Polish officials called on President Obama to apologize for using the term “Polish death camps.”
Obama awarded a posthumous presidential Medal of Freedom on Tuesday to Jan Karski, a Polish resistance fighter who was among the first to report German atrocities in his country.
“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,” Obama said. “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 by BuzzFeed, Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, 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.
BuzzFeed quoted Tommy Vietor, the National Security Council spokesman, as saying that “the president was referring to Nazi death camps operated in Poland. The president has demonstrated in word and deed his rock-solid commitment to our close alliance with Poland.”
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.
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 post-war 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.