Howls of protest have been emanating from Poland and the United States after President Barack Obama referred to a Nazi concentration camp in Poland as a “Polish death camp.” Obama made the gaffe while awarding a posthumous medal of freedom to Jan Karski, a hero of Poland’s Second World War resistance movement.
Radek Sikorski, the Polish Foreign Minister, was quick to attack Obama for insensitivity. “It’s a pity that such a dignified ceremony was overshadowed by ignorance and incompetence,” he tweeted, remarks that were widely reported. (Sikorski himself at the very least repeated a joke that Obama’s Kenyan ancestors were cannibals.)
Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk was quoted in Polityka, a national daily newspaper, as saying that Obama’s use of words ignored Germany’s role in the Second World War, “the very existence of Nazism and Hitler.” Obama’s American uncle was among the liberators of Auschwitz in 1945, and Tusk pointedly asked, “Who does the president think his uncle was liberating the camp from?”
Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski tried to pour oil over rough waters by issuing a statement saying Obama’s “unjust and painful words” were not a true reflection of the president’s real views. Nevertheless, Polish opposition leaders, including former conservative Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, are calling for a personal apology from Obama. Former deputy Prime Minister Ludwig Dorn has called on American Poles not to vote for Obama in the forthcoming election.
In New York, the Polish Daily News pulled no punches. It cited “Krystyna from Ringwood,” a Polish survivor of the Second World War, who compared the President’s apparent “ignorance” of Polish history to a tendency by some American newspapers to call Guantanamo Bay a “Cuban” jail, rather than an American one. “Perhaps Obama was thinking along these lines?” she said.
Poland’s Jews are also up in arms. The Polish daily Rzeczpospolita quotes Poland’s chief Rabbi, Michaela Schudricha, as saying that although the President was likely referring to the geographic location of the camps, he inadvertently insulted the memory of the group he was supposed to be honoring.
Lost in the noise: Obama was honoring a man whose story was so horrible that it was almost beyond belief. Karski was smuggled out of a death camp and brought President Franklin D. Roosevelt one of the very first accounts of the Holocaust. Karski implored FDR to act. According to Karski’s own testimony, Roosevelt simply refused to believe him.