Polish president 'sorry' for Jewish persecution in 1968


Warsaw (AFP)

Poland's president on Thursday apologised to Jews chased abroad 50 years ago during the communist regime's anti-Semitic campaign, in a move applauded by the Jewish community and seemingly meant to reduce tension with Israel and the US.

"The free and independent Poland of today, my generation, is not responsible and does not need to apologise. But... to those who were driven out then... I'd like to say please forgive the Republic, Poles, the Poland of that time for having carried out such a shameful act," Andrzej Duda said.

The 50th anniversary of the anti-Semitic campaign, which caused at least 12,000 Jews to leave Poland, comes amid heightened tensions with Israel over Warsaw's new controversial Holocaust law.

Meant to defend Poland's wartime image abroad, the law sets fines or up to three years in jail for anyone who notably ascribes Nazi German crimes to Poland.

But Israel sees it as a bid to deny that certain Poles participated in the genocide of Jews during World War II, while the US has also expressed concern over freedom of speech.

Duda delivered his apology at the University of Warsaw 50 years to the day after a student revolt there was crushed by baton-wielding police and later used as an excuse for the regime to unleash its racist campaign.

"What a shame, what a loss for the Polish Republic today that those who left -- and some who are maybe dead because of 1968 -- are not here with us today, that you are an intellectual elite but in foreign countries, that you are successful people but elsewhere, that your work, your research, your magnificent achievements are not credited to Poland," the 45-year-old president said.

"What a shame, I am so sorry."

He recalled that Polish Jews took part in the country's fight for independence a century ago and later defended it in 1920 against the Soviets and in 1939 against the Nazi Germans.

- 'Very important words' -

Former Knesset speaker Shevah Weiss, who was also once Israel's ambassador to Poland, attended Duda's speech, which he applauded.

"It's a very important speech. For the first time a Polish president has asked forgiveness here, at the university, the place where these events took place. Personally I accept the apology," he said.

"I'm sure that in a month or two or three, the situation will have calmed down... and we'll return to our ties from two months ago," he told AFP.

Piotr Kadlcik, the former president of the Union of Jewish Communities of Poland and founder of the Jewish.pl website, was also satisfied with the speech but less optimistic about its outcome.

"Very important words, very strong, but they'll change nothing. The harm has been done, a hate campaign has poured forth in Poland," he told AFP.

"Poland and Israel will sooner or later improve their ties... but all the reconciliation efforts of the last 25 years between Jews and Poles have been squandered."

A couple of hundred people attended the speech to protest against the rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) government and its various controversial actions since coming to power in late 2015.

Chanting "shame" and "constitution", the protesters were notably upset over myriad court reforms introduced by the PiS that critics at home and abroad believe threaten the separation of powers.

Duda's speech struck a different note than that of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Wednesday, who had stressed that Poland was not an independent country in 1968 and thus could not be held responsible for the communist anti-Semitic campaign.

He had said Poles should be "proud" of their revolt against the communist regime instead of "being ashamed" of March 1968.

Before showing up at the university, Duda visited the train station in Warsaw where Jews boarded to leave Poland half a century ago. He laid a wreath and met with representatives of the Jewish community.

Since the fall of communism in 1989, every Polish government has made a priority of maintaining good relations with Israel.