Tension with Israel 50 years after Poland's anti-Semitic campaign


Warsaw (AFP)

On the 50th anniversary of a brutal anti-Semitic campaign in Poland, the country faces a diplomatic crisis with Israel over a controversial new Holocaust law.

In 1968, partly to settle disputes inside the ruling Communist Party, the Polish government stripped many Jews of party membership -- and thus jobs -- prompting around 12,000 to leave the country.

Today, Poland's conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) has been accused of trying to deny the Holocaust after introducing a law notably intended to prevent people from describing Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland as Polish.

"It's not the same today," said Adam Michnik, a prominent communist-era dissident who is now editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's leading liberal newspaper.

"There are certainly similarities. Once again there's a growing image of a Poland besieged by enemies and the enemies are the Jews who want to do us harm," he told AFP.

The law, which went into effect last week, sets fines or up to three years in jail for anyone ascribing "responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish nation or state for crimes committed by the German Third Reich".

Israel sees it as a bid to deny that individual Poles participated in the extermination of Jews during World War II -- a claim Warsaw refutes.

- 'Give the finger to Brussels' -

"There was no anti-Semitic impulse behind the Holocaust bill. It has to do with something completely different: to show that Poland is no longer on its knees, to give the finger to Brussels and especially to Ukrainians," Michnik said.

The PiS government has been at odds with the EU over a number of issues, including Warsaw's controversial judicial reforms, its refusal to welcome refugees and logging in the Bialowieza forest.

"There is of course the rhetoric of the nationalist right that at times takes up anti-Semitic slogans, but it's marginal," Michnik added.

The first trigger for what would become the 1968 purge came from Moscow, where Soviet leaders felt humiliated by Israel's victory over their Arab allies in the Six-Day War of 1967.

Pro-Israel Jewish members of the Polish communist government became targets of reprisals, which suited the agenda of the nationalist communists close to then interior minister Mieczyslaw Moczar.

- 'Revived anti-Semitism' -

The head of the Polish communist party at the time, Wladyslaw Gomulka, was married to a Jewish woman and was not an anti-Semite.

However he wanted to get rid of older, high-ranking members of the party who were ex-Stalinists -- and often Jews -- and who had caused him to be sidelined in 1948.

The Moczar group then tried to convince Gomulka that a pro-democracy protest on March 8, 1968, by students at the University of Warsaw -- which was brutally crushed by police -- had been led by children of prominent Jews.

Gomulka delivered a "terrible speech," said Jozef Tejchma, one of the communist leaders at the time.

"He revived anti-Semitism. The campaign began. There was a search for culprits to blame for the economic crisis, the difficulties, the social conflicts," he told AFP.

"And the guilty parties, that was them -- the others, the Jews -- and not the poor social and economic policy."

As Jews were purged from the Communist Party, the press published anti-Semitic articles of rare cruelty.

The public also sent vicious anonymous letters, often motivated by resentment not so much towards Jews but towards the communist elites who enjoyed a much higher quality of life than the working class.

Poland was once home to Europe's largest Jewish community, but Germany's Nazis killed most of the country's Jews during World War II.

Some of those exiled during the late 1960s returned to Poland after the fall of communism in 1989. Every Polish government has since made a priority of maintaining good relations with Israel.