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Embassy spokesman ‘surprised’ that US leader would misidentify Nazi camps as ‘Polish’ in speech honoring resistance fighter Jan Karski.
Photo: Yossi Zeilger
BERLIN – US President Barack Obama’s use of the term “Polishdeath camps” while awarding a posthumous Medal of Freedom to Polish-American resistance fighter Jan Karski sparked the Eastern European country’s prime minister to call for a more explicit apology and historical correction.
The White House expressed regret on Tuesday after Poland took offense at the term.
“Fluent in four languages, possessed of a photographic memory, Jan served as a courier for the Polish resistance during the darkest days of World War II,” the US president said in honoring Karski. “Before one trip across enemy lines, resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale, and smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself. Jan took that information to president Franklin Roosevelt, giving one of the first accounts of the Holocaust and imploring to the world to take action.” US National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor stated that Obama “misspoke” by referring to “Polish death camps” rather than “Nazi death camps” inside occupied Poland.
Vietor’s statement came after Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski tweeted that Obama “will apologize for this outrageous error,” ascribing it to “ignorance and incompetence,” according to BuzzFeed.
Poles insist on the term “Nazi death camps” to describe facilities such as Auschwitz and Sobibor.
“We regret this misstatement, which should not detract from the clear intention to honor Mr. Karski and those brave citizens who stood on the side of human dignity in the face of tyranny,” Vietor said.
Prime Minister Donald Tusk declared that “this truth about World War II is important and must also have importance for every other nation. I am convinced that today, our American friends are capable of a stronger reaction – a clearer one, and one which perhaps eliminates, once and for all, these types of mistakes – than just the correction itself and the regret which we heard from the White House spokesperson.”
Jacek Biegala, a spokesman for the Polish Embassy in Germany, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that he was “surprised” that Obama had made the historical mistake of misidentifying the origin of the death camps. In a telephone interview, Biegala said Poland’s Foreign Ministry and diplomats abroad had been working so that such formulations would be avoided.
“I have had to intervene many times in Germany in order that the correct word choice is applied,” said Biegala, adding that the Polish Foreign Ministry had a two-pronged approach to the mis-characterization of the German death camps: education, and protesting the formulation.
Obama’s use of the controversial phrase has electrified the Polish and American media and blogosphere. Washington Post Editor Jackson Diehl wrote on his micro-blog Twitterfeed on Wednesday, “Amazing that nobody at WH/NSC caught the ‘Polish death camps’ error. Anyone vaguely familiar with #Poland and its sensitivities would have.”
Matt Lewis, a popular commentator at the online newswebsite The Daily Caller, wrote that “this strikes me as a gaffe – a gaffe that might display a serious lack of sensitivity – or perhaps shoddy staff work – but a gaffe nonetheless. It was wrong. It was harmful, but it was not intentional. Does anyone think Obama is secretly trying to inject the idea that the Poles were running the camps?” David Frum, a former speechwriter for president George W. Bush, wrote on the website The Daily Beast that “President Obama just slapped in the face one of America’s closest allies in Europe. I’m looking for comment in the American media, and I find... wire stories reporting a spokesman’s apology for the president’s ‘misstatement’?” ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman, meanwhile, released a statement on Wednesday saying that “we commend the White House for appropriately recognizing their error.... This is a perennial problem, and the president’s unwitting mistake only highlights the need for ongoing education about the history of World War II and the Holocaust.”
Holocaust historians say the record of Polish behavior during that period is vexed and contradictory. There was much collaboration with the Nazis, and the resistance did little to protect Jews until 1942, reflecting the pervasive anti-Semitism that infected the country before the German invasion in 1939.
Karski himself, in his first dispatches, fretted that native Polish anti-Semitism would frustrate efforts to save the Jews. In a February 1940 dispatch quoted in The Holocaust Encyclopedia, Karski said that Nazi anti-Jewish measures were creating “something akin to a narrow bridge upon which the Germans and a large portion of Polish society are finding agreement.”
A Jewish-Polish resistance would encounter “serious resistance” among large parts of Polish society, he reported.
Nonetheless, once the scope of the genocide became clear, some of the Polish resistance sought to rescue Jews. But more than 90 percent of Polish Jewry’s pre-war population of 3.5 million died in the Holocaust, and Jews’ efforts to return to their homes after the war were met, in some cases, with pogroms instigated by neighbors who had taken over their properties.
The tiny community that persisted in post-war Poland lay low, in part because anti-Semitism was still pervasive. Only in recent years, after the fall of communism, has the community undergone a minor revival.
Jerusalem Post staff and JTA contributed to this report.