“One-way Journey: March ‘68” at Museum PRL, Krakow, Poland

It was autumn in Krakow and leaves started to turn yellow-brown, which somehow created a yellowish filter to everything in Krakow. This yellowish autumn was new to me since I come from south of China, where autumn almost does not exist and it is green all the time. So in my perspective, green represents life and yellow-brown represents emptiness and forgotten. The group arrived at the museum PRL (PRL: Polska Republika Ludowa in Polish and People’s Republic of Poland in English) at this time of the year. The museum is located at the Nowa Huta district, where it is far away from the main tourist attractions at Krakow center. Nowa Huta was a former socialist district which was designed based on socialist-realist idealism. After 1989, the district becomes a visible symbol of the communist epoch, which reminds people of an unwanted and difficult past. But in the past few years, the perception of Nowa Huta district has changed. The communist past of the district has been accepted by tourists and locals as an attraction and a destination for urban activities.[1]

(Fig. 1: Image taken by the author.)

My first impression on this district was emptiness, and it seems to be the result of the communist past that made the district so empty and abandoned. The Museum PRL is located at an empty space like that in Nowa Huta (Fig. 1). The building was a small cinema in the district and it was turned into a museum about the People’s Republic of Poland in 2012. The distance of Nowa Huta from the Krakow city, the empty streets, and the isolated building made Museum PRL look lonely. If we added the autumn filter to look at the space of Museum PRL and for what it represents, the place appears to be even desolate. The Polish communist past, like the museum, seems to be forgotten. However, this is not the reality. The Polish communist past is remembered both nostalgically and critically (see other students’ excursion projects: the Milkbar and Krakow at times of terror)[2]. The museum presents the PRL period in these two perspectives, the living room of a family and the nuclear shelter during the PRL for the nostalgia and the exhibition of the March events of 1968 and strikes in Nowa Huta for the critical reflection.[3]

(Fig. 2 A suit from the nuclear shelter, photo gathered by the author)

This year 2018marks the 50th anniversary of the March events of 1968 in Poland. TheMuseum PRL currently hosts an exhibition about the political and social events of March 1968 called One-way Journey: March ’68 (Fig. 3). The March events of 1968 were a complex and multifaceted occurrence and propaganda campaigns which were at first as a reaction to the student revolt and later developed as a political and social crisis that made Jews as an enemy for the crisis. The result of the March 1968 forced Poles of Jewish origin leaving Poland and migrated elsewhere. Professor Dariusz Stola, director of POLIN Museum, stated at another exhibition for the 50th anniversary of the March events of 1968 about the perception of young generation towards March 1968 and said: “When asked about March 1968, young Poles usually know very little, or do not know anything at all.” The March 1968 was once forgotten, at its 50thanniversary, it is re-articulated by different institutions in Poland, including the Museum PRL and its One-way Journey: March ’68 exhibition.

(Fig. 3: the Official poster of One-way Journey: March ’68, gathered from the official website of Museum PRL)

This first part of the exhibition makes use of Polish news articles and photographs to tell the story of March 1968. The storyline can be divided into four parts: Forefathers’ Eve, The Revolt, The March Rhetoric, and the Emigration after March ‘68. The storyline is linear, which traces back from the beginning of the revolt to the result of the March event 1968. The second part of the exhibition uses a map and objects (such as passports and travel documents) for the migration (Fig. 5) after the March event 1968. The last part of the exhibition shows a few video-interviews (Fig. 6) of people who were forced to leave Poland after March ’68.

(Fig. 4: News articles and photographs presentation for One-way journey: March ’68, image gathered by the author)

(Fig. 5: A map shows where people migrate to after the March event of 1968, image taken by the author.)

(Fig. 6: Video-interviews in One-way Journey: March ’68, photo taken by the author)

However, this narrative does not show the multilayers and complexity of the March event 1968. The reflection towards the March ’68 seems to be unclear and ambiguous.

Taking the picture below (Fig. 7) as an example, this photo is about a mass meeting at Lenin Steelworks, which was taken at Nowa Huta. This kind of rally in March 1968 supported the anti-Zionist policy adopted by the PZPR (Polish United Workers’ Party) and the workers denounced the protests of students and the so-called Zionists. This political workers’ rallies were spread over in Poland during March 1968, however, this image did not explain why workers stepped out in a political crisis. And how a students’ protest turned into this hate campaigns of anti-intellectual and anti-Semiticacross Poland that caused forced migration in Poland. This picture and the rest of the exhibition do not deeply reflect how the March 68’ to contemporary Poland and expose a deeper reason how the anti-intellectual and anti-Semitic campaign was promoted during that time.

The hate campaign of Jew did not start with the crisis in 1968. It could trace back to a political bomb on 19 June 1967, when Wladyslaw Gomulk, First Secretary of the UnitedPolish Workers’ Party, gave a speech about condemning “imperialistic aggression against the Arab states” and the PRL broke all diplomatic relations with Israel and officially condemned the ‘Zionist aggression.’ However, the storyline of the exhibition simply started with the ban on the performance of the Forefathers’ Eve in February 1968. The intellectuals and students stepped out and defended the freedom of speech as they saw the ban of the performance as an act against freedom. Their protests then were used and workers’ rallies were stirred by the Party to the anti-intellectual and anti-Semitic propaganda.[4] This narrative is implicated at the exhibition, as the storyline did not trace for a further reason for why students’protests could result in the forced migration of Polish Jews. And this is also why I choose to focus on this particular photograph from the exhibition, because like this image can explain the multilayers and complexity of the March event 1968. The protagonists of this photo, the workers, were manipulated by the Party and protested against their ‘enemies’, students and intellectuals for disturbing the country, and Jews, who happened to respent Israel was the ‘enemy’ of the Arab states. Because the Arab states in the Middle East war enjoyed the support of the Soviet Union. That was why the March ’68 accompanied with other students’ protests in the 1960s worldwide. This photo is an example of the complexity and multi-layers of the March 68’. On the one hand, it shows those who were ‘obviously’accused of; one the other hand, the antisemitism and the state-sponsored violence were implied by the Party that was a hidden message under this photograph.

(Fig. 7: Mass meeting during the March event 1968, photo taken by the author.)

The exhibition clearly shows sympathy over those who were wrongfully accused of during March ’68, especially towards Jews. The last two parts of the exhibition focused on the forced migration of Jews in Poland after the event. The sympathy feels stronger when audiences sit face to face to the screen of those interviews. However, it did not clearly point out the crime of communist regime, as the message of the antisemitism and state-sponsored violence against the ‘other’ (Jews) is uncertain. The beginning of the storyline does not directly point out the geopolitical context to the audiences, as if it is not part of the cause of the event. Some students and intellectuals were also victims of the March ’68. But they did not appear to be one of the victims of the events. The exhibition would be more critical if the message of the geopolitical context and the victimhood of students and intellectuals were pointed out in the exhibition because they were also the victimhood of state-sponsored violence.

I agree with speaking up for the forgotten past, and the exhibition reminds the audiences about the March ’68. However, the exhibition is vague about condemning the crime during the PRL, as it does not trace back to the event to the very beginning. The rethinking of the past critically and thoroughly could encourage the past to be remembered.

[1]       Brittan Timm Knudsen, “The past as staged-real environment: Communist revisited in The Crazy Guides Communism Tours, Krakow, Poland,” Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change 8.3 (2010): 139-153. This article mentions the Crazy Guides Communism Tours uses the past of Nowa Huta and promotes it to foreign and domestic tourism, and the Tours changes local view the communits past.

[2]       Karolina Golinowska, “Nostalgia for the PRL in contemporary Poland,” Twentieth Century Communism 11.11 (2016), 67-82. In this article, Golinowska states that Polish nostalgia for the PRL appears in different forms of social practices and moments of national celebration.

[3]       Image of the living room of a family during the PRL period at Museum PRL-u in Krakow, Poland: https://www.google.nl/search?as_st=y&tbm=isch&hl=en&as_q=prl+museum+krakow&as_epq=&as_oq=&as_eq=&imgsz=&imgar=&imgc=&imgcolor=&imgtype=&cr=&as_sitesearch=&safe=active&as_filetype=&as_rights=#imgrc=sQpkEJmI0smfWM:

[4]       Piotr Oseka, “The revolt and the purge: the 1968 political crisis in Poland,” in Estranged – March ’68 and its Aftermath, Justyna Koszarska-Szulc and Natalia Romik ed., POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews (2018), 84 – 101.

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