President Obama Causes Outrage with Reference to ‘Polish Death Camp’

May 29, 2012 8:21pm

Poles and Polish-Americans expressed outrage today at President Obama’s reference earlier to “a Polish death camp” — as opposed to a Nazi death camp in German-occupied Poland.

“The White House will apologize for this outrageous error,” Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski tweeted.  Sikorski said that Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk “will make a statement in the morning. It’s a pity that this important ceremony was upstaged by ignorance and incompetence.”

The president had been trying to honor a famous Pole, awarding a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski, a resistance fighter who sneaked behind enemy lines to bear witness to the atrocities being committed against Jews. President Obama referred to him being smuggled “into the Warsaw ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself.”

Sikorski also tonight tweeted a link to an Economist story noting that “few things annoy Poles more than being blamed for the crimes committed by the Nazi occupiers of their homeland. For many years, Polish media, diplomats and politicians have tried to persuade outsiders to stop using the phrase ‘Polish death camps’ as a shorthand description of Auschwitz and other exemplars of Nazi brutality and mass murder. Unfortunately this seems to have escaped BaracK Obama’s staff seem not to have noticed this.”

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement, “The President was referring to Nazi death camps operated in Poland. The President has demonstrated in word and deed his rock-solid commitment to our close alliance with Poland.”

The White House also noted that the president had noted the bravery of Poles during World War II, perhaps in January 2010 in a video he sent to the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, when he referred to “those who tried to save” Jews, “Polish and Hungarian, French and Dutch, Roma and Russian, straight and gay, and so many others. … Auschwitz also tells another story — of man’s capacity for good. The small acts of compassion — the sharing of some bread that kept a child alive. The great acts of resistance that blew up the crematorium and tried to stop the slaughter. The Polish Rescuers and those who earned their place forever in the Righteous Among the Nations.”

It seems likely that a more formal apology will need to be issued.

Alex Storozynski, the president of the Kosciuszko Foundation, lauded the president earlier in the day for recognizing Karski, but now says “Karski would have cringed if he heard this. … So far, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press and others have changed their stylebooks to ban the use of this phrase. Now, the Obama White House must do the same. President Obama’s remarks are already being called ‘scandalous’ by media outlets in Poland. Obama was seen reading this phrase off a teleprompter. The president must acknowledge his mistake and apologize for it. He must do it for Karski and the other Poles that risked their lives trying to stop the Holocaust.”

– Jake Tapper

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