March All Over Again

Jakub Majmurek in conversation with Janina Jankowska and Seweryn Blumsztajn, two journalists who during communism were active in the opposition, but they nowadays quite oppose in political preferences.

“Well, looks like history’s repeating itself,” says Seweryn Blumsztajn to begin our conversation. We are talking on 2 February, right in the middle of the violent controversies that erupted after the Ministry of Justice’s amendment to the law on the Institute of National Memory (IPN). It institutes punishment for anyone who “publicly and in contradiction to the facts ascribes responsibility or co-responsibility for the Nazi crimes of the Third Reich to the Polish Nation or the Polish State.” This law has met with resistance all around the world. The American State Department has expressed alarm. Israeli public opinion has declared that this initiative of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party attempts to falsify history, to conceal and wipe out the truth of crimes Poles committed on the Jews during World War Two.

It looks like history’s repeating itself.

The conflict with Israel has restored a language to Poland’s public sphere that was absent on this scale for at least half a century. Politicians and journalists close to the present government have begun stating that we must fight “Jewish claims” and attacking Israel and world Jewish public opinion. Public radio has urged the government’s critics to ponder whether they would prefer to have Polish or Israeli passports. All this elicits associations with the events of March 1968, whose anniversary will arrive in less than a month. Seweryn Blumsztajn remembers that March all too well – as a participant in those events and a victim of what unfolded shortly thereafter.

Poland – 1968

March ‘68 is a complex and multifaceted event in Polish history. At its heart is a student rally that was brutally dispersed by the militia; it took place in the University of Warsaw courtyard on 8 March. Students were protesting against the expulsion of two of their peers: Henryk Szlajfer and Adam Michnik, organizers of protests in late January against Adam Mickiewicz’s Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve) being pulled from the theater repertoire.

This most famous nineteenth-century Polish plays, which speaks of the Poles’ suffering under the rule of the Tsar, was blocked by the censor for the audience’s alleged anti-Russian exclamations. The final performance was meant to be held on 30 January 1968. The audience was overflowing. During the applause, the viewers cried out “uncensored independence.” After the play, a group of around 300 University of Warsaw students gathered round a monument of Mickiewicz, unfurling banners that read: “We demand more performances.” The militia intervened.

1968 was politically charged all around the world. Conflict broke out everywhere from the United States to Paris, Prague, and Warsaw. Young people took to the streets, clashing with the old institutions. When asked about it today, Blumsztajn says he felt he was part of a greater movement. “We felt particularly close to what was happening in Czechoslovakia, the Prague Spring, the attempt to build Socialism with a human face. Although the slogans of the Parisian May struck me as juvenile and silly at the time, later, as an immigrant in Paris I felt a great sense of community was the 1968 generation,” he says.

I felt a great sense of community was the 1968 generation.

Before that sweltering 1968 really began, Blumsztajn landed in a communist prison. The authorities arrested him in the morning of 8 March, before a rally planned for noon. Other students regarded to be revolutionary leaders were apprehended as well. Blumsztajn and his friends observed Paris and May and the Prague Spring from behind bars. The same went for Poland’s rising anti-Semitic campaign. The Jewish question was a very important ingredient in Poland’s 1968. People like Blumsztajn were reminded that they were Jews, the press began an anti-Semitic campaign, people of Jewish origins were encouraged to evacuate the country.

The “fifth column” and the “partisans”

The problem of anti-Semitism in People’s Republic Poland does not begin in March. The anti-Semitic atmosphere in the ruling Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) grew after Israel won the seven-day war. After the USSR condemned Israel, breaking diplomatic ties, the Polish authorities followed suit. The First Secretary of the PZPR, Władysław Gomułka, delivered a notorious speech about the “Jewish fifth column in Poland” in 1967. The government organized rallies, condemning “Israeli imperialism.” The army was purged, and officers of Jewish extraction were removed from their posts.

Yet the outburst of anti-Semitic propaganda in the press, radio, and television surprised everyone, including student protesters. “We missed what had been happening since 1967,” says Blumsztajn. “We were getting signals, but we didn’t take them to heart, we were too wrapped up in what was happening at the university. We were living outside of Jewish world, we didn’t feel we were part of it.”

We were living outside of Jewish world, we didn’t feel we were part of it.

Blumsztajn’s student collaborators – graduates from good high schools, often children of upper-crust state bureaucrats, tried-and-tested communist activists, often of Jewish extraction – don’t mainly think of themselves as Jews. They have little or nothing in common with Judaism and the prewar world of the Polish Jews. They consider themselves “children of October,” ideological heirs to the change in 1956, which ended Stalinism in Poland and brought hope – or so it briefly seemed – of a system transformation in the spirit of an authentic, democratic socialism, based on workers’ self-rule.

In the increasingly authoritarian Poland of the 1960s, Blumsztajn’s peers are looking for a space of freedom, of open discussion on Polish history, the People’s Republic, and possible paths of reformation. They read underground books and periodicals – Kultura out of Paris, Ðilas’ Nowa klasa – and they discuss subjects that were taboo during the People’s Republic: the history of Polish communism, Stalin’s purges, and Katyn, where Soviets murdered Polish officers on Stalin’s command.

“For a long time my generation felt confident that reform was possible. Its revolt also derived from a relative sense of security, from the conviction that the state would not resort to the brutal repressions of the previous period under Stalin,” Blumsztajn says today. It particularly seemed unimaginable that the communist authorities would play the anti-Semitic card. Blumsztajn recalls that when, back in “‘66, or ‘67,” Hasiak, a Soviet Youth Union activist, stood up at a meeting and announced, “we won’t be sullied by a Blumsztajn, or any other Sztajn,” Adam Michnik urged him to report the incident to the Central Party Control Commission. Hasiak was relieved of his post; before the seven-day war, this sort of language was still unacceptable.

For a long time my generation felt confident that reform was possible.

In March things changed. This was after the anti-Semitic language had reached the populist/nationalist “partisan” division in the PZPR gathered around Minister of Internal Affairs Mieczysław Moczar, who saw it as a tool for removing their political opponents and mobilizing support for themselves.

Who made march?

Janina Jankowska also recalls being utterly surprised by what happened in March. She is a few years older than Blumsztajn, and comes from a different environment – her father was a prewar activist for the right-wing National Democracy. And yet, she stresses, during the occupation he hid and saved two of his good Jewish friends. “He was my idol,” she says. In 1968, Jankowska has just finished her studies, she is working At Polish Radio’s Foreign Language Editing Board. They mainly produce English and French lessons for Polish listeners.

“What happened then came as a shock to me, it was utterly hideous,” she recalls. She particularly remembers one episode when a stranger dropped by the office, pulled out a calling card from the University of Warsaw Graduates’ Association, and began explaining how to recognize a Jew. “He took out a ruler and showed how the line of a Jew’s nose measures up to the line of the ear. The whole office was terrified and appalled.”

Anti-Semitic purges also take place at the radio station after March. Jankowska’s boss is fired, along with almost half the foreign section management – in Stalinist times, many of its directors had served in the prosecutor’s office and law-enforcement agencies. The gendarmerie takes over the radio for a time. They are sure to block broadcasting.

Jankowska has contact with the young students, she observes their situation after March, she gets involved in helping out. “I’m in touch with what is happening through my friends working at the university. I gather documents about March and transfer them abroad. I also collect money to help students who are apprehended,” she says. Her name emerges in an investigation, the police interrogate her for an entire day, they threaten to take away her job and arrest her. She does not collaborate, however, and manages to avoid persecution.

Did the anti-Semitic campaign occur in a vacuum?

The scope of grassroots social support for that March is among the most important question we have to pose if we want to understand what happened at the time and forge analogies with the present day. Did the outbreak of anti-Semitism purely come from above? Were the workers driven to the rallies where they shouted “anti-Zionist slogans” by force? Did the anti-Semitic campaign occur in a vacuum?

Blumsztajn has his doubts. “It appealed to stereotypes that were at least two thousand years old.” He also believes that no one was looking after the Jews in 1968. “The Church was standing up for persecuted students, but not for Jews. There were no voices that said something was deeply wrong here, that people were being forced to emigrate.” Jankowska sees things somewhat differently: “Anti-Semitism came from the top, from the leaders, as the result of Party infighting. In my circles it was seen as persecution toward the entire society. Forced rallies were assembled, people were driven there under threat of losing their jobs, they were filmed, and later they were ashamed and apologized. I know of such cases.” Jankowska was not in the Party, while her husband, “a communist who wanted to pay penance for his bourgeois upbringing,” was removed from the Party in 1968 for protesting against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact army.

After 1968 the Jewish issue slowly fades. In the Gierek era of the 1970s, the Party is practically silent on the Jews. Poland has no diplomatic ties with Israel, the March emigrants can not return to Poland. The topic enters a latent phase, society cannot tolerate honest discussion about what really happened in March.

Standing up against the march blather

Another thing that prevented this discussion was the media in the People’s Republic, which was under state control and preventive censorship. There were not yet any regular underground newspapers in 1968. In March the Polish press and television actively hounded students, Jews, and “cosmopolitans.” The terms “March language” and “March blather” entered the Polish language to describe the media of the time.

Jankowska and Blumsztajn are journalists. Blumsztajn began working for the underground press in the 1970s, and after 1989 he helped create Gazeta Wyborcza – the largest and most influential newspaper of post-communist Poland. The editor-in-chief is the leader of the March protest, Adam Michnik; Wyborcza is the medium most powerfully advocating Poland’s transformation into a liberal country, it is a point of reference in every key debate in the country over the past quarter century. Jankowska has worked in radio all her life. She took part in the Round Table discussions, where, as the only representative of the audiovisual media, she sat at the negotiating table with the communist authorities, discussing the state of media in free Poland. Today she is part of the Polish Radio Program Council.

I ask them how that March affected their professional work. “For us, March media has always been a negative point of reference. In the media I helped create, while it was still underground, we assumed that we would uphold certain standards that were raped by March propaganda. In our underground press publications we not only stuck to the firm principle of distinguishing information from commentary, we tried to avoid commentary altogether. We wanted to speak the language of facts – we believed that facts were in league with the truth, they spoke for themselves, they protected us from propaganda,” says Blumsztajn.

We wanted to speak the language of facts.

Jankowska recalls that she and her colleagues were invigilated after the March events. For instance, she had set up an interview with Marian Brandys, a writer of Jewish extraction, who was not writing about the Jewish world at the time, but about the Polish Chevau-légers of the Napoleon era and the ruler’s Polish lover, Miss Walewska. Immediately after she came with the recording, her boss called her in. He flew off the handle: “We don’t use the name Brandys here!”, he shouted.

March language was based on perfidious, purposeful lying and manipulation. What does this language share with the problems in today’s public sphere in Poland and other liberal democracies? With a reality where our problems are fake news and post-truth? Can we speak of an analogy?

Jankowska is skeptical. “Fake news and post-truth have always been with us,” she says. “We cannot even compare the situation we had in 1968. The state does not currently have a monopoly on the media. The message broadcast by TVP – the Polish public television station – is terrible indeed, but if you don’t like it, you’ve always got TVN, or other media. This is why I don’t buy the hysteria that Kaczyński is a threat to freedom of speech in Poland. Even if he controls TVP and he has his own publications, it’s still only one part of the media market in Poland.”

Blumsztajn points out, however, that “TVP has crossed every line.” In his opinion, there is no symmetry when it comes to the bias of the media critical of the government. “TVN and Gazeta Wyborcza observe certain basic standards. The public media controlled by PiS does not.”

History repeat itself

As we could also see from how our interviewees responded on the Polish/Jewish issue in recent weeks. Blumsztajn has a powerful sense of history repeating itself. PiS could have retracted the amendment to the IPN law when it caused the first controversies, but instead the Senate (the higher chamber of the Polish Parliament) decided to quickly vote it through during the night. “That was Kaczyński’s decision,” he says.

“The government will play the Jewish card now,” he continues. “For the narrative that we are ‘getting up from our knees’ and fighting for our rights against Russia, Germany, Brussels, and now Israel as well. The Prosecutor will find a few criminals named Rabinowicz and haul them in handcuffed at six o’clock in the morning, accompanied by television cameras.”

Jankowska does not credit this scenario. “Jarosław Kaczyński is obsessed with the notion of a powerful state, and he is strangely virulent,” she says. “His idea of the nation is fairly nineteenth-century, but I am certain he is not an anti-Semite. That was never an anti-Semitic family, they had Jewish friends.” Jankowska was a social worker at the office of Jarosław’s deceased twin bother, Lech, the Polish President in 2005-2010. “As a president he did a great deal for Polish-Jewish unification. He was the first head of the Polish state to celebrate Hanukkah,” she recalls. I mention these doubts to Blumsztajn, but he waves them aside: “Kaczyński will do anything that gives him power.”

Yet can the anti-Semitic card be played in Poland?

Yet can the anti-Semitic card be played in Poland? “I myself am astonished that it is making a comeback,” Blumsztajn admits. “In the last twenty-five years it was totally marginal. It seemed that here, at least, a kind of political correctness held sway. Even the nationalists were careful not to be caught being anti-Semitic.” Now this “correctness,” he thinks, seems to be crumbling.

What could be the cause? Blumsztajn points out that the Poles never got used to the idea that the Jewish narrative about the war and the Holocaust differed from the Polish one – that Poles come out as the perpetrators. Jankowska sees the problem in that, in communist times, it was impossible to hold a frank conversation about the Poles’ attitudes toward the Jews in the interwar period, during the war, and immediately afterward. “We have had a problem dealing with the historical truth of unabsolved Polish anti-Semitism. We need honest debate, free of political interference from either side.”

We need honest debate, free of political interference from either side.

In 1989, when conversation began on the Kielce pogrom, the crimes in Jedwabne, and other Polish crimes against Jews, it met with a violent response from the more defensive Polish communities, convinced that these were unjust attacks, surely inspired by the Germans, who sought to saddle the Poles with their crimes.

PiS uses similar arguments to mobilize support for the IPN amendment: “Polish history was falsified, we were attributed German crimes, other governments fell to their knees and accepted it, but we are rising and fighting for Poland’s good name. Poles saved Jews, they did not kill them, we have never been ant-Semites, though the Jews have often been disloyal toward Poland.”

An inconvenient anniversary

Give this resurgence, how are we to commemorate the memory of that March? Of the time when the Polish state – albeit communist, and not entirely sovereign, and most certainly undemocratic – organized an anti-Semitic witch-hunt, forcing its Jewish citizens to emigrate? “March has always been convenient for the right wing,” says Blumsztajn, “you can always say that anti-Semitism was the work of communists in postwar Poland, in 1968, and we – the right wing, the nation – wash our hands of it.”

But what about the memory of the protesting students? So far, their struggle was depicted as part of the “Polish road from communism to freedom.” Lech Kaczyński commemorated March this way, when, ten years ago, he invited the student leaders from that time to the Presidential Palace, even those who were politically very much at odds with him.

It is difficult to imagine veterans of March commemorating the anniversary alongside President Duda

Today, however, this division is much deeper and much more intense than ten years ago. It is difficult to imagine veterans of March commemorating the anniversary alongside President Duda. “Even if Duda invites me, I’m not going,” declares Blumsztajn.

For Blumsztajn’s circles, Duda has yet to mature to his task as head of the state and defender of the constitution. Instead of standing up for democracy, Duda lets Kaczyński dismantle it, piece by piece.

A generational spat

Kaczyński is also part of the March generation. A few years younger than Blumsztajn and Michnik, he attended his first year of legal studies at the University of Warsaw in 1968. He joined the March protests as an ordinary participant. He worked in the democratic opposition for a long time in the same company as Michnik and Blumsztajn. Yet he was always in the second or third ranks, remaining in the shadows of the March leaders.

After 1989, dramatic political differences between them begin to emerge. He fiercely attacks the Gazeta Wyborcza community, its concept for transformation, democracy, departure from communism, the place of Poland in Europe and the world. He accuses Michnik and Blumsztajn’s people of arrogance, haughtiness, and looking down on society and their political opponents.

Janina Jankowska partly shares these accusations. “I was part of that community for a time, though I was younger than them, I learned everything from Adam Michnik. The more I distanced myself, however, the more I saw those things. It was difficult for me to accept how easily they accepted the social costs of the transformation: the Balcerowicz plan, unemployment, the elimination of jobs in industry.” Jankowska worked for Lech Kaczyński, but she is alarmed by Jarosław Kaczyński and his present course of politics. “He has divided society, he is systematically monopolizing power, dismissing the voice of the people, and using a language of dissimulation,” she states. She admits that she did not vote for PiS, but for the leftist Razem party, mainly composed of thirty-somethings – a Polish attempt to build a new left wing in the mode of Spain’s Podemos.

I get the feeling today that all my work from the past twenty-five years is going to waste.

The Razem community is also highly critical of post-communist Poland. Blumsztajn himself admits that “not everything was ideal after the system change, the previous governments were not perfect.” Yet he believes that the 1989-2015 period was a great success in Polish history, which he helped to create. It was an era of which he and his community could be proud. “I get the feeling today that all my work from the past twenty-five years is going to waste,” he says.

How the Polish government will commemorate the March anniversary, or pass over it in silence will define the debate on the Polish generation of 1968 and its legacy in Polish politics for some time. Much like the unresolved moments in Polish-Jewish history, and the harm Poles have done to Jews – in March and at other times.


This article was first published for the Iron Curtain Project.