Polish President Andrzj Duda apologized on Thursday to the victims of the country’s former communist regime, including Polish Jews, who faced persecution and were forced to leave the country in 1968. This March marks the 50th anniversary of an anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist campaign by the 1968 government. These campaigns accused the Jewish community of being an untrustworthy “fifth column” and forced tens of thousands of Polish Jews to relinquish their citizenship and leave the country. Duda’s remarks represent a significant shift in the tone of the right-wing administration that refused to back down from its controversial Holocaust Law. Many are left unconvinced by the move, local media outlets reported that some protestors shouted “hypocrite” and “shame” during his speech.
Talking about the events of 1968, Duda said: “I am so sorry” and “to those who were thrown out, I say, forgive us. . . Through my lips, Poland is asking forgiveness, asking then to be willing to forget, to be willing to accept that Poland regrets very much that they are not in Poland today.” In his speech, Duda emphasized that “the free and independent Poland of today, my generation, is not responsible and does not need to apologize” but still asked that that those deported then and the families of those killed forgive the country for the acts committed by the communists.
The nature of Duda’s speech is certainly a rarity in the history of post-communist Poland, but it was also complicated and, for some, did not constitute an adequate apology. There was still an apparent effort to shift responsibility to an aberrant regime and stress to Poles today that they need not be ashamed of their country and its history. There were also portions of Duda’s speech that seemed to echo familiar and often harmful stereotypes of Jewish people. “You are the elite of the intelligentsia, but in other countries you are people of remarkable success, respected… your creative powers, your scientific output, your splendid achievements have not done credit to the Republic of Poland. What a shame! I am so sorry,” he said. These remarks seemed to indicate that rather than regretting the real tragedy of that time, the real loss was that Poland has subsequently been deprived of the prosperity Jewish people could generate.
The extent to which this move by the president can be interpreted as a positive sign for Jewish Poles is also undermined by recent actions by the government. Namely the so-called Holocaust Law, which criminalizes speech that accuses the Polish nation of complicity in Nazi atrocities. It has received strong condemnation from much of the international community, especially the United States and Israel, as well as increasing tensions between Poland and the Jewish community domestically. Nevertheless, the government has continued to stand by the Holocaust Law.
It is therefore difficult to interpret the implications of the apology given by President Andrzj Duda. On one hand, the speech recognized an issue that has been largely avoided by Polish governments in the past by recognizing the injustice faced by the victims of the communist regime in 1968 and their descendants since. On the other, its content left much to be desired. It minimized the responsibility of the modern Polish state and its population and, as such, seemed to erase the lessons and current applicability to policies unfolding now. Including the Holocaust Law and spikes in anti-Semitic rhetoric occurring in Poland. It is consequently very easy to adopt a sceptical view when considering the sincerity of the apology.