(Bloomberg) -- Poland doesn’t need to apologize for an antisemitic purge carried out by the communist regime 50 years ago although the exile of Jewish citizens was a “heinous act” and a “great loss” for the country, President Andrzej Duda said.
Poland’s government has been struggling to tamp down a growing conflict over the treatment of Jews in the country, which has enraged Israel and undermined relations with the U.S. In 1968 and in the following year, more than 13,000 Jews were ousted by Poland’s communist authorities after official propaganda accused “Zionist elements” of causing unrest and called for Jews to go to Israel.
As antisemitism strengthened, Polish Jews -- including scholars, doctors, civil servants and artists -- started losing their jobs and many eventually left the country as political refugees, with a travel document saying they were no longer Polish citizens.
“Some say that Poland should apologize for the antisemitic acts carried out by the authorities, for the ousting of more than 10,000 people,” Duda said on Thursday, during a commemoration ceremony in Warsaw marking the 50th anniversary of the student protests that triggered the purge. “But that is something that today’s free Poland isn’t responsible for and doesn’t have to apologize.”
Duda said that “with great regret, we bow our heads before those who were expelled.” He continued: “Please forgive Poland, the past Poland, and Poles, for this heinous act. Today’s Poland is suffering from this loss.”
Poland’s relations with Israel deteriorated this year as the ruling Law & Justice party passed a law criminalizing suggestions that the Polish nation was in any way responsible for atrocities during the Holocaust. The U.S. said the law curbs free speech and Israel said it could trigger a whitewashing of history by Poland, whose citizens were responsible for both saving Jews during World War II as well as killing them.
Fanning the conflict further, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki last month listed Jews among the “perpetrators” of Nazi-era crimes, along with Germans, Russians, Ukrainians and Poles. Israel said the comments were “outrageous” and the Polish authorities said the premier misspoke, but said they didn’t have to apologize.
While Jewish groups have stoked alarm over a new wave of antisemitism in Poland, Morawiecki said the Holocaust law showed that his government had to remain assertive to battle rising anti-Polish bias around the world. Speaking on Wednesday, he said the student protests of 1968 made him proud and that he wants to “fight anti-Polonism as effectively as our Jewish friends fight anti-Semitism.”
“The last month and a half has shown how easy it is in Poland to awaken all those anti-Semitic demons,” Anna Azari, Israel’s ambassador to Poland, said at another event in Warsaw. “Even when there are hardly any Jews in the country.”
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.