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Obama not alone on Poland gaff
May 30, 2012 - Stephen Browne
President Obama made a pretty serious gaff at a ceremony awarding the Medal of Freedom to 13 recipients on Tuesday.
While giving the award posthumously to WWII Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski, Obama referred to "Polish death camps."
Conservatives jumped all over that one, and Poles everywhere are pretty steamed.
Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said, "It's a pity that such a dignified ceremony was overshadowed by ignorance and incompetence."
Kosciuszko Foundation President Alex Storozynski said Obama's comment "shocked the Poles present at the White House and those watching on C-SPAN."
The White House said the president "misspoke" and is gearing up for an apology. Good for him.
But Obama is not alone in making this gaff, nor is this the first time public figures have "misspoke." The "Polish death camp" or "Polish concentration camp" trope has been going around for a while, and Poles are getting more than a little sick of it.
Krystyna Janda is a Polish actress, considered the grande damme of Polish theater. (I saw her on the stage in Warsaw playing Marlene Dietrich. Brains, class, and talent to spare.) She is also a blogger.
During the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the largest concentration camp, Auschwitz, Janda compiled and posted on her blog excerpts from articles on the commemoration from pretty much every major newspaper and magazine in Western Europe.
I believe almost every article used the phrase "Polish concentration camp." Only a handful used the word "Nazi," and NONE used the word "German."
This is not a gaff, this is part of the unspoken pact in the EU countries, "Thou shalt not mention World War II." And if you must, portray the Germans as victims. And if you must blame someone for the Holocaust - blame the Poles.
Of course, there is an implied threat in this to the Germans too: keep quite, pay the bills for the EU, or we'll bring up the war and the Holocaust. Three generations later this is wearing a bit thin.
For the record, Auschwitz and a lot of other concentration camps were IN Poland. They were there because Poland had the largest concentration of Jews in Europe, 15 percent of the population, and it was just flat cheaper to send Jews from all the rest of Europe there to be murdered. And since they counted Poles as Slavic untermenschen to be murdered later, they didn't expect to leave witnesses. (They ultimately did succeed in killing 20 percent of the population of Poland.)
The Associated Press stylebook says, when referring to, "World War II camps in countries occupied by Nazi Germany, do not use phrases like Polish death camps that confuse the location and the perpetrators. Use instead, for example, death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland."
And speaking of Jan Karski, those interested in the history of WWII would find Karski's account of his work with the Armia Krajowe (Polish resistance) during the war, and his attempts to alert the Allies about the ongoing Holocaust fascinating.
The book is entitled, "Story of a Secret State," and used copies are available for nickles on Amazon. I borrowed it from the Oklahoma University library. I was the first to check it out since it was filed in 1947.
Reading it I learned the reason the Polish town of Oswieciem (about an hour's drive from Krakow) has a German name, Auschwitz, is that it was an ethnic German town before the war.
The concentration camp was established in a former Polish Army base because it had ready-made barracks, the Nazis only had to build the gas chambers and crematoria. (I've been there, an experience I will never forget as much as I wish I could.)
Karski said when Poland was invaded by the Hitler-Stalin alliance, his reserve commission was activated and he reported to the base at Oswieciem. When the army retreated before the German advance, the townspeople were taking pot shots at them from their windows with hunting rifles.
Jan Karski died in 2000. Czesc jego pamieci.
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