Now, it is again a house of worship, led by the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich.
“They simply didn’t tell. It was too painful. The survivors were so traumatized. They made a decision that it was no longer safe to be Jewish,” Schudrich said.
“In March 1968, there was a grumbling in society against the government,” said Schudrich.
Many in Poland refused to tighten the Communist Party’s grip on the country.
“The government has decided that the best way to deal with this social tension – the social opposition to the government – is to claim … that all the Jews do is do it,” said Schudrich.
Scapegoating the Jews has been a tried and true tactic that leaders have used for thousands of years, and it has worked just as well as communists engaged in an internal power struggle had hoped. For this story, the team of Dana Bash spoke with members of her extended family in Warsaw and New York.
In the late 1960s, protests erupted not only on American university campuses but on Polish universities as well. As American students marched in protest of the Vietnam War, students in Warsaw demonstrated against censorship in their country. And the communist government did not like it.
The incendiary speech is played in an episode on a bank of televisions in an exhibition at the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Joanna Ficus, who leads the museum’s exhibition division, explained her importance to CNN.
She said, pointing to the largest screen in the sky after this speech.
Gomochka spoke of threats to Poland, referring to “traitors”.
Ficus explained that he “never mentioned the word Jew”. “He didn’t have to.”
“You can imagine people in their forties or fifties who survived the Holocaust and remember how it started,” she said. “They got[the chills]and they realized they didn’t know how it could end, but they’ve been through something like this again.”
The communist government hunted down “elites” on university campuses as well as so-called Zionists.
Konstanti Gebert was a Polish high school student in 1968 who described his story from that year as “typical,” which is chilling considering the way 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 for being a filthy Jew and then stood there, rubbing my face and wondering, ‘What was it all about? This?”
He said Gibert, now a prominent journalist in Poland, was expelled from high school for being of “Zionist” descent.
His older sister left. Most of his friends left. His mother was a “de-Zionist” of her job – another anti-Semitic movement disguised as a 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 only Jews in ’68 when the father said, ‘Well, son, you are old enough,’” he recalls. Now that you know it, ‘Here comes the comet’s secret. We didn’t care.’
Gibert managed to stay in the country. Tens of thousands of others were not so lucky.
Vikus, who also serves on the board of directors of the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland, said the communist government forced Jewish citizens to emigrate.
“They were deprived of their citizenship. They were told they had to leave their house,” she explained, pointing to a display case containing a $5 bill – the only amount they are allowed to carry – and one – a passport-like manner document. But it wasn’t a passport – it was a private document.
“This means that you can only leave Poland and not return to it,” she said.
Bach’s uncle, Alex Gelber, was one of about 13,000 Polish Jews who were given a one-way ticket out of his country.
He was 20 years old in 1968 and in medical school.
“It was very upsetting because I got out of this somewhat sheltered environment into a situation where I don’t like anyone,” he recalls.
The Polish life he described before everything changed was not a life of persecution, but a relative privilege.
“We were young kids, and it was mostly parties, having a good time. In fact, politics wasn’t really in sight. As far as I’m concerned, there is an anti-Semitism issue that came up later that, for me, just didn’t exist,” Alex said. Basically. So this was not a problem. Obviously, I knew I was Jewish, and my friends knew I was. But that wasn’t a problem.”
His father, the late Georg Gelber, was a prominent physician and professor in Szczecin, western Poland, where they moved after Georg survived World War II because he was aided and hidden from the Nazis by his Catholic professor and community physician. He took care of children’s medical needs, wrote academic papers and lived a relatively pleasant life considering that they were behind the Iron Curtain.
“He was certainly very well known as an excellent doctor,” Alex said.
But none of that mattered in March 1968 during the Communist government’s purge of Polish Jews.
“My dad, personally, had a choice. They say, ‘You can resign yourself, or we’ll fire you.’ That obviously didn’t make a difference, and so he said, ‘No, I won’t quit.’ You have to tell me I don’t deserve to be here,” Alex recalls.
In the days that follow, Alex recalls a haze of packing up and meeting friends and family they thought they’d never see again.
He recalls: “You had an official standing next to you and saying, ‘Well, you can take this item or you can take this piece of anything, some property or jewelry or whatever, and then you can’t take the other,’” though he said his family She was allowed to take a little more than the others because the mother of the customs official was one of his father’s patients.
“There were so many scattered examples of humanity,” he said, “but in general it was very disturbing because you are a refugee.”
This uprooting came just over 25 years after his parents survived the Nazis in Poland.
“They tried to build this near-normal future, but it didn’t work very well,” Alex said.
For the large family from the non-Jewish side of Alex’s mother left behind in Poland, it was also painful.
Alex’s cousin Wajisikh Zarimba was only a boy in 1968, but he remembers it.
It was so unexpected. So, it was kind of a shock, but what was worse after that, we lost the connection. Because, remember, there was no internet; there was no ability to connect. We were behind the Iron Curtain. We have no news and no messages… It was like a disappearance of this one, in a very fast way.”
To this day, he said he couldn’t believe the Poles had expelled people like Georg Gelber, who had spent his life looking after the country’s health, especially in Szczecin, which became part of Poland only after World War II.
“There were no well-established networks; the right services, the right care… It was irreplaceable, basically, but nonetheless, that was the biggest political reason for his leaving,” Zarimba said.
refugee plight. Where to go?
George and Anna Gelber made their way to New York in 1969 to stay with relatives and slowly build a new life.
Alex’s sister, Renata Greenspan, had already finished her medical studies in Poland and also went to the United States. She joined the US Army, rose to the rank of colonel and shattered glass ceilings as the first female director at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.
Alex finished medical school in Italy and then joined his parents in New York, where he met my aunt Dr. Linda Wolf in 1981, while they were both working at Bellevue Hospital.
Alex’s story has a happy ending, but the memory of his expulsion from his home, country, and life lives on. “This crossing abroad leaves an imprint that does not leave you,” he recalls.
Like the tens of thousands forced to leave Poland in 1968, Alex looks at today’s struggle through the lens of a former refugee.
“It’s strangely similar,” he said of the refugee crisis in Ukraine. “It’s the same thing. It’s this hate and (intolerance). And they’re kicking people out, people are desperate, and they don’t know when they’re going to come back?”
He continued, “No person who has undergone that experience would be vehemently opposed to immigration,” “because that is how it must be done. When people are persecuted, they must be accepted elsewhere, despite all the things that could happen otherwise.” “
As Alex watches this new wave of refugees find shelter in a country that cannot offer him the same, he hopes it will be a lesson he learned for Poland.
“It’s normal people who opened their homes, they let people move in – so that’s hopeful. And that, I think, is a source of hope.”