Obama’s Poor Wording Sparks Flare-Up with Poland
A diplomatic scandal broke out on Tuesday between Poland and the United States, as the American president spoke, during the Medal of Freedom ceremony, about the “Polish death camps,” a mistake which caused the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to react angrily to what he deemed an action in the kind of those who can be suspected of “ignorance, lack of knowledge, bad intentions.”
The American president made this error while delivering a speech about Jan Kozielewski, also known as Karski, the Polish officer who is known to have escaped from the Nazi imprisonment and provided in 1943 firsthand information to the Western allies about what was going on with the Jewish population in the camps where they were being exterminated by the Nazi.
Obama said, speaking of Karski, that resistance fighters smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto, and “a Polish death camp” to see for himself how Jews were being killed at a massive scale. The use of the expression “Polish death camp” instead of “Nazi death camp,” conveying the sense that the Poles were those who were controlling the camps, not the Nazis who made camp on Polish territory, triggered an outrage in Poland.
On Wednesday, Donald Turk said that the American president’s words “touched all Poles” and that the reaction is normal when it comes to a history such as the one of Poland, the country in Europe which suffered the most during WWII.
Tusk said his country could not accept such words from no one, not even from the leader of a friendly country, especially from the leader of a friendly country. He added that his country expected “diligence, care and respect” for matters of such delicacy as the remembrance of the WWII suffering.
The White House issued a statement in which it acknowledged the presidential poor choice of words, expressing confidence that this misstatement does not detract from the real intent of the president, that of honoring Jan Karski who “stood on the side of humanity in the face of tyranny.”
On Tuesday the Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sidorski said on Twitter that it was a shame that such a ceremony was overshadowed by “ignorance and incompetence.”
On Wednesday, Tusk said that he was confident that the American population was capable of “stronger reaction” than the mere words of apology which came from Washington and were noted by Warsaw. Tusk added that maybe it was time for the American administration to help Poland in its effort for historical truth, so that a correct assessment of what happened during the WWII be delivered for the entire world to know.
Tusk concluded that it was Americans’ duty to end this flare-up with class, especially when it came to dealing with a “tried-and-tested” friend. The mistake was immediately exploited for political reasons by Obama’s adversaries, who did however acknowledge that the mistake was not intentional.
Fox News reports that the president should have said “German death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland” to distinguish the perpetrators from the residents. Fox News said that the Polish PM hinted to the possibility of including in the future exposition of the events in WWII the brutal occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany.
In order to diffuse the scandal, the White House remembered Obama’s visit to the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, on which occasion he lauded the bravery of the Poles. The Polish Embassy in Washington has a guide about the concentration camps, in which “Polish death camps” are considered “factually incorrect slurs” which should be corrected.11