President Andrzej Duda made his appeal during a speech marking the anniversary of mass student protests against the Moscow-backed communist regime in 1968. Those protests were exploited by the communist party to purge Jews from the party and from Poland.
Among those who were forced out were Holocaust survivors and prominent intellectuals including sociologist Zygmunt Bauman and philosopher Bronislaw Baczko. "I want to ask forgiveness of those who were expelled," Duda said. "Through my lips Poland is asking forgiveness, asking them to be willing to forget, to be willing to accept that Poland regrets very much that they are not in Poland today."
Speaking at the Warsaw University campus that was the site of the 1968 protests, he said the expulsions were a "shameful act" and the departures a "loss" for Poland. A group of the current government's opponents, many holding white roses — a symbol of their protest — chanted "disgrace," ''hypocrite," and "go away from the campus."
Duda is allied with the ruling Law and Justice party whose nationalist polices are blamed by critics for sparking a rise in xenophobia and a recent dispute with Israel. In March 1968, students staged protests against censorship and in support of academic freedom that were brutally quashed by the regime.
The protests were initially triggered by a ban on a play by the Polish Romantic-era poet Adam Mickiewicz seen as having an anti-regime message. Two of the students protesting the ban were expelled from Warsaw University, prompting a nationwide demonstration in their defense.
Rival factions in the ruling communist party exploited the protests in their pursuit of party control, with the crisis climaxing in the purge of Jews from the party and from jobs that then went to non-Jews. Many lost their careers and were forced to renounce all of their possessions, their Polish citizenship and to leave the country.
Earlier Thursday, Duda laid flowers beneath a plaque at a railway station in Warsaw that was the departure point for some of the expelled Jews. The Israeli and U.S. ambassadors attended observances there.
Many other events were held across the country to mark the anniversary, including lectures and meetings with some of those expelled, who now freely visit democratic Poland. Lydia Bauman, the daughter of the late sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, was in Warsaw with her two sisters to mark the events. She said she did so with mixed feelings because the recent expressions of anti-Jewish feelings seemed similar to 1968.
"I am all in favor of forgive and forget, but how can we forget if we are being reminded?" said Bauman, an artist based in London who was 12 when her family was forced to leave. Some Polish officials are also working to tamp down the emotions of the past weeks. The lower house of Parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution Tuesday that condemned the anti-Semitic campaign and honored the anti-communist protests.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Wednesday denounced anti-Semitism, and sought to shift the blame for the anti-Semitic purge onto Moscow, which controlled Poland during the decades of the Cold War.
"Today we often hear that March '68 should be a reason for shame for us," Morawiecki said. "I believe that March '68 should be a reason for pride" because of the pro-freedom protests. Israel's ambassador Anna Azari said Thursday she objected to Morawiecki's attempt to shift the blame to Moscow, noting the anti-Semitic campaign occurred only in Poland in 1968.
Monika Scislowska contributed to this report.