism in its efforts to manipulate the masses toward its favor. As a consequence, why and how Poles of Jewish origin were specifically targeted for persecution by the Polish government during the final years of the Gomułka administration are fundamental questions these pages attempt to answer.
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