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Talk will revisit Poland’s March 1968 protests

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Irena Grudzinska Gross will speak at an event commemorating 50 years since the last exodus of Polish Jews.

Now an academic and public intellectual, in the spring of 1968, Irena Grudzinska Gross was a University of Warsaw student of Jewish descent who was persecuted by the Communist government for her political dissidence.

On March 26, Grudzinska Gross will speak at an event held at the University of Toronto to commemorate 50 years since the so-called March events in Poland, when student protests against the Communist government’s suppression of free speech were violently quashed and the Jewish community was blamed for the unrest.

This led to a wave of Jews being dismissed from their professional and academic posts and to Jewish students being kicked out of universities. The result was a mass emigration of Polish Jews, many of whom were Holocaust survivors who had spent the previous 25 years rebuilding their lives in the country.

The March 26 event, titled “March 1968: The Last Exodus of Polish Jews? Fifty Years Later,” will take place at U of T’s George Ignatieff Theatre.

It is co-hosted by the Konstanty Reynert Chair of Polish History at U of T and the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada. Attendees will see parts of Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz’s 2008 film, The Ordinary March, a documentary about the March 1968 protests, which followed the government’s censorship of a play at the National Theatre. The film also explores the head of the Polish Communist party’s subsequent speech, in which he effectively endorsed anti-Semitism under the cover, some say, of anti-Zionism.

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When audiences in 1968 saw the 19th century play, Forefather’s Eve, which is about Poland’s loss of independence to Russia in the 1800s, they cheered at moments that were deemed by the leaders of the day to be politically inappropriate. Their enthusiasm for the play’s anti-czarist sentiment was interpreted as being anti-Soviet and the production was abruptly shut down.

Students at the University of Warsaw, including Grudzinska Gross and her friends, a group of intellectuals known for pursuing democratic ideas, responded with protests calling for freedom of speech. The government sent in the riot police to stop the protests, which resulted in severe beatings and numerous arrests.

The government blamed Jews for the protests, accusing them of conspiring against the national interests of Poland and its citizens.

Peter Jassem is chair of the Toronto chapter of the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada, an organization that aims to promote better understanding between Polish Christians and Jews, and to educate people about the history and culture of Polish Jewry.

Jassem said the events of March 1968 made life unbearable for Jews in Poland.

About 15,000 Jews that left Poland in 1968 and 1969.
– Peter Jassem

“In the same (Polish-Jewish) family, both parents could’ve lost their jobs and their kids could’ve been kicked out of university,” he said.

He noted that the March events came just months after the Six-Day War. The Soviet Union had severed ties with Israel and supported the Arab countries. The ensuing suppression of Jewish rights in Soviet bloc countries triggered a wave of emigration to countries like Denmark, Sweden, France, the United States, Canada and Israel.

“Altogether, it was about 15,000 Jews that left Poland in 1968 and 1969,” Jassem said.

Grudzinska Gross was among those who left. She moved to Italy, where she resumed her studies, and later to New York, where she received her PhD from Columbia University. She now teaches eastern European literature and history, and is a research scholar at Princeton University and a professor at the Institute of Slavic Studies at Warsaw’s Polish Academy of Sciences.

She has published numerous books and essays, her latest being Poland and Polin: New Interpretations in Polish-Jewish Studies.

“March 1968: The Last Exodus of Polish Jews? Fifty Years Later” will take place on March 26 at 7:30 p.m. at 15 Devonshire Pl. Admission is free.