In Chicago on Tuesday, Barack Obama honored Polish World War II hero Jan Karski with the award of the United States President’s Medal of Freedom. The president lauded Karski's operations in Nazi-occupied Poland, describing his successful infiltration into “a Polish death camp” that allowed him to convey one of the first accounts of the Holocaust to the outside world.
The backlash from these statements was sharp and swift.
The president’s blunder, Poles complained, was failing to distinguish the WWII criminals from the location of their crimes. The phrase “Polish death camps,” as opposed to “German death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland,” implies that the death camps in Poland in which millions of Jews, Catholics, and others perished, were backed and operated by the Poles themselves. This is an obvious historical misconstruction, and I am confident that anyone with even the slightest understanding of the events of World War II or the Holocaust would agree.
However, the degree of retaliation Obama received from the misstatement would suggest that his words aimed to intentionally offend the Poles and the Jews. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski called it an “outrageous error” and a matter of “ignorance and incompetence.” “When someone says 'Polish death camps,' it is as if there were no Nazis, no German responsibility, as if there were no Hitler,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk commented. “That is why our Polish sensitivity in these situations is so much more than just simply a feeling of national pride.” Since Tuesday night, the Twitter and Blogospheres have been blowing up with similar, less articulate assaults on Obama.
As a Jewish person with Eastern European ancestry, I take personally attempts to undermine German culpability and the plight of the Jews during WWII; however, through referencing "Polish death camps," I do not think that President Obama made any such attempt.
It is difficult to believe that a former constitutional law professor and the current leader of the free world could lack the knowledge that during WWII, Nazi evils were committed near and far away from Germany. Far from a president’s ignorant and incompetent error, then, Obama’s mistake was probably and much less dramatically, the result of a speechmaker’s grammatical error. Unfortunately, the outrage that has ensued as a result of a little misplaced modifier has overshadowed the context in which Obama’s speech was given. The president and most likely his speechwriter (though I imagine his/her tenure will soon be over) did not intend to offend the Polish or Jewish people. Very different from pointing fingers at Poland by suggesting that it was somehow responsible for German death camps, the president’s speech at the Medal of Freedom ceremony hoped to honor those brave Polish people who stood up against foreign intruders committing monstrosities on their land—that is, German monstrosities in Nazi-occupied Polish land.
I do not diminish how important it is that our elected officials understand and speak accurately about historical events that have affected, and continue to affect so many people’s lives. However, it is also important that we do not allow political correctness to run amok and allow a single phrase to overshadow an honorable context.