The White House expressed its regrets about President Obama’s use of the term “Polish death camp.”
In a statement Wednesday morning, Tommy Vietor, the spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, said the president “misspoke” during his presentation of a posthumous Medal of Freedom a day earlier to Jan Karski, a Polish resistance fighter who was among the first to report German atrocities in his country.
“He was referring to Nazi death camps in Poland,” Vietor said. “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.”
During the ceremony, Obama said 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 insist on the term “Nazi death camps” to describe facilities such as Auschwitz and Sobibor.
In a tweet reported first by BuzzFeed, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said that Obama “will apologize for this outrageous error,” ascribing it to “ignorance and incompetence.”
Other officials also weighed in with outrage on social media.
Holocaust historians say the record of Polish behavior during the Holocaust is vexed and contradictory. There was much collaboration with the Nazis, and the resistance did little to protect Jews until 1942, reflecting the pervasive anti-Semitism that infected the country before the German invasion in 1939.
Karski himself in his first dispatches fretted that native Polish anti-Semitism would frustrate efforts to save the Jews. In a February 1940 dispatch quoted in The Holocaust Encyclopedia, Karski said that Nazi anti-Jewish measures were creating “something akin to a narrow bridge upon which the Germans and a large portion of Polish society are finding agreement.” A Jewish-Polish resistance would encounter “serious resistance” among large parts of Polish society, he reported.
On the other hand, once the scope of the genocide became clear, some of the Polish resistance sought to rescue Jews.
The Anti-Defamation League in a statement Wednesday praised the White House for its “regrets” on the matter.
“The misnomer ‘Polish camps’ unjustly implies that the death camps in Poland were built in the name of the Polish people rather than by the Nazi regime,” the ADL said. “While the White House acknowledged that the president misspoke, the administration should turn this mistake into a teachable moment for American public and explain more fully why the expression ‘Polish death camps’ offends our strong ally, Poland, and distorts the history of the Holocaust.”
More than 90 percent of Polish Jewry’s prewar 3.5 million Jews was wiped out in the Holocaust, and efforts by Jews to return to their homes after the war were in some cases met by pogroms instigated by neighbors who had taken over their properties.
The tiny community that persisted in postwar Poland lay low, in part because anti-Semitism was still pervasive. Only in recent years, after the fall of communism, has the community undergone a minor revival.