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.