Prior to the Second World War, Poland had the world’s largest Jewish population. Estimated at approximately 3 million people, Jew’s represented over 10% of the total population of Poland and in several major cities they approached or exceeded 50% of the population. The concentration of Jews in Poland can be understood in part as a consequence of their expulsion from other neighboring countries in the Middle Ages.
It should also be understood that, contrary to a common misperception, Poland was historically a religiously tolerant country when measured by historical standards. In the 16th Century, Poland had Europe’s first statute establishing religious freedom, and many Jewish cultural, religious and educational centers flourished within the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Under Nazi occupation, many of the largest concentration and death camps were established by Germans on Polish soil, most infamously Auschwitz. More than 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and approximately half of them were Polish citizens. As a result, after the war, the number of surviving Polish Jews was a tiny fraction of what it had been in 1939. Many of Poland’s surviving Jews emigrated to Israel and other countries, an outflow that was further enhanced by incidents such as the 1946 Kielce Pogrom, in which a group of Polish residents of Kielce falsely accused the local Jewish community of the abduction of a Catholic boy (who later turned up unharmed; he had merely run away) and launched a concerted attack against their Jewish neighbors. The result was several dozen deaths and understandable panic among Poland’s already decimated Jewish community.
As a consequence of these and other factors, by the time our story begins in 1967 there were only an estimated 25,000 Jews living in Poland, less than 1% of the pre-war population.
In June 1967, following Egypt’s closure of the Straits of Tiran and mobilization of troops to the Israeli border, Israeli launched what it described as a preemptive strike. Although Egypt and several of its Arab allies were outfitted with modern weaponry supplied by the Soviet Union, the Israelis evaded their air defenses, destroyed the vast majority of their air force, and captured hundreds of tanks. In addition, Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula, territory on the West Bank of the River Jordan, and the Golan Heights in the so-called “Six Day War.”
Initial Polish public reaction to the Israeli victory was markedly pro-Israel. There were several reasons for this response. First, Israel’s victory was a comeuppance for the Soviet Union, which had long backed the Arab nations in a proxy war with the United States over the Middle East. The Arabs’ outright defeat was seen as a blow to the Soviet Union, which nearly all Poles viewed as a hostile occupying force. Second, it should not be overlooked that many Israeli leaders had connections to Poland (e.g., Shimon Peres and Menachem Begin were both born in Poland) and Israel’s population had been bolstered by tens of thousands of Polish Jews after World War II.
Consequently, a common refrain in the early days following the Six Day War was “Our [i.e., Poland’s] Jews beat their [i.e., the Soviets’] Arabs.” This put the Polish government in a difficult position, as the official line of the Soviet-affiliated states was that the war was an act of Israeli aggression. Combined with this was the historical (though inaccurate) stigma of the Communist party in Poland as being dominated by Jews, reflected in the concept of Zydokomuna or “Judeo-Communism.” These factors combined in a vehement reaction by the ruling elite against “Zionism” and an imaginary “Fifth Column” of Jews in Poland whose allegiance was to Israel rather than Poland and her communist allies.
The ensuing purge of government ranks, particularly the military, began in 1967. However, it was not until March 1968, when student upheaval began at the nation’s universities, that the government unleashed its full propaganda and physical means of repression to attach the so-called subversive Zionist elements in society and create the conditions that more or less mandated emigration for the majority of Poland’s remaining Jewish population.