Some Poles “committed abominable crimes” against Jews, Poland’s ambassador to Israel acknowledged this week, saying he had no problem admitting that Polish nationals were involved in anti-Semitic atrocities before, during and after World War II.
But in a far-ranging interview dealing with the whole breadth of bilateral relations between Poland and Israel — historical and political — Marek Magierowski also said that in addition to the need to remember the painful past, there was a “moral obligation to tell the whole truth.” For instance, he strongly rejected the term “Polish complicity,” arguing that it implies the country deliberately aided the Nazi regime in carrying out the Holocaust.
“It insinuates that Poland was consciously and willingly collaborating with Germany in the extermination of the European Jewry. No, it was not,” he insisted.
During the war, six million Polish citizens died — half of them Jews, the ambassador noted — and the country’s cities and villages were destroyed. “Poland was devastated. This is the not-so-unimportant context that is too frequently missing from the spectacular headlines about the alleged ‘Polish complicity,’” Magierowski, 48, said.
“And yes, some of my fellow countrymen committed abominable crimes against their Jewish brethren — before, during and after the war. I have no reservations in saying that they were Poles. Not ‘bandits,’ not ‘criminals,’ not ‘non-Jewish neighbors.’ No need to conceal their nationality. They were Polish, they spoke Polish, they were born in Poland.”
And they “excluded themselves from Polish society,” he added, citing a speech Polish President Andrzej Duda delivered two years ago at an event commemorating the 1946 Kielce pogrom, during which Poles killed 42 Jewish Holocaust survivors.
Historians estimate that between 1,000 and 2,000 Jews were killed by Poles in the aftermath of World War II.
The role of Poles during the Holocaust has been a major sticking point in Israeli ties with Poland, after the Polish government passed a law last year prohibiting blaming the Polish nation for the atrocities.
The law was heavily criticized in Israel and elsewhere, leading Warsaw to amend it so that such claims are no longer a crime punishable by prison. Israel and Poland also subsequently issued a joint declaration that many Israeli historians condemned as inaccurately adopting Poland’s narrative of the Holocaust.
For instance, the statement condemned “every single case of cruelty against Jews perpetrated by Poles during…World War II,” but noted “heroic acts of numerous Poles, especially the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jewish people.”
Critics said the wording downplays anti-Jewish atrocities committed by Poles while overstating the role of Poles who rescued Jews.
The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center recognizes 6,863 Poles as Righteous Among the Nations, the highest number among any nation. Historians debate how many Poles aided the Nazi death machine during World War II, with estimates ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.
Magierowski, who started his term as Poland’s envoy to Tel Aviv last August, did not respond directly when asked if he disputes Yad Vashem’s assertion that “at least tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Polish Jews perished during the war due to actions of their Polish neighbors.”
But he did express “boundless” appreciation for Yad Vashem, stressing the need to “work together to preserve the memory of the Holocaust.” At the same time, he acknowledged “diverging views we may have on several issues regarding historical research” and “differing narratives.”
The joint declaration, issued simultaneously by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, on June 27, 2018, also rejected, in the same paragraph, both anti-Semitism and “anti-Polonism.”
Some opponents of the statement argued that the juxtaposition appeared to equate the two phenomena, a claim Magierowski rejected.
“There is no intention to draw a parallel between anti-Semitism and anti-Polonism,” he said. “Nonetheless we cannot turn a blind eye to the anti-Polish commentaries, statements and even unsavory jokes, based solely on ethnic prejudices.”
Magierowski, who speaks fluent Hebrew, also addressed at great length the increasingly warm political and diplomatic ties between Jerusalem and Warsaw, calling Israel “one of our most important partners in the Middle East.”
At the same time, he said Poland currently has no plans to move its embassy to Jerusalem, because “we cherish our international credibility.”
Netanyahu is set to travel to Warsaw on Tuesday to attend the government’s so-called “Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East,” a conference expected to deal heavily with Iran. Magierowski said the summit is “definitely not anti-Iranian,” but rather a “serious, global initiative aimed at reviving the moribund talks about the future of the Middle East.”
Next week, Morawiecki is due in Israel to attend a meeting of the so-called Visegrad Group, a consortium of four Central European nations. Netanyahu is working to strengthen ties with the group because he believes it can help fight what he considers the European Union’s unfair policies toward Israel.
“My personal view is that Poland perhaps understands Israel’s sensitivities a little better than some of our partners in the EU,” Magierowski said.
Asked if Warsaw recognizes Israel as a Jewish state, the ambassador replied that Poland recognizes Israel “as a state, within its internationally acknowledged borders,” adding that it was up to Israelis to define their own state.
Magierowski was born in Bystrzyca Kłodzka, a small town in southwestern Poland that was part of Germany until 1945. He worked as a journalist for most of his adult life, until he became President Duda’s spokesperson in 2015. Two years later, he quit to become deputy foreign minister, a position he held until the summer of 2018, when he moved to Tel Aviv.
Following is a transcript of our interview, which was conducted via email, lightly edited for clarity.
The Times of Israel: Prime Minister Netanyahu is headed to Poland on Tuesday; Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki is scheduled to visit Israel next week, in the framework of the V4 Summit. It seems we’re currently witnessing springtime for Israel-Poland relations. What’s the reason for this blooming of bilateral diplomatic relations?
Marek Magierowski: Let’s leave diplomacy aside for a while. First of all, it’s about people. Thousands of Israeli tourists visiting Poland, thousands of Poles landing at Ben Gurion, day in, day out. Nearly 40 direct flight connections between major Polish cities and Israel. A 90 percent increase of the number of Polish visitors in Israel, an 80 percent increase of the number of Israeli tourists in Warsaw, Kracow, Gdańsk…
I have worked here as ambassador for seven months now and I have yet to meet someone who has not been to Poland recently, for a holiday or on a business trip. And all talk about Poland highly: it’s safe, friendly, modern. Israelis appreciate high living standards and excellent food. Many are truly bewildered: “I expected a drab, post-communist, gray landscape. And suddenly I encountered a Western country in Eastern Europe.”
Now, fast forward to old school diplomacy. Last year you celebrated the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel. So many of Israel’s founding fathers spoke Polish (also to each other!), so many Polish Jews — most of them Holocaust survivors and their descendants – were instrumental in the social and economic development of your country.
And, conversely, it’s impossible to talk about Polish history, Polish culture, without mentioning the invaluable contribution of Jewish writers, musicians, entrepreneurs, politicians.
That’s why our bilateral relations are so vital. Israel is, quite obviously, one of our most important partners in the Middle East, for political, economic and historical reasons. There’s no doubt whatsoever that the unwavering support for the very existence of the State of Israel is one of the pillars of Poland’s policy in the Middle East. As is its relentless combat against terrorism.
We also share the same ironclad alliance with the United States. The political and military cooperation between the US, Poland and Israel is of utmost relevance to us.
There’s another intriguing parallel: the astonishing economic growth of both Poland and Israel over the last three decades. Polish startups and young entrepreneurs are seeking new opportunities in the Israeli market. Israeli companies have heavily invested in Poland, mostly in real estate, the retail sector and high-tech, lured by the stable business environment and highly educated workforce. No wonder that all those flights between Poland and Tel Aviv are fully booked…
Netanyahu is traveling to Warsaw in order to attend the Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East. This conference is said to focus mainly on criticizing Iran and on strategizing against it. Why did Poland choose to organize a conference focused on attacking Iran, something that pleases Israel and the US but not so much your European neighbors?
Firstly, the event will not focus on a particular country but the whole region and the challenges it is facing, be it civil wars, terrorism, energy or cybersecurity. So the nature of the upcoming conference is, in our view, definitely not anti-Iranian.
By the way, we have excellent relations with the US, although we support the JCPOA [the Iran nuclear deal] and the Americans withdrew from it. And it was a Polish deputy foreign minister who traveled to Tehran to explain to the Iranians what the conference will actually be about.
Maciej Lang, #Poland's under secretary of state for Asia, Africa and the Middle East policy, meets @araghchi, #Iran's deputy foreign minister for political affairs. #Tehran has expressed its strong protest at the anti-Iran conference to be held in Warsaw in mid-February. pic.twitter.com/igxDZF4TPB
— Amin Khorami (@aminismyname) January 21, 2019
Secondly, the summit is not about “pleasing” this or that country. It is not about empty slogans and hollow promises. It is a serious, global initiative aimed at reviving the moribund talks about the future of the Middle East, probably the most volatile region of the world.
We co-organize this conference not in spite, but — precisely — because of our EU membership, our special relationship with the United States and our good relations with most Arab countries, which we have nurtured for decades. Poland is simply the most appropriate host in terms of diplomatic convenience.
Poland perhaps understands Israel’s sensitivities a little better than some of our partners in the EU
Thirdly, the primary objective is to assemble all the pivotal actors in one place and kickstart a process in which everybody would hold a stake. Peace and stability in the Middle East are our common responsibility. It is about time to put all hands on deck.
We can’t solve the regional problems with the European Union and without President Trump. But we also cannot solve the same problems with Trump and without the key players from all over the world.
Will the Israeli-Palestinian conflict play any role at the conference, and if so, in what way?
We are not entitled to restrain participants from touching upon a particular topic, but we do not intend to focus on the Middle East peace process at the Ministerial. There are other international fora dedicated to this important issue.
What are Poland’s positions on the core issues of the conflict: settlements, Jerusalem, security? Would Poland consider moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem even before a final Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is signed? The US and Guatemala recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Russia, the Czech Republic and Australia have recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. What’s Poland’s stance?
Very briefly: in this respect, we stick to international law. As an EU member state and as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, we have our commitments and, like I said before, we cherish our international credibility. Therefore, the relocation of the Polish embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is not being contemplated right now, surely not before the status of Jerusalem is finally defined.
Does Poland recognize Israel as a Jewish state (as Germany, the US and other states have done?)
Poland recognizes Israel as a state, within its internationally acknowledged borders. How the Israelis define their own state — it is up to you.
Netanyahu has made no secret of his desire to get closer to Eastern and Central European nations to subvert what he describes as the EU’s “hostile” attitude toward Israel. How do you view Warsaw’s role vis-a-vis Israel-EU relations? Would you agree to let Netanyahu instrumentalize warming bilateral Israel-Poland ties to improve his country’s standing in Brussels?
All EU member states run their own foreign policies, even though there is coordination in multiple areas. Besides, several different formats exist within the European community — V4 being one of them. It is no secret that some Western governments have a “cooler” approach to the Israeli government and Mr. Netanyahu himself.
My personal view is that Poland perhaps understands Israel’s sensitivities a little better than some of our partners in the EU. However, the warming bilateral ties with Israel do not necessarily jeopardize our relations with other EU countries.
One of the most controversial topics in Israel-Poland ties was last year’s joint statement on Poland’s role in the Holocaust. How do you respond to the harsh criticism Yad Vashem (and senior Holocaust historians) issued of the statement? Is Yad Vashem’s understanding of what happened during the Holocaust flawed?
The Polish embassy cooperates with Yad Vashem on a regular basis. My appreciation for this institution and its research efforts is boundless. On the other hand, the Yad Vashem historians also realize how important Poland and the Polish contribution is in the wider context of their commendable endeavor, particularly in terms of managing the archives and sharing the scholarly expertise.
Notwithstanding the diverging views we may have on several issues regarding historical research, despite the differing narratives, I strongly believe it is our common duty to overcome the discrepancies and work together to preserve the memory of the Holocaust.
Every Polish government, regardless of its political leanings, has the duty to combat stereotypes and plain lies about Poland’s role in World War II. It is really puzzling how little is known worldwide about what really occurred in German-occupied Poland during the Holocaust.
The infamous term “Polish death camps” is just the tip of the iceberg. Let me give you an example of another blatant semantic distortion. “Germans” are no longer “Germans.” They are “Nazis.” Unless you read a story about, say, a “German woman who rescued a Jewish family.”
Whereas when you read about Poles who collaborated with the German occupiers and denounced Jews, they are invariably “Poles.” Unless you read a story about a Pole who rescued a Jewish family. Then this Pole, quite mysteriously, becomes… “a non-Jewish neighbor.” It’s a gross manipulation.
Israeli historians took particular offense to the joint declaration seemingly downplaying Polish complicity in Nazi crimes and equating anti-Semitism with “anti-Polonism.” In hindsight, can you understand their criticism? Or do you maintain that the joint declaration correctly juxtaposes those two terms?
Let me quote one of the paragraphs of said declaration: “It is obvious that the Holocaust was an unprecedented crime, committed by Nazi Germany against the Jewish nation, including all Poles of Jewish origin. Poland has always expressed the highest understanding of the significance of the Holocaust as the most tragic part of the Jewish national experience.”
The Holocaust was unique and incomparable to any other genocide in the history of mankind. As is anti-Semitism — an unacceptable, abhorrent attitude that we should do our utmost to eradicate. There is no intention to draw a parallel between anti-Semitism and anti-Polonism.
Nonetheless we cannot turn a blind eye to the anti-Polish commentaries, statements and even unsavory jokes based solely on ethnic prejudices.
Poland makes great efforts to remember the Holocaust, but seems very keen on minimizing, if not entirely ignoring, Polish complicity in Nazi crimes. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day earlier this month, Polish officials issued statements hailing Polish people risking their lives to rescue Jews and highlighting the suffering of Poles at the hands of the Nazis, but making no mention whatsoever of Poles keenly aiding the Nazi death machine. Do you dispute Yad Vashem’s assertion that “at least tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Polish Jews perished during the war due to actions of their Polish neighbors”? If so, how would you describe Polish complicity in Nazi crimes? Do you think it serves the memory of the Holocaust, and Polish-Jewish relations, to entirely ignore Polish complicity, as if there had been no such thing?
Firstly, let me quote again the Morawiecki-Netanyahu joint statement: “We acknowledge and condemn every single case of cruelty against Jews perpetrated by Poles during World War II.” What does the Polish government try to hide here?
Secondly, I must strongly protest against the very term “Polish complicity.” It insinuates that Poland was consciously and willingly collaborating with Germany in the extermination of the European Jewry. No, it was not.
Poland was invaded and occupied — by Germany and the Soviet Union. Polish soldiers fought the Germans on all fronts. There was no Polish puppet government. No Polish [Vidkun] Quisling, no Polish [Phillipe] Petain. No Waffen-SS division composed of Polish nationals.
We must not forget the painful past, but it is also our moral obligation to tell the whole truth, no matter how complex, in all its aspects
We lost six million citizens, approximately half of them of Jewish descent. We lost cities, villages, infrastructure, artworks. Poland was devastated. This is the not-so-unimportant context that is too frequently missing from the spectacular headlines about the alleged “Polish complicity.”
And yes, some of my fellow countrymen committed abominable crimes against their Jewish brethren. Before, during and after the war. I have no reservations in saying that they were Poles. Not “bandits,” not “criminals,” not “non-Jewish neighbors.” No need to conceal their nationality. They were Polish, they spoke Polish, they were born in Poland.
And they “excluded themselves from the Polish society,” as Polish President Andrzej Duda once famously said [in a July 2016 speech], referring to the perpetrators of the pogrom in Kielce in 1946. We must not forget the painful past, but it is also our moral obligation to tell the whole truth, no matter how complex, in all its aspects.