NEW YORK — Any objective observers reading of the Polish prime minister’s and foreign minister’s overreactions to an innocent phraseological error — and that is all it was — by President Obama could only have been left scratching their heads in amazement.
Prime Minister Donald Tusk charged that the president had perpetrated a “distortion of history” as a result of “ignorance, lack of knowledge, bad intentions.” Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said that the president was guilty of “ignorance and incompetence.”
The cause for this public display of indignation? A slip-up by President Obama when, in posthumously awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski, a heroic member of the Polish anti-German underground during World War II, he referred to “a Polish death camp” rather than to a German death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
At the White House ceremony on May 29, which I was privileged to attend, President Obama spoke glowingly of Karski:
“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. 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.”
Poles are understandably sensitive when Nazi annihilation and concentration camps are referred to as “Polish” just because they, well, happened to have been located in Poland. They do not want anyone anywhere to have any doubt whatsoever that Germans, not Poles, were responsible for death camps such as Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek and Sobibor, where millions of Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. The fact is, thousands of Polish political, religious and intellectual leaders were also killed by the Germans during World War II. Between 70,000 and 75,000 non-Jewish Poles are estimated to have perished at Auschwitz alone.
Let’s be clear. Calling Auschwitz, Treblinka and Majdanek “Polish” camps is geographically accurate. So is calling Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and Buchenwald “German” camps, or referring to Mauthausen as an “Austrian” camp. Still, the Poles have a valid historiographical point.
Six years ago, I publicly supported the Polish government’s request that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization formally change the name of the site of the most notorious of the World War II camps on UNESCO’s World Heritage List from “Auschwitz Death Camp” to “former Nazi German Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp.”
The Polish government’s reasoning, I noted on that occasion, is “absolutely legitimate. The death factory of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where more than 1 million Jewish men, women and children were murdered, was a German camp, conceived by the Nazi-German government and operated by Germans.”
To its credit, the White House was quick to acknowledge the error. Immediately following the May 29 ceremony, a White House spokesman explained that, “The president misspoke. He was referring to Nazi death camps in Poland. 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.” Since then, President Obama has written to Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski expressing “regret” for “inadvertently” using “a phrase that caused many Poles anguish over the years and that Poland has rightly campaigned to eliminate from public discourse around the world.”
Messrs Tusk and Sikorski would also be well-advised to remember that President Obama has spoken publicly about the extent of Polish suffering at the hands of the Nazis during World War II, and he has repeatedly paid tribute to the bravery of Poles who fought against Hitler’s Third Reich.
In this context, the Polish officials’ harsh condemnation of President Obama’s unintentional reference to the camp to which Karski had borne witness as Polish rather than German or Nazi was, not just over the top, but petty, especially since the president was hardly the first to make such a mistake.
In his book, “Chutzpah,” for example, Alan Dershowitz referred to “the giant Polish extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Belzec, Chelmno and Sobibór.”
A Feb. 28, 1986, Associated Press article about the deportation of Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk from the United States to Israel referred to Treblinka as a “Polish death camp;” the headline of an April 19, 1993 AP article in the Spokane, Washington newspaper, The Spokesman-Review, about a commemoration at Treblinka read “Tears spill once more at Polish death camp;” a July 14, 2000 article The New York Jewish Week mentioned “a recent United
Synagogue Youth tour of Israel and Polish death camps;” and an April 4, 2008 article in the London Jewish Chronicle referred to “the Polish death camp” of Auschwitz.
On Dec. 20, 2009, an article in the British newspaper, The Independent, referred to Auschwitz as a “southern Polish death camp” where “Some 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, perished;” the headline of an Aug. 10, 2010 AP article about a fire at Majdanek, carried by Fox News among many other media outlets, read “Fire at barrack of Polish death camp destroys as many as 10,000 shoes of Nazi victims;” and articles in both the April 26, 2010 New Jersey Jewish News and the Nov. 17, 2011 issue of Columbia University’s daily student newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, similarly referred to Majdanek as a “Polish death camp.” Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times apologized for referring to Auschwitz as a “Polish concentration camp.”
In March 2011, after The New York Times cautioned its reporters in an entry to the newsroom’s stylebook “to avoid misleading phrases like ‘Polish concentration camp,’” Eileen Murphy, vice president for corporate communications at The New York Times Company, wrote to the Kosziuszko Foundation that such references “however unfortunate, are simply mistakes, and it is wrong to suggest that they reflect any malice or deliberate distortion.”
The same holds true for President Obama. For Prime Minister Tusk and Foreign Minister Sikorski to turn an inadvertent mistake into an international incident was unseemly, and at least some appreciation on their part for the fact that the President of the United States had just honored a Polish national hero would have been appropriate.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft is an adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School, a lecturer in law at Columbia Law School, a distinguished visiting lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law, and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.)