“Am I Jewish?” and “What Does it Mean?”: The Jewish Flying University and the Creation of a Polish-Jewish Counterculture in Late 1970s Warsaw
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“Am I Jewish?” and “What Does it Mean?”:
The Jewish Flying University and the Creation of a Polish-Jewish Counterculture in Late 1970s Warsaw

Describing the atmosphere in late 1970s Warsaw, Konstanty Gebert, a member of the “March ’68 Generation” and one of the leaders of today’s Polish-Jewish community, said:

Try to imagine Warsaw in the late 1970s where doing something oppositional was the in thing, right? I mean, if you weren’t collecting money for political prisoners or distributing underground newspapers, or at least participating in a Flying University, you basically ruled yourself out of the company of anybody you wanted. And since this had all been going on for two years, three years, the run of the mill flying university… this was something new, something sexy.1

When Gebert said “something new, something sexy,” he was referring to a group of young Poles who began to gather every other week in Warsaw in the fall of 1979 to discuss Jewish topics. Calling their group the Żydowski Uniwersytet Latający (ŻUL), or Jewish Flying University (JFU), the self-labeled “March ’68 Generation” participated in widespread Polish opposition to the Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza (PZPR), or the Polish United Workers’ Party, and its ideologically driven attempts to control Polish society.

This article explores the development of a new, post-1968 Polish Jewishness in Warsaw that emerged as part of a wider Polish civil society at the time. A group of young Poles in Warsaw, not all of whom were Jewish, used the relatively open atmosphere in the city, made possible by societal changes, to explore Jewishness in ways that had been impossible before, given the historical and political circumstances in post-Holocaust communist Poland. The Jewish Flying University reflected the more global trend of burgeoning youth countercultures, which included Jewish youth sub-countercultures. I demonstrate that the concurrent American-Jewish counterculture served as an adaptable model for these young Poles, who created their own Polish-Jewish counterculture, and I argue that their experiences highlight the interrelated, transnational nature of the modern Jewish experience. The Jewish Flying University, [End Page 85] while certainly part of Polish and Polish-Jewish history, also belongs to a more global Jewish history. In his book on Jewish socialism in America, historian Tony Michels pointed out that, “New York served as a laboratory of political and cultural innovation that influenced Eastern Europe in ways historians are just beginning to realize.”2 While Michels wrote about the period of mass immigration into the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, this transnational connection between Jews in New York—and more broadly, America—and Eastern Europe continued after the Holocaust, permeated the Iron Curtain, and played a major role in maintaining Jewishness throughout the Soviet Bloc. The relationship forged between young Jews from Poland and the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s reflects the wider connection between Jews on either side of the curtain.3

This connection depended on significant social, political, and economic changes in Poland that developed in the 1960s and 70s. A decade before the formation of the Jewish Flying University, in March 1968, students protested the government’s ban on the Warsaw National Theater’s performance of Adam Mickiewicz’s Dziady, or Forefathers’ Eve.4 Riot police and the militia arrested hundreds of young people and university administrations throughout Poland expelled about 1,500 students.5 Although a response to a particular Polish incident, the students’ reaction to the ban echoed global student protests of that time. Just as popular culture and consumerism influenced youth protests in the United States and Western Europe in the 1960s, improved living conditions in Poland, stronger connections with the West, and the emergence of a Polish youth culture mobilized Polish youth to speak out against their repressive government. The regime attacked the children of economically privileged and high-ranking intellectuals and party members, referring to the students as the “banana youth,” for their seemingly decadent consumer behavior in the midst of the Polish shortage economy. Thus, the regime politicized the very consumer culture that it introduced as part of its post-Stalinist reforms.6

While the Polish government...