MEET THE AMBASSADOR: Marek Magierowski, of Poland

New envoy’s mission: To salvage his country’s image in Israel

By
October 14, 2018 02:42
 Polish Ambassador to Israel Marek Magierowski

Polish Ambassador to Israel Marek Magierowski. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

 
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He’s been an ambassador for barely four months – not just to Israel, but in general. Marek Magierowski, the 47-year-old ambassador of Poland admits that he’s still learning.

It was not an ideal period for a novice ambassador from Poland to come to Israel, when a plethora of misunderstandings – fueled by years of preconceptions and misconceptions, and topped by legislation which is largely perceived by Jews as being antisemitic – is causing so many rifts and negative undercurrents.

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Magierowski, whose CV includes having been spokesman and head of President Andrzej Duda’s press office, readily admits that there were and are antisemites in Poland, but insists that the country itself is not antisemitic.

Since the end of the Communist era, he says, most of the presidents and prime ministers of Poland have been philosemites. Duda’s wife is the daughter of a Jewish father.

While acknowledging that there are still people in Poland who harbor antisemitic tendencies, Magierowski cites the annual Krakow Jewish Festival, which was inaugurated in 1988, as an example of genuine Polish interest in Jewish culture and Jewish people. There is no record of violence at the festival, despite the fact that tens of thousands of people from all over Poland come to see it. In Magierowski’s view, this in itself is proof that Poland is not antisemitic.

Notwithstanding some of the dark chapters in Poland’s history vis-à-vis its Jewish population, Poles and Jews had a fairly good relationship and lived in harmony for a thousand years, he said. Moreover, Jews contributed greatly to Poland’s culture and were among the best-known writers, musicians and artists.

To illustrate that for Jews there is more to Poland than Shoah and shopping, Magierowski has included photographs of a Jewish athlete and a Jewish painter on his Twitter account, along with photographs of better known Polish Jews such as piano virtuoso Arthur Rubinstein, writer and Nobel Prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer and cosmetics queen Helena Rubinstein.

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THROUGHOUT our conversation, he reiterated again and again that Jewish culture is part of Polish culture and that Poland misses its Jews.

Our interview takes place in a Jerusalem coffee shop. It’s not easy for an ambassador of Poland to be interviewed by a Jewish journalist whose ancestors on both sides have a multi-generational history of living on Polish soil, and whose grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins were deported to either Auschwitz or Treblinka, with the “lucky” ones working in forced labor camps.

It is actually Magierowski who broaches the subject of the Holocaust – not because he wants to issue a denial of any kind about incidents of collusion by Poles, but because he wants to make a point about how deeply they feel about salvaging their country’s image.

For decades, Poles have bristled at any mention of Polish death camps, and have consistently argued that the Poles did not build them, but rather that they were deliberately established in Poland by the Nazis.

A former journalist with more than twenty years of experience as a columnist and an editor, Magierowski says that almost any written reference to the perpetrators of the atrocities wrought during the Holocaust is about Nazis, not about Germans, even though most Nazis were German.

But when there are written references to antisemitic activities such as pogroms by Poles before, during and after the Holocaust; or the expulsion of Polish Jews in 1968, “the reference is not to scumbags or to Communists” or to anything else pertaining to fringe elements or alien powers in Poland, but to Poles.

Along with other Polish diplomats around the world, Magierowski regards the redeeming of Poland’s image as integral to his mission.

In this respect, it’s often an uphill climb for any Polish ambassador to Israel. While Poland can argue that more Poles are listed as “Righteous Among the Nations” than citizens of any other country, the comeback is almost always that there were more Jews in Poland than in any other country. Indeed, of the Jews who were murdered or died of starvation and disease in the Holocaust, the overwhelming majority were Polish citizens.

WHILE MAGIEROWSKI understands the reason for sending groups of high school students to Poland to take a close-up look at Holocaust history and in many cases to trace family roots, as a Pole, he is offended by the fact that such trips are limited to Poland and do not include Germany. “We didn’t start the war,” he declares.

It also bothers him that in Israel there are essentially two polarized perceptions of Poland – “Shoah and Shopping.” All the international brand names available in Israel can also be found in shopping malls and commercial areas all over Poland – and the merchandise is sold at much more affordable prices.

Born in 1971 in Bystrzyca Klodzka, some 100 kilometers south of Warsaw, Magierowski developed an interest in Jewish culture while still a school boy. There had not been a prominent Jewish community in his home town before the war, so there was very little spoken about Jews in his family. But there were many books by pre- and post-war Polish Jewish writers, and such books were readily available even in the Communist era.

The young Magierowski was drawn to this literature, which more often than not focused on aspects of Jewish life in Poland. He was fascinated by what he read, but maintains that he was not obsessive about it. As far as he was concerned, it was another facet of Polish culture.

Yet for all that, early in his career as a journalist in Poznan, where he was a student at the Adam Mickiewicz University, he came across an old synagogue that had been taken over by the municipality; a swimming pool had been built on the premises. Though bereft of Jews today, Poznan has a rich Jewish heritage, and Magierowski believed that it was most disrespectful to build a swimming pool in a synagogue. He wrote a letter of protest to the municipality, and when his protest yielded no result, he wrote a newspaper article, which again failed to amend the situation. But at least he tried.

THOUGH MOST of his professional life has been spent in the field of communications, he is actually a philologist by training with a command of several languages. Anyone who takes it for granted that he doesn’t understand Hebrew should be careful of what they say in front of him. He claims that his Hebrew is “lousy” but he acquitted himself quite well at the coffee shop.

Other than Polish and English, the language he speaks best is Spanish; he graduated in Hispanic studies from university.

In his work as a journalist, he concentrated mostly on foreign affairs, but also on politics. For a long time, he was able to express his views freely, but felt that journalism was heading towards tribalism, and that in order to maintain his professional status he would have to toe a certain line. This was something he was not prepared to do. “I didn’t want to be a politician in the guise of a journalist,” he says.

He left journalism exactly three years ago to work with Duda in public diplomacy, and in rapid succession was appointed head of the press section in the President’s Chancellory, and then undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He had been in that role for a little over a year when he was offered the position of Poland’s ambassador to Israel. It was an interesting challenge, so he decided to move on once again. His current status has been official since June 25.

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