Exiled Poles may return

March 20, 1998

Poland has offered to restore citizenship to an estimated 20,000 people, mainly Jews, expelled from the country in 1968.

President Aleksandr Kwasniewski announced the decision at a ceremony conferring the Order of the White Eagle, Poland's highest decoration, on two former pro-democracy activists who helped organise the student meeting that triggered what are now known as the "March events".

The meeting was called to protest against the authorities' cancellation of a performance of the symbolic drama Forefather's Eve, by Adam Mickiewicz, Poland's national poet. The police broke up the meeting, and there were a number of arrests.

It is not entirely clear how this escalated into an anti-Semitic purge of intellectuals, but it seems to have been orchestrated as a ploy in the high-level factional fighting within the ruling (Communist) Polish United Workers' Party.

As a result of the campaign, March 1968 became, in President Kwasniewski's words "a disgraceful chapter in Polish history" when "many people were wronged, many values were trampled on".

Prominent writers, artists and scholars were censored, purges were carried out in higher education and "young people learned the odour of lies and the bitter taste of prison bread". In a clear reference to the campaign against Jews, the president said, "the darkest and vilest stereotypes in the Polish tradition were brought out, wisdom went to sleep and spectres awoke".

Once the expulsion of Jews started, the authorities used it to get rid of some Gentile academics whose independent thinking challenged the official Marxist line. They included the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski and the sociologist Wlodzimierz Brus, both of whom found posts at Oxford.

There is unlikely to be a rush of applications for restored citizenship. In the past 30 years many exiles have died. Others are established in their countries of settlement and would find it impractical to return permanently to Poland. For them, the offer of citizenship is largely symbolic.

For many of the expelled academics, the offer to restore their citizenship will make very little difference in practical terms. Some have already received Polish passports in the past few years. And even without citizenship, a number of them have been regularly travelling to Poland as visiting lecturers.

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