The bridge between Poland and Israel

The 30th anniversary of the "Bridge" operation

With the end of Communism in Poland, a new era in Polish-Israeli relations began. The first element of change was seen in May 1990 with the beginning of the joint operation “Bridge” which established a humanitarian corridor for Jews emigrating from the Soviet Union. All thanks to the bold decision of Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first head of the government of the independent Third Polish Republic.

by Tomasz Kozłowski

In June 1967, the Israeli army had scored a major success over a coalition of Middle Eastern countries. Israel’s most important ally on the international stage was the United States. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was supporting Syria and Egypt – both of which had failed in this conflict. Thus, Moscow decided to make a demonstration and break off diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. Other Communist states had to follow their example, including Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic and Hungary. The authorities in these countries were also forced by Moscow to introduce anti-Israeli policies. This group also included the government of the Polish People’s Republic. Its Minister of Foreign Affairs declared that Poland was ready to resume diplomatic relations only “when Israel withdrew from the territories seized by Arab states and ceased its policy of aggression towards those states.”

Tadeusz Mazowiecki, November 1989; photo by Artur Klose; CC BY-SA 2.0

The breaking of diplomatic relations and the propaganda campaign carried out in the Polish press resulted in the search for an “internal enemy” in the ranks of the Communist party, the army and the administration, namely, citizens of Jewish origin who were secretly supporting the policies of Israel, and thus also the US. In 1967-1972, more than thirteen thousand citizens of the People’s Republic of Poland were forced to emigrate. These events made any agreement between Warsaw and Tel Aviv impossible for many years. The situation began to change gradually in the eighties. But this was not only due to the initiative of the Polish Communist authorities, whose actions on the international arena were de facto dependent on Moscow. As in 1967 – the change in Polish politics was the result of signals from the Soviet Union.

From the beginning of the seventies, Moscow had allowed the emigration of several thousand of its citizens of Jewish origin who then permanently moved to Israel or the USA. In the eighties, the number of people leaving the country decreased sharply and Moscow treated this group of citizens as pawns. Using unofficial communication channels, signals were sent to Washington that the Kremlin was willing to increase the number of emigrants in exchange for economic benefits. Moscow expected, among other things, to loosen the restrictions related to the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act, which introduced restrictions on US trade with non-market economies that violated human rights.

In March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union, aiming to start a new era in East-West relations. In order to win Washington’s confidence, Gorbachev showed his willingness and goodwill by increasing the emigration quotas – this was to show that Moscow was serious about fulfilling its obligations regarding human rights. This decision was met with a positive US response. A spokesman for the State Department said that this was “a positive step that would contribute to an improved atmosphere in our relations”. Throughout 1987, ten times more travel permits were issued than a year earlier. A wave of emigration began, gaining momentum along with the progressive political relaxation on the East-West line and Gorbachev’s introduction of internal reforms in the USSR.

Gorbachev in 1986 (photo by The Official CTBTO Photostream; CC BY 2.0)

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir estimated that in 1990, up to half a million Soviet citizens of Jewish descent sought to escape from the Soviet Union to their new homeland. The Soviet empire was collapsing, and so was the geopolitical order that had lasted for half of a century – no one knew how long this window of opportunity would last. Thousands of Soviet citizens dreaming of freedom made attempts to go to Israel or the USA. Transportation was a key issue. Moscow did not stop its citizens, however, the authorities were reluctant to participate in the transit itself because they were afraid of the reaction of Arab states. Israel’s neighbors were worried that the influx of emigrants could significantly change the population balance of the region in favor of the Jews. Faced with this situation, Tel-Aviv was actively looking for other partners. The Hungarian government agreed that the main burden of the operation would be borne by Malév airlines. However, Budapest withdrew its earlier offer in March 1990. On the route of one of the convoys transporting emigrants to the airport, an explosive killed an escort policeman. For fear of further terrorist attacks, the Hungarians were forced to revise their decision. In this situation, the government in Warsaw saw its chance.

Polish-Israeli relations had been at a standstill since the sixties. However, the chance for a real breakthrough appeared in the second half of 1989. After partly free elections in June, a large representation of politicians from the Solidarity movement entered the Polish parliament. This was a real political breakthrough, especially when it turned out that the Communists did not have sufficient support to form a government under the leadership of the prime minister from the Polish United Workers’ Party. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Catholic activist and one of the closest advisers to Lech Wałęsa, became the new head of government. What is important, he was a man who had been publicly opposing anti-Semitism for years. “The fight against anti-Semitism has no merit or humanitarian gesture of mercy; it is not only a struggle for the dignity of the Jews, but equally a struggle for our own dignity,” he wrote in one of his best-known texts Antysemityzm ludzi łagodnych i dobrych (Anti-Semitism of gentle and good people).

Yitzhak Shamir (photo by Marcel Antonisse / Anefo – Nationaal Archief; public domain)

Mazowiecki believed that helping Jewish emigrants was not only a moral duty, but also a political necessity. He was convinced that his government was faced with a rare opportunity in history to symbolically redeem the country’s guilt for the harm that the Jews suffered during the anti-Semitic campaign organized by the Communists in 1968. At the same time, he understood that providing assistance in the organization of transit would improve relations with both Tel Aviv and also with Washington. As early as February 1990, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, intelligence and counterintelligence began preparations for the “Bridge” operation – the air transit of Soviet citizens to Israel.

In March 1990, Mazowiecki made his first trip to the USA. The most important point was the meeting with President George Bush and leading members of the White House administration. However, the Prime Minister also took part in a meeting with the American Jewish Congress, during which he received the Freedom Award. Mazowiecki also took the opportunity to present his vision of new Polish-Jewish relations.

It is worth quoting the official document of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in which the key points of the speech were included: “The Prime Minister of Poland recalled the historical and moral relationships that united and still unite the Polish and Jewish nations, [as well as] our common tragic history during the Second World War. He expressed regret at the adoption by the UN of a resolution identifying Zionism and racism, the manifestations of anti-Semitism that occurred in Poland after the Second World War and in 1968, and a readiness to reinstate Polish citizenship to all those deprived of it or those who were forced to leave. He emphasized that Poland had become a democratic country in which enormous importance was attached to human rights and today the condemnation of those events was no longer only the voice of individual social groups, but the official position of the Polish government and parliament. He said that Poland was opening up to the whole world. After twenty-three years, we restored diplomatic relations with the state of Israel. So the time has come to make a breakthrough in relations between Poles and Jews which should be founded on truth. There is no need to embellish anything, but harmful stereotypes should not be copied and we should not indefinitely dwell on mutual harms and guilt. These relations should be based on values ​​derived from common, Judeo-Christian roots, drawn from the best examples [that can be found in] our millennia of history.”

Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel (photo: Krokodyl; CC BY-SA 3.0)

The speech was positively received by members of the Congress of American Jews, who applauded the Prime Minister’s first public assurance that Poland would help building a humanitarian bridge for Soviet Jews wanting to go to Israel.

The Polish government’s decision was not only positively received by Tel Aviv, but also by Washington; both of these countries read into this gesture a symbolic cut-off from the policy pursued for many years by the Communists. This gave hope for building partner relations with Poland based on their mutual respect for: democracy and human rights. The US Vice President sent Mazowiecki a letter of admiration for the political change that Poland had experienced: ” I was deeply impressed by your speech before the American Jewish Congress in New York on March 25. Your categorical condemnation of anti-semitism provided an example to all those around the world who are seeking to eliminate intolerance.” Deeds followed the words. Both Israel and the US sent Poland specialists to fight terrorism and to protect its air traffic security, and also provided material support.

The operation began at the end of May and the beginning of June 1990. According to unconfirmed information, the first air transport left Poland on 14 June. After improving their procedures, the daily routine evolved. Emigrants came by train from the USSR to one of the railway stations in Warsaw (Dworzec Gdański), from which they were picked up and transported to the hotel. Then, as soon as the plane arrived, they were discreetly transported to the airport. Some emigrants also got to Poland by air and then the situation was easier. The whole operation was surrounded by an aura of discretion. Efforts were made to arrange departures at night, and Israeli planes had their ID numbers painted over. Jerzy Dziewulski, an officer of a special militia unit, mentioned in an interview to the journalist: “From the moment of landing, Boeing was surrounded by my people and guarded directly by Israeli intelligence officers (…) Antiterrorists with weapons were also on the flight control tower when the plane approached the landing. Ordinary policemen watched the fence and exits. No one could approach the apron at a distance of less than 150 meters. Night after night.”

Jewish Agency headquarters, Jerusalem (photo: Neta; public domain)

Initially, a limited number of aircraft was assigned to the operation, but with the implementation of safety procedures, the air traffic was increased. The Jewish Agency For Israel, which coordinated the operation on the part of Israel, agreed in July 1990 to a gradual increase in transport through Warsaw to 1,500 emigrants per week on 10 routes. In 1990, approximately 18,000 emigrants were transported by Polish LOT and Israeli El-Al aircraft via Warsaw Airport Okęcie. Then the operation accelerated. In addition to the regular three scheduled flights, LOT conducted another 4-6, and El-Al 1-2 special flights a week. About 5-7 thousand people took flights every month. There are no precise estimates of the number of people transported through the corridor. Based on the available data, their number can be estimated at 40,000, however, there are even mentions of up to 100,000 people. The operation lasted for about two years – in 1992, the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Szymon Peres thanked Poland for their joint work.

Poland was not the only country that eventually became involved in the operation. However, it was the government of Tadeusz Mazowiecki that supported it at a crucial moment when others were withdrawing in fear of a terrorist threat. It was a great challenge for the new Polish democracy. Mazowiecki believed, however, that whenever possible one had to disconnect from the Communist past. This was especially evident in the international arena, where the Polish government began to look for a way to end its long-standing conflict with Israel and establish strong ties with the United States. The direction laid out by the cabinet of Tadeusz Mazowiecki was continued by subsequent governments, regardless of their political orientation. And the “Bridge” operation was the first step taken by Poland on the road to integration with the West.

Author: Tomasz Kozłowski – PhD in political sciences, employee of the History Research Office of Institute of National Remembrance

Transation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin