On March 11, I went to the campus. I was studying horticulture at the Warsaw School of Life Sciences. There was a protest meeting—the students were writing a petition to the authorities.  The media was attacking the Jews. But they didn’t deal with this in the petition.

I was afraid to raise my hand and say out loud that they should add that point to the petition.  I went to my classmates who were drafting the petition and I told them—quietly, I remember—that there should be a statement against the attack on the Jews.

I didn’t want to say it loudly. Do you understand?

They didn’t add it?

They did, but just a few words, at the very end.

Was that too little?

For me it was too little.  I wanted my whole school to cry out.  I was waiting for someone to take our side.  The Communist Party was targeting Jews.  And there was no opposition.  We were alone.  Society in general supported the Party.  That’s how I felt.

Today, I understand—they had no power.  Where were they supposed to demonstrate?  How?

I went home and I heard terrible things about Jews on the television and my stomach was in knots.  It was a permanent state of panic.

Many years later, in Israel, my father said that we should have unplugged the television, not listened to the radio, not read the papers, and waited it out.  Maybe he was right.  There were some people who did that and they didn’t leave.  I don’t know who was wiser.  My parents paid a very high price for leaving.  My father was almost sixty years old.  That’s no age for emigrating.  He vegetated for thirty years in Israel.  He missed Poland.  I think he missed it more than my mother.

My mother was the engine of our Jewish education and upbringing.  Not my father.  My father was a timid Jew, he was afraid of everything.  During the War he hid in Warsaw.  He changed his name, and he had a “good” look.  After the War he would have happily hid the fact that we were Jews.  And maybe it would have worked—he didn’t have any more Jewish connections left that could give him away—during the War he lost his whole family.  He really could have changed his life and his identity.  He wanted to.  But unfortunately—or maybe fortunately—he came across my mother, and she didn’t want him to.

Who was Jewish, I could usually tell in most cases.  I don’t know how.  But in the strangest situations, the strangest places, suddenly it would come out—I would ask a few questions and I knew.

For example, at the sanatorium in Ciechocinek I met a girl.  She was going on vacation.  I asked: Where?  To a camp in Gdansk-Wrzeszcz.  And then I knew.  Because I also went to camp there.  I said: We go to the same camp—Jewish camp.  I had never seen her before in my life.  Clearly my sixth sense was working.

Or I had a friend who didn’t go to the Jewish Association, didn’t go to Jewish camps.  She was just Polish. “Irena”—I told her—“you’re a Jew.”  “No, no I’m not.”  “You are, I can see it.”  “I’m not.”  “Go ask your parents.”

Irena went home and asked.  Her parent’s didn’t have a choice.  They had to tell her.  They were from assimilated families, raised entirely in Polish culture, and they didn’t want to tell their daughter because they recognized that after a terrible war they had to protect her from this disfigurement, so that she wouldn’t bear the mark of their past.  And maybe they would have been able to protect her, if not for March.  But March happened.  Because theoretically everyone has the right to choose who they want to be.  But only when you give them that right.  And in 1968 it turned out that that right didn’t exist.  Because all the so-called Poles who had Jewish heritage, but felt they were Poles, were told no—you are not Poles.  And suddenly everything fell apart for them.  And they emigrated with even heavier hearts than the Jews who had always known where they belonged because they were Jews.

I remember serious discussions about whether it was a crime that people did not tell their children [about their heritage] and put them at risk for a shock.  I don’t know, but I’m speaking to you today, when I’ve already studied all their stories.  I think that I would have said something different twenty years ago, when things in Poland were different and I felt more anger towards Poland.  If I would have said anything at all.  Back then it’s likely no one would have talked to you about it.  The very fact that you are a journalist from Poland would have erased your chances of talking with us.

One’s heritage – this is the contemporary thinking—should be each person’s private matter.  And there’s no single rule for what to tell someone, when and how.

I recognized Irena [as a Jew] by her home.  Not from the looks of her parents, because people can look different.  But in Jewish homes there was a different relationship to children—non-authoritarian.  A different kind of warmth.  It was underscored by the fact that we didn’t have Christmas stars, we didn’t celebrate name’s days.  We were given away by the fact that we didn’t have families, grandfathers, grandmothers, uncles, aunts.  And starting in first or second grade we stuck together, we formed a group of friends – not knowing why, because we didn’t know the word “Jew” and certainly none of us used it.  Then somewhere around ten, twelve years old we started to consciously seek each other out, to understand what was going on, and suddenly our eyes opened to the fact that we are all Jews.  It’s unbelievable, right?  That was when my mother sent us—me and my twin sister – to Jewish camps and then the matter was settled.  Once you entered into that community it was hard to leave.  I still have strong contacts with that group of friends to this day.

Among Poles, I was a Pole.  I have an “Aryan” look, a Polish last name, and unless I say something about it, no one knows.  It’s a paradox.  At times I was sad that I looked the way I looked and that I had an ordinary name like Anka Karpinska.  I was jealous of my friends who were named Sara Wasersztrum or Perla Kacman.  They had a definite place and no anti-Semite would have anything to do with them.  My friend Natan Tenenbaum said it well.  He said “Anti-Semitism? In Poland?  There is none.  No one tells any anti-Semitic jokes when I’m around.”  And that’s how it was.  He looked 100% Jewish and anti-Semites stayed away from him.  So no one insulted him.  But they were around me.  And they said what they thought about Jews.

On a day to day basis I didn’t feel it because I moved in circles where it wasn’t a problem.  But in places like the hospital or a sanatorium—where I was treated as a child because I had problems with my spine—it was.  Very clearly.  At school as well.  It would come out in conversations.  For example, at the School of Life Sciences there was basic military training, and during the Six Day War there were remarks about how the little Jews were at war and they were led by a team of colonels and generals who were trained in Poland.  I watched the faces of my classmates to see how they reacted to those jokes, to see whether they laughed.  They laughed and I was devastated.

You understand why, right?  The word “little Jews” was intolerable to me.  I hate that word, and another—“Jewry” – which sounds to me like some kind of vermin.

The Poles were happy not because the Jews were winning, but because the Soviet Bloc, which supported the Arabs, was losing.

I didn’t have the courage to speak up.  There were some people who managed to say—“That’s a stupid joke.”  But they had a strength that I didn’t have.  My mother also was the type who could say—and this is the difference between her and me—that she didn’t want to hear that kind of joke.  She wasn’t afraid, she would speak up, but my father stayed silent. Like me.

So I listened to anti-Semitic jokes.  And I was not brave enough to stop the people who were telling them and say: “Don’t talk like that around me, I’m a Jew.”  I never once said that.  Even though it hurt.  Badly.

You asked, what you are allowed to say, and what you aren’t.  You’re not allowed to throw around the word “Jew.”  You’re not allowed to make Jewish jokes.

Not szmonces[3] either?

Szmonces is okay, szmonces is good—but you’re not allowed.  I’m allowed.

But can I listen to them?

It’s not fair, right?  It’s not.  But what – has our history been fair?

Not even Tuwim’s[4] szmoncesy?

They’re good, right?  Although my father thought they were anti-Semitic.

Maybe you’re right.  We are sensitized, even hyper-sensitized.  But we have our reasons.

People accuse Poles of looking to see who is Jewish and who is not.  But I did the same.  The first thing I did entering into a new group was a “review of the troops.”

I treated Jews as allies.  I felt more secure if there was a Jew.  I felt that I would get support from a Jew, that I wouldn’t be alone.  That was a product not so much of fear as insecurity.  Because personally, in my childhood, I didn’t encounter malicious anti-Semitism.  More like anti-Semitic stupidity.  In elementary school we had a teacher—she didn’t know I was a Jew, and she said to me: “You act like a Jew—I send you out the door and you come back in through the window.”  Maybe she said “chimney,” I don’t remember.  I just took it, I didn’t say anything at home, because I always had a feeling of guilt like maybe I had done something wrong.  But some other children told what happened, and the next day some parent went to the principal of the school and the teacher was fired.  At that time there were certain rules in place and that kind of behavior wasn’t tolerated.  All that ended in 1968.  Then they could call you “Jew,” beat you up, and there was no authority you could report it to, that would help you and stand in your defense.  Suddenly it became hell.

Janek, my boyfriend, and later my husband, had a very Jewish look.  Being with him I saw what anti-Semitism really looked like.  They would point fingers at him.  Janek was terribly scared.  He was the oldest son of Stanislaw Lec.  Yes, that Stanislaw Lec, who wrote Unkempt Thoughts.[5]  Old Mr. Lec was also a timid Jew.  My husband said that his father was friendly and kind to everyone because he was afraid.  He died in 1966.

Janek bought a motorbike because he was afraid to ride the bus.  He was afraid that someone would yell “Jew!” and they would throw him from the tram.  We had a friend who was thrown off a tram around that time.  One time the police tried a stupid frame-up on Janek.  He supposedly beat someone up on the street.  They picked him up along with a friend, a Pole.  They locked them up.  For the same thing, this beating.  Janek was immediately thrown out of school—the very next day.  You see how efficiently the system worked?  There was a general we knew and I went to him and asked him to get Janek out of jail.  He said “I have no power.”

Luckily Janek was only in jail for 48 hours.  His case was sent to court on an expedited basis and dismissed, and then he was released.

What did I know about the world?  Nothing!  We were very young, terribly stupid.  Somewhere at the top a political battle was unfolding and there was a struggle for power, of which we knew nothing.  Jewish generals and vice-ministers were being thrown out of their positions.  Not because they stopped believing in the system, because—contrary to their children—they believed, like idiots they believed; but because they were Jews.  And suddenly all these generals and vice-ministers had no say in anything.  And beyond that, their children were going to jail.  And they were afraid.

Yes, like my father.

Only now with the perspective of time do I understand his fear.  I left Poland almost 50 years ago and I still feel like everything happened yesterday.  For them, the War was yesterday.  Only twenty-some years had passed since the end of the War.  The conditions were different, colossally different.  But the fear was the same.

Janek always knew that he would leave Poland.  When I met him, he told me: “Anka, I’m going to finish my degree”—he was studying architecture at the Warsaw Polytechnic—“and I’m getting out of here.”  I felt sad.  I went to my father and said “Dad, Janek has plans to leave Poland.”  My father looked at me and didn’t say anything.  Later I found out that my parents had submitted applications to emigrate to Israel in 1957.  At that time there was a mass emigration, and then suddenly it was stopped.  They let people leave until such and such date and then they shut the gate.  That’s why my parents stayed.  I was in third grade.  I had a passport photo taken with my mother—I didn’t know what was going on.  It was good that they didn’t tell me.  It probably would have changed my relationship to Poland, it would have been like waiting in a waiting room.  I never thought about emigrating.

In Israel, my father told me one interesting thing that surprised me: “Anka, do you think we left Poland because there was anti-Semitism?  No, that was always there.  But in 1968 it became unsafe.  There were a few cakes baking there at once.  They had our files.  Us – Jews from the UB.[6]  Who knows what they would have done; history was not on our side.  I was definitely on their list.  They would have dealt with us mercilessly.”

My father was in the Security Bureau [UB].  He left on his own, which wasn’t easy.  There were repercussions.  But he was in it, and he understood that he had become an “enemy of the people” like the entire, detested UB.  He told us, “I was in it.  I didn’t know, but that doesn’t exonerate me.  I have a black mark in my biography.”

And he had another mark against him.  In 1956,[7] he saw that everything he believed in – and he very much believed—was bankrupt.  He completely withdrew from politics, and he knew a lot, but he never said anything.

My twin sister and brother studied at the University, I was studying horticulture at the School of Life Sciences, and in March [’68] our parents would gladly have locked us up at home and not let us out.

My brother gave the signal to emigrate.  He is a year and a half older than us.  He told my parents that he was leaving.  He got a certificate that he had completed his studies, but he wasn’t going to finish his diploma, because he couldn’t pay for his tuition.  In order to emigrate you had to pay back the cost of your studies.  For biology, which is what he studied, it was something like 50,000 zlotych.  This was the best moment, he said, to leave.

To which my parents said, “Either we all leave, or none of us.”  We were a close family.  My brother wanted to go to Israel. 

But my Janek decided to finish his studies.  He only needed to do his final diploma project.  It would take him half a year, he would pay for his studies, and we would join my family.  Architecture cost about 55,000 zlotych.  Janek had money—his father had been published in the West and he was his heir.

We got married.  I don’t know if Janek would have become my husband if not for the emigration.  It’s a long road from going out with each other to getting married.  We made a decision that neither of us were prepared for.  I was 20, he was 22.

There are a lot of emigration marriages.  There were completely Jewish marriages and mixed ones.  Getting married resolved a lot of administrative problems, even something as basic as staying in hotels.  Mixed marriages were a necessity because otherwise there was no way for the other person to leave.  The mixed marriage often happened amid dramatic conflicts within the family.  In Catholic families they were treated like a betrayal—“You’re leaving Poland for that Jew.  You’re withdrawing from your family and your fatherland for some Jew.”  People said those kinds of things.

I also heard that officials from the security service would call out the Gentile women—because in the mixed marriages the women were usually Gentiles—and tell them: “Ma’am, why don’t you divorce that Jew, we’ll help you. Why do you want to go with that Jew to Israel?”

Those women emigrated with heavier hearts than us.

Before he emigrated my father had to do something with his Party membership.  And he was afraid to go in person and give his membership card back. So he sent it by mail.  He was afraid of getting into some confrontation about his ethnicity.  It could lead to some kind of discussion. To some kind of revelation.  The bubble would burst.  He didn’t want that.  At his work, they didn’t know he was a Jew.  He passed for a Pole.  He worked in the Central Technical Organization.  Always within him there was not only a fear, but a certain duality, a double identity.  After all he lived through, that was probably normal.  He wasn’t easy to live with.

My parents, brother and sister emigrated in January 1969, half a year later.  That was my biggest, most painful experience.  I cried.  Everyone cried.  I can’t even talk about it because I’ll start to cry.

I missed them terribly.  Interestingly, I missed my twin sister the most, who I fought with constantly when she was in Poland.  We’re very different.

For half a year Janek and I lived together like kings.  We had everything—an apartment in Mokotow, which I got in return for the apartment on Piekna Street which they took from my parents; money from Janek’s father, which came from the publishing company— nd yet it was sad.

Janek finished his diploma, and I took care of the formalities of emigration.  Janek did nothing.  He was afraid to go to any kind of government office.  He sent me everywhere.  “Anka—you take care of it.”  He wasn’t in the right mental state to deal with all that.

We prepared for Israel.  We were already sitting on our suitcases.  And suddenly we changed plans.  Some Poles we knew asked us: “Why are you going to Israel? “  And they advised us, “Go to Denmark.  From Denmark you can go to Israel whenever you want, but not the other way around.”  Denmark had just opened its borders to Polish Jews.  We told my parents.  On the one hand, they were sad that we weren’t going to be with them, but it was short-lived.  On the other hand, there was happiness that we weren’t going to Israel because there was war and life was hard.

I had absolutely no idea what the Danish language sounded like.  I had no idea at all about Denmark.  But there was an internationally famous architect there, Arne Jacobsen, and very good architecture, and Janek wanted to become a good architect.  At the same time, I was studying horticulture and Denmark—an agricultural country—was a good fit for me too.  So we emigrated to Denmark.

We left on July 23, the day after the July 22 holiday.  In 1969.  At the train station there was my Polish family, our friends—but not many, because it was during vacation—and Janek’s stepmother and a few of his relatives. My cousin came with a camera and took pictures.  I got them after a dozen or so years.  I didn’t know he was taking them.  It’s good that I didn’t know.  I would have been afraid.  Today I look at them and I see: “Oh, I look sad and there’s a tear in falling from my eye.”  And it reminds me that I had a gall bladder attack, because a few months earlier they had found a stone in my gall bladder and whenever I got upset it would immediately start to hurt.  That’s what I remember from those pictures.

In Denmark, I discovered that March [‘68] had a powerful impact on people’s minds, especially the young people.  After emigrating from Poland they converted to Judaism, became Orthodox Jews.  Even though some of them came from communist families, secular families.  Totally unpredictable.  They would ask me: “What traditions do you observe?”  I said, “We have a Christmas tree, just like in Poland.”  And I explained to them that I could never become an Orthodox Jew because for me that’s hysteria, not faith.

They completely disassociated themselves from Poland.  They didn’t have any contact with Poland, and they didn’t try to have any.  It was a conscious separation from Poland, caused by aggression. “Because they wronged us.”

Poles don’t understand that.  “How can it be that they go skiing in Austria or Germany but they don’t want to come to Poland?”  So we have to explain again and again to Poles that it’s not that anyone forgives Germans.  No one forgives them.  Yet Germans are anonymous.  But Poles—those were our classmates from school, from pre-school, our neighbors.  That’s emotional—you understand?

At times that stubbornness was self-destructive.  In Denmark I got to know a certain writer, quite well known in Poland.  No, I won’t give his name, he wouldn’t want that.  He lived in Warsaw by the Society of Screen Actors and Writers, everyone knew him, he belonged to the cultural elite.  When he emigrated to Denmark he was angry with Poland, because Poland had wronged him.  But his heart stayed in Poland.  In Denmark he vegetated.  He lived like he was in a wasteland.  His wife was a doctor and she earned a living.  But he – no, he wouldn’t go to Poland.  I begged him – just go.  “No, if someone wants to see me, let them come here.”

Wajda came, Slomczynski – his friend Czyzewska, Kott, Dobosz—they all came, the whole elite from his time in Warsaw.  But no, he would not go to Poland, because they owed him an apology.  I’m telling you, this was in the 90s, they were giving out visas with no problem.  “Listen,” I said, “President Kwasniewski already apologized, they even published it in the newspaper.”  No, they have to apologize to him personally.  Well, you won’t live to see that.

Janek and I went to see him.  He was very sick.  “Will you go to Poland?”  “No.”  Yet he longed for Poland intensely.  I said to him “Are you mad at Polish swallows?  Polish trees?”  No, he wouldn’t go.  He died.  And he never went.  He hated Poland, because it wronged him.  And he loved it.  I think a lot of people have the same problem now.

I got my [Danish] citizenship after five years and I applied for a visa at the Polish embassy.  Why did I want to go?  What do you mean, why?  I missed it terribly. Everything.  The streets, the trees, the people.  And I couldn’t admit it out loud.  That would not be appreciated in the emigrant community.  Because what – they spit in your face, and you miss it?  I was ashamed that I longed for Poland.  Because many people didn’t understand.  I didn’t either.  A completely irrational thing.

The consulate wrote back that I was “not wanted” in Poland.  That was the phrase they used.

After ten years, I thought that I would conquer them by trickery.  I wrote that I was the daughter in law of Stanislaw Lec, the great Polish author, and I wanted to show his grandchildren the country in which this famous author wrote.  And they went for it.  They issued a visa for me and my children.  Janek didn’t want to go.  We had two boys at the time, Jacob and Simon.

I went for five weeks.  Everyone was warm, kind. Like in a fairy tale—I walked the streets, touching the forbidden fruit.  I couldn’t believe that I was here again.  And whether someone likes it, or not—I’m here.  Do you understand?  I’m here.


[3]      Szmonces refers to a particular genre of cabaret humor associated with Jewish comedians and playing on certain stereotypical tropes of Jewish life.

[4]      Juliam Tuwim (1894-1953) was one of the most popular and well-respected Polish poets of the 20th Century.  In addition to his poetry he wrote works for children and satirical cabaret pieces, including szmoncesy.  He was ethnically Jewish.

[5]      Stanislaw Lec (1909-1966) was a Polish poet and famous author of aphorisms, the most famous collection of which was Mysli Nieuczesane or “Unkempt Thoughts.”

[6]      Urzad Bezpieczenstwa [Security Bureau].  During the formative Stalinist era of post-war Communism in Poland, the UB was the internal security apparatus. The UB was infamous for its repressive tactics and in the post-Stalinist thaw, was replaced by the SB [Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa].

[7]      The year of Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” admitting and denouncing certain excesses of the Stalinist era.