Poland's President Andrzej Duda. Picture: AGENCJA GAZETA/DAWID ZUCHOWICZ/REUTERS
Poland's President Andrzej Duda. Picture: AGENCJA GAZETA/DAWID ZUCHOWICZ/REUTERS

Warsaw — Poland’s president apologised on Thursday to Jews chased out of the country 50 years ago during the communist regime’s anti-Semitic campaign, as Warsaw faces criticism over its new Holocaust law.

"The free and independent Poland of today, my generation, is not responsible and does not need to apologise. But … to those who were driven out then … I’d like to say please forgive the republic, Poles, the Poland of that time for having carried out such a shameful act," Andrzej Duda said.

The 50th anniversary of the anti-Semitic campaign, which caused at least 12,000 Jews to leave Poland, comes amid heightened tensions with Israel over Warsaw’s controversial new Holocaust law.

Meant to defend Poland’s wartime image abroad, the law sets fines or up to three years in jail for anyone who ascribes Nazi German crimes to Poland. But Israel sees it as a bid to deny that certain Poles participated in the genocide of Jews during the Second World War, while the US has also expressed concern over freedom of speech.

Duda delivered his apology at the University of Warsaw 50 years after a student revolt there was crushed and used as an excuse for the regime to unleash its racist campaign.

"What a shame, what a loss for the Polish Republic today that those who left — and some who are maybe dead because of 1968 — are not here with us today, that you are an intellectual elite but in foreign countries, that you are successful people but elsewhere, that your work, your research, your magnificent achievements are not credited to Poland," Duda said. "What a shame, I am so sorry."

He recalled that Polish Jews took part in the country’s fight for independence a century ago and later defended it in 1920 against the Soviets and in 1939 against the Nazi Germans.

Hundreds of people attended the speech to protest against the right-wing Law and Justice government and its controversial actions since coming to power in late 2015.

Chanting "shame" and "constitution", the protesters were upset over court reforms that critics believe threaten the separation of powers. Duda’s speech struck a different note than that of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Wednesday who said that Poland had not been an independent country in 1968 and thus could not be held responsible for the communist anti-Semitic campaign. He said Poles should be "proud" of their revolt against the communist regime instead of "being ashamed" of March 1968.

Duda visited the train station in Warsaw where Jews boarded to leave Poland half a century ago. He laid a wreath and met Jewish representatives.