US President Barack Obama’s description of a Nazi German Holocaust site as a ‘Polish death camp’ surprised Poland, whose leaders insist the record be set straight 67 years after World War II. Obama on Tuesday labeled the Nazi service used to process Jews for extermination as a ‘Polish death camp ‘. The White House later explained the president ‘misspoke’ and expressed ‘regret.
The linguistic faux pas overshadowed Obama’s posthumous award of the highest US civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to Jan Karski, a former Polish underground officer who offered early eyewitness accounts of Nazi Germany’s genocide of European Jews. Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Wednesday Obama’s phrases had hurt all Poles and he expected more from Washington than simply ‘regret ‘.
‘I am convinced that our American friends can currently allow themselves a stronger effect than the usual basic expression of regret from the White House spokesman — a reaction more inclined to remove once and for many these kinds of errors,’ Tusk informed reporters in Warsaw. ‘Today, this is a problem for the trustworthiness of the United States,’ the prime minister said. Poland’s anti-communist image Lech Walesa meanwhile named Obama’s problem a ‘wonderful event’ to set the historical record straight. Between 1939 and 1945, almost six million Polish people perished under Nazi Germany’s brutal World War II profession of their country. Over fifty percent of Poland’s victims were of Jewish origin and they, in turn, accounted for 50% of the six million European Jews who perished during the Holocaust. Many were killed in death camps set up by Nazi Germany in active Poland — such as the most famous, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Poland’s government keenly watches the global media for descriptions of former Nazi German death camps as ‘Polish’ since it says the expression — even when used just as a physical indicator — can give the impression that Poland bore accountability for Nazi Germany’s World War II genocide. Even though positioned in Poland, Auschwitz for example was set up and run entirely by German master Adolf Hitler’s occupying forces from 1940 to 1945.
While most of the camp’s 1.1 million victims were Jews deported from other German-occupied nations, 300,000 were Polish Jews. Until 1942, the camp was mostly a prison and killing centre for non-Jewish Poles such as resistance people. An estimated 75,000 died there, out of around 2.6 million non-Jewish Poles who perished under Nazi occupation. Many were resistance fighters like Karski. As a child, Karski, who was simply a clandestine officer of the Polish government-in-exile in London, witnessed scenes of starvation and death after infiltrating Warsaw’s Jewish Ghetto. Dressed as a Ukrainian guard, he also went to a Nazi transit camp near Warsaw where he saw Jews beaten and stabbed and packed into trains addressed with quicklime to be taken to the gas chambers. Karski took his eye witness account to wartime US president Franklin Roosevelt. He later became a professor of history at Georgetown University and died in Washington aged 86 in 2000.