Poles Give Warm Welcome to the Exiled Jews of ’68
In 1963, the same year that Beatle-mania was spreading across Europe, three Jewish students in the Polish city of Szczecin (sh’CHE-chin) started a rock band called The Successors. As the Polish youth began tearing at the seams of the restrictive Communist government, they became more and more attracted to the rock and roll songs written by The Successors. Rock music, after all, was equated with decadent capitalism by the Communist authorities, and so was the perfect vehicle for young people to express their dissatisfaction. In 1967, the group won first prize in a state-run contest for a song opposing the war in Vietnam. By 1968, the song had become a hit song on the Polish radio.
And then, that same year, it all came crashing down for the Jews. The leader of the Communist party in Poland, Wladislaw Gomulka, blamed the Jewish “Zionists” for fomenting the student unrest and announced that the Jews “were free to leave.” Leon Ejdelman (pronounced Adleman), then a Jewish student in Szczecin who now resides in Yonkers, N.Y., knew what this meant. “In a Communist country, where no one was allowed to leave, Gomulka’s suggestion was a way of telling us to get out,” Ejdelman explained. In a matter of months, thousands of Jews throughout Poland were fired from their jobs and their membership in the Communist Party was revoked. By the end of the year, 13,000 Jews felt forced to leave the country and consequently gave up their citizenship.
This summer, the Jews of Szczecin finally reunited in the town for the first time since the traumatic events of 1968. Former residents flew in from all over the world — the United States, Canada, Australia, Israel, Germany, France, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and different cities within Poland itself. Szczecin, a port city located on Poland’s western border with Germany, was actually part of Germany until the end of World War II, when the allied countries decided at the Potsdam Conference to turn it over to Poland. Many Jews returning to Poland after the Holocaust settled in the new city rather than go home to their own towns and villages, fearing the reaction of their former neighbors.
Szczecin quickly became a thriving Jewish community. In 1946 the Polish government allowed the Jews to open their own Yiddish day school, called the Peretz School, after the well-known Yiddish writer, Yitzkhok Leybush Peretz. (Yiddish was deemed “kosher” by the Communist authorities, in contrast to Hebrew, which was verboten due to its Zionist and religious associations.) There were three Jewish sleep-away camps in the area around Szczecin and a well-organized communal life for Jews of all ages.
Little remains of the vibrant Jewish life in Szczecin today. The reunion participants were eager to revisit the places of their youth, but they harbored no illusions. On a tour of the former Jewish sites, they discovered that the Peretz School was now a sleekly renovated training center for teachers, and the few active members of the community were frail and elderly. One notable exception was Roza Krol, the energetic organizer of the reunion, who is, like many of the reunion participants, in her fifties.
But it wasn’t just nostalgia that moved the former Szczecin residents. It was the unexpected enthusiasm of the Poles. The Jewish reunion was written up in a number of Polish newspapers (sample headline: “In ’68 They Were Forced to Leave Poland, and Now — Back to their Youth”). Even the highly esteemed Gazeta Wiborcza, often referred to as The New York Times of Poland, sent a reporter to cover the reunion in Szczecin. “TV cameras followed us wherever we went,” Krol remarked. The governor of the province, Zygmund Meier, participated in the unveiling of a plaque on the former Peretz School and later invited a group of the reunion participants for a business meeting in his office about doing business with Polish companies and hopefully investing in Polish companies as well.
One person who attended the meeting was Max Klajman (rhymes with Wyman), one of the three members of the rock band that once captured the imagination of the younger generation of Poles and Jews. In an interview with the Yiddish Forward, Klajman, who today owns an import business in Manhattan, said that the governor began the meeting with an unexpected declaration: “The Polish government committed a great wrong against the Jews, and it should never have happened. To tell you the truth, we are ashamed of it.”
“We were all shocked,” said Klajman. “We had come to talk business and suddenly here he was practically begging us to forgive him. I was very moved.”
Ejdelman was similarly astonished to hear lectures by Polish academicians detailing the history and a sociological analysis of the Jews of Szczecin, and to see an exhibit of photos and documents of the community between the years 1945 and 1968, also coordinated by Poles. “I couldn’t believe they were putting in so much effort researching our life here,” Ejdelman said. “In ’68, when we were forced to leave, it seemed that we were so irrelevant to them. And now all I felt was genuine sympathy.”
Klajman says he is optimistic about the future relations of Poles and Jews. In 1998, after President Alexander Kwasniewski formally announced that Poland would eagerly give Polish Jews back their citizenship, a handful of Jews actually took him up on it, Klajman said. “The Poles are very eager to work with me,” he said. “Because I’m Jewish, they try to help me in every way, by extending credit and even giving me preferential status.”
But Klajman’s most exciting moment at the reunion had nothing to do with business. During a reunion party in a nightclub, the Polish authorities presented Klajman with a CD of the band’s anti-war song, which they had produced in honor of the occasion. Finally, after 40 years since the founding of the band, the Polish government was ready to appreciate the cultural contributions of the Jews of Szczecin.
Rukhl Schaechter is on the editorial staff of the Yiddish Forward, from which this article was adapted.