You’ve probably heard the President Obama had a wpadka while giving the posthumous Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski – the man who tried to warn the world what the Nazis were doing. No, you haven’t heard about it? Well, then you don’t live in Poland. I’ve found one article about it in English so far. There’s not enough room here to link to all the Polish articles.
Here’s what President Obama said –
“Before one trip across enemy lines, resistance fighters told him (Karski) 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.”
Yes, he shouldn’t have said “Polish death camp”. It was a huge faux pas on the part of his speech writer. He has since apologized and corrected himself, I believe using the term Nazi death camp. Of course, it would have been a bigger faux pas if Merkel had said it rather than Obama. I think the acceptable term now (if there can be an acceptable term for something as awful as a death camp) is Nazi Germany death camp. Some other common (but not necessarily correct) references to the death camps in Poland that I have found via my intense googling are Polish camps, German camps, camps of Nazi Germany, Nazi camps. Obama is not the first and probably not the last to misspeak on this topic.
It is argued that Obama and others who use the phrase Polish death camps are actually referring to the location as in death camps in Poland, but are they really? Do they really understand the difference? One of my friends in America said that American people don’t really care about the difference because they don’t know about history. I disagree. I think she’s got it backwards -they don’t know about history because they don’t care. And that is each person’s prerogative.
Poland is especially sensitive for being accredited with crimes of WW2 that they didn’t commit such as ownership of the Nazi camps. I get it. Who wants to be falsely blamed for something so atrocious, not the victims, that’s for sure, but some folks have trouble copping to the crimes which were to “our” (Polish) credit. I recommend reading the book “Wielka trwoga. Polska 1944-1947” by dr Marcin Zaremba in which he attempts to explain the psychological state of people in Poland during and after WW2.
I once had the pleasure of speaking to a gentleman who had survived Auschwitz and had later settled in England. He was a boy at the start of the war and a man by the end. After the war, he decided to make his way “home” hoping that someone from his family would make it home as well. When he arrived to his former home, he found it occupied by a Polish family. He inquired if anyone had returned. They not so politely informed him that his family had been shot in a ditch in the woods (as he had already suspected). With dim hope, he waited anyhow. After a few days of waiting in the doorway of his former home, he began to fear for his life as the Polish family not so politely informed him that in order to keep their/his house they were willing to “help” him join the rest of his family in that ditch. No Nazi’s involved here. Just regular folks. We have to cop to that.
Later this man traveled to Wroclaw and decided to settle in England. I asked him why he didn’t stay in Wroclaw where everybody was “new”. He said that it was too lonely for him in Poland. Then he told me something I will remember forever. He said to imagine that you woke up one day and you couldn’t find a single person that you knew. Not your family, not your former neighbor, not your former classmates, not even a shop clerk, nobody. That’s one of his reasons for leaving the country. I guess if you don’t know anybody “at home” you might as well try your luck elsewhere. The other reason is that he began to hate his fellow Poles. He already hated the Germans for obvious reasons and wasn’t too fond of the Russians either and after many experiences like the one above he added the Poles to his list. He learned his lesson well, that he was first and foremost Jewish, not Polish. (It reminds me of a scene in Lalka -in the book, not in the film. Anyone know which scene I am thinking of?) He said that if he could kill any of those people, even today, he would do it. That made me sad. That it wasn’t enough to take family and freedom and joy and hope away from this man but to take a boy and turn him into someone who wanted to kill. I enjoyed speaking to him very much, but I wondered how so much vengeance could be harbored in such a nice, smiling and otherwise optimistic man?
Leszek Miller this morning on the news said that the award from Obama should have been refused – that we (Poland) should refuse such accolades until the rest of the world learns its history lesson. I can see his point but it kind of sounds like the great comeback that you think of 2 hours after the argument. Sounds good in theory but difficult to pull off.
I prefer the old George W. faux pas like when he said that he planned to visit Czechoslovakia. Apparently, he was planning a trip back in time.
KasiaMay 30, 2012 at 5:13 pm
It is all over the news here as well. Very, very unfortunate – especially that the Polish people in the US have been complaining for a while, as that term pops up here quite often.
czarownicaMay 30, 2012 at 7:09 pm
Not only in the US, my \”favourite\” Daily Mail at least twice yearly writes about Polish concentration camps.
ChrisMay 31, 2012 at 10:15 am
So it does pop up more than I thought. We have to be vigilant!Having said that, through my unscientific research (I asked my American friends on facebook) I found that most people when they hear \”Polish death camp\” understand that it is a death camp located in Poland (and perhaps with Polish prisoners). One of my friends said, \”Duh, you think we are so stupid that we don't know that the Polish camps were set up by the Nazis?\” I guess it boils down to the fact, that yes, we are afraid that if we don't state explicitly who was at fault that somebody, somewhere could get the wrong idea.
AnonymousMay 31, 2012 at 12:03 pm
Reakcja Tuska na wpadkę Obamy jest histeryczna i niezrozumiała. Przecież wszyscy wiedzą, że to nie Polacy zbudowali obóz w Oświęcimiu, tak jak wiemy, że to nie Kubańczycy podtapiają mieszkańców Guantanamo. Co do bandyckiego zachowania Polaków wobec Żydów w okresie wojny i powojennym, to my nigdy się do tego nie przyznamy, ponieważ nie pozwala nam na to mentalność mówiąca, że im bardziej ktoś jest skrzywdzony, tym bardziej mu się różne rzeczy należą. A my lubimy, jako Polacy, gdy nam się coś należy bez pracy. Poza tym szalejący antysemityzm (i rasizm – tym Tusk powinien się zająć w pierwszej kolejności) tworzy atmosferę społecznej aprobaty dla tamtych zdarzeń. A druga sprawa, to faktycznie każdy kolejny polski rząd powinien przemyśleć swoje stosunki z Amerykanami, gdyż stają się one dla rządzących źródłem wielu politycznych problemów (typu Miller i CIA, albo brak offsetu przy zakupie F-16, albo załamanie stosunków z Francją po wysłaniu polskich mikro-wojsk do Iraku, albo rakiety w Kaliningradzie w odpowiedzi na jakąś tam tarczę przeciwrakietową itp.).Andrzej
PamJune 1, 2012 at 11:43 pm
I'm sure my 6th graders would understand it as being a Nazi German death camp located in Poland. …They have been very interested in learning about WWII at their young age. Of course, there are details that I don't tell them; those young ears will have to wait. The horror overwhelms us adults. I made it through the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC without crying until almost to the end when I entered the room with all the shoes…I broke down.
ChrisJune 4, 2012 at 10:12 am
Andrzej – I cannot help but agree with everything you have written – the histerical reaction of Tusk (he didn't want to be accussed of under-reacting by PiS), the demand for an apology while never, ever admitting our own guilt, and the senseless adoration of Polish/US relations when in fact it gets us nothing (us meaning Poland). Pam – And that's the fear, that the world is so ignorant as to not understand who did what, where and why. I took my students and my husband to Holocaust Museum in D.C. too. It is a great museum. I've been to Auschwitz many, many times because everybody who visits me wants to go. I try to focus on the facts to keep control of the sadness. Once a small group of tourists asked me about my fee. My \”tour group\” was in fact my mom and dad. I was fine until I overheard a gentleman saying to his wife in Polish, \”…when I was here…\”
na brukselskim brukuJune 9, 2012 at 9:19 am
yeah, just go to debbie schussel's blog – this is what we, Poles have to put up with. no wonder, we also get oversensitive. it's so easy to tell that Poles helped to exterminate Jews during the WWII – yes, that is true. but in most cases those people were forced by the sheer fear of being killed themselves by the Nazis if they didn't obey the rules of the \”final solution to the jewish queston\”. and yes – at the same time – it is the Poles, who helped and rescued the greatest number of Jews ( just count the yad vashem trees with Polish names on them). racism existed and still does in lot's of countries – in Polandwe just had the most unfortunate combination of negative factors : poverty, uneducated society, years of being occupied by our geographical neighbours,frustration, fear and revenge. it's a shame, but it doesn't mean that we have no right to defend ourselves when there are lies and stupid remarks made that just multiply the biased picture of the problem. and, sorry I'll just do the same and say, yes, with all the Americans that I've met ( during my jurnalist' fellowship at the Duke University and after) who were educated and professional people – their knowledge about WWII and the complexities of the Polish-Jewish problem at that time and before and after the war was, to say at least a bit shallow, I'd say… so – just as Debbie Schussel can let out her frustration flow, let us , Poles to complain just the same!
JacekJune 10, 2012 at 10:59 am
@ demon w sieciexactly!
ChrisJune 10, 2012 at 4:26 pm
demon – I was unable to read the blog 'cause it is down but I found some articles referring to what she wrote. Defend! Defend! Defend! Yes, it is true what you said that most people don't understand the complexities of Polish-Jewish relations before/during/after WW2 but even the most ignorant of the ignorant know that the Holocaust was orchestrated by Hitler and the Nazis and that they were German not Polish. Now having said that, I can say, living in Poland for almost 15 years that I hear practically every single day totally stupid and ignorant comments about Jews…from people from all walks of life – professors, business owners, students, doctors, accountants, farmers, teachers, young people, old people, middle-aged people, educated people and uneducated people alike. Then after seeing the look on my face they say \”Oh my God, you're not Jewish, are you?\” Lovely, just lovely.And considering some recent experiences I have had, I can say that Polish people with all their hospitality and all are in fact not very accepting or tolerant of others.
AnonymousJune 10, 2012 at 8:13 pm
@demon w sieciRelax, miła dziewczyno. I can't see how Debbie Schüssel's drivels are related to our anti-Semitism. Those are two completely separated things. You can't cover one lie (we murdered all of the Jews) by another (we are not anti-Semites), the truth doesn't work that way.Andrzej
AnonymousJune 10, 2012 at 8:16 pm
@demon w sieciBTW, you really think that the Jews rule the world, don't you? ;-)A.
RobJune 12, 2012 at 7:34 pm
The French do not like The British and The British do not like The French. Does it mean they are Anti-British or Anti-French?