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Obama touches a nerve with ‘Polish death camps’

The kerfuffle of the day is President Barack Obama making a reference to "Polish death camps" while posthumously awarding Polish resistance hero Jan Karski a Presidential Medal of Freedom last night. The White House says the president misspoke and was "referring to Nazi death camps operated in Poland," rather than inferring that the camps were ...

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages

The kerfuffle of the day is President Barack Obama making a reference to "Polish death camps" while posthumously awarding Polish resistance hero Jan Karski a Presidential Medal of Freedom last night. The White House says the president misspoke and was "referring to Nazi death camps operated in Poland," rather than inferring that the camps were operated by Poles, but that hasn’t satisfied Prime Minister Donald Tusk who says he is looking for a “stronger, more pointed reaction” that could eliminate the phrasing “once and for all.” Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski went further, calling the remark a matter of "ignorance and incompetence."

There’s been a concerted effort by the Polish government in recent years to combat the use of the phrase, which has succeeded in pushing a number of publications including the AP and the New York Times to update their style-guides. The Polish embassy, in the wake of the John Demjanjuk trial, posted a guide on its website urging readers to write web comments and letters to the editor when they see the phrase being used. The page also objects to the phrases "Sobibor camp, located in Poland," asking that "German-occupied Poland" be specified, and "Polish concentration camp survivor" since it "conveys that someone survived a Polish concentration camp, which, of course, is impossible since Polish concentration camps did not exist."

I understand why the phrase rankles, and as the Economist‘s Edward Lucas points out, it’s not the first example of the Obama administration’s clumsy handling of relations with Poland. But I also think that given the context in which Obama’s remark was made — honoring Karski for exposing the Nazi mass killing of Jews to the world — no reasonable listener would assume that Obama was accusing Poles of running the camps, just as no one assumes the invasion of Normandy was targeted at Normans or that the North African campaign was waged by North Africans.

The "Polish death camps" controversy may be so controversial because it taps into a larger debate over actions perpetrated by some Poles against Jews during and immediately after the Holocaust. This debate kicked into high gear in 2000 with the publication of Polish-born Princeton historian Jan Gross’s book Neighbors, which details a brutal pogrom carried out by the Polish residents of the town of Jedwabne against its Jewish residents during the Nazi occuption. The numbers, specifics, and methodology in Gross’s work are controversial, but an official investigation confirmed its basic premise and President Alexander Kwasniewski made a formal apology at Jedwabne in 2001. Gross’s follow-up Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz, created yet another firestorm in 2006.  

But of course, that clearly wasn’t a debate Obama had any intention of entering into by giving an award to a man who risked his life to expose Nazi atrocities. In the wake of the Neighbors affair, public intellectual and former dissident Adam Michnik wrote a piece about the "schizophrenia" he felt: "I am a Pole, and my shame about the Jedwabne’s murder is a Polish shame. At the same time, I know that if I had been there in Jedwabne, I would have been killed as a Jew."

He continued:

For these people who lost their lives saving Jews, I feel responsible, too. I feel guilty when I read so often in Polish and foreign newspapers about the murderers who killed Jews, and note the deep silence about those who rescued Jews. Do the murderers deserve more recognition than the righteous?  

Last night’s award for Karski was an attempt to provide that kind of recognition. And that the remarks that accompanied it are being portrayed as an accusation against the country because of a poor choice of words may be the most  unfortunate thing about this episode. 

 Twitter: @joshuakeating

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