Obama stirs up controversy among Polish community with speech mishap
Published: Monday, June 4, 2012
Updated: Monday, August 27, 2012 17:08
In a ceremony held Tuesday honoring Jan Karski, a Polish resistance fighter during the Holocaust, President Obama used “Polish death camp” instead of the proper phrasing of Nazi concentration camp in German-occupied Poland. Not surprisingly, this struck a nerve with Poles everywhere, especially the huge Polish-American population here in Chicago.
“A mistake at that level is simply scandalous and shouldn’t take place,” said Tom Jaroszek, a member of the DePaul Polish Student Alliance (DPSA). “It only shows the incompetence of Washington politicians.”
“The country [Poland] is offended and disgusted,” said Aleksander Koziel, 22, who is currently studying in Krakow, Poland. “Once again, the Americans apologize for mistaking Poles with Nazi Germans.”
The White House said that Obama “misspoke” while other sources cite that he read from a teleprompter. In that case, it was not a slip of the speech, but a grave mistake somehow overlooked in the speechwriting. For the writers to not adopt the politically correct term as accepted by other national newspapers’ stylebooks is basic inconsideration for a sensitive issue.
The Poles have been trying to eradicate any identity with the camps since word of the Holocaust got out. Other than Polish victims suffering in the camps, there is nothing Polish about them; describing them as such is simply incorrect, and moreover infers that that Poles staffed the camp.
People argue that anyone who knows better does not think the Poles were responsible, but in the end, the wording “Polish death camp” does not change that implication. The fact of the matter is, the camps were run by Nazis in German-occupied Poland, and that is how they should be referenced -- Nazi concentration camps in occupied Poland, or whatever specific country (camps were located in Germany, Czech Republic, Austria and more).
The careful and exact wording of the concentration camps may sound like a trivial request, but if that is the only form of respect requested by a nation scarred from the events of the Holocaust, it should be easy to honor.
After several days of Obama’s silence, Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski took action and wrote a personal letter to the U.S. president asking for a better correction. The prolonging of an apology caused much unrest within the Polish community.
The apology eventually came Friday, as Obama wrote his apologies in a response letter to Komorowski.
"I regret the error and agree that this moment is an opportunity to ensure that this and future generations know the truth,” Obama wrote. “The bravery of Poles in the underground resistance is one of history's great stories of heroism and courage."
Is the apology sufficient enough for the Polish community?
“I much rather would have preferred an official apology to the media addressing the polish population,” said DPSA vice president Darek Slomiany. “I’m glad, however, that the issue did get a lot of media attention, so that people will realize that this is not a light matter and one that people of Polish descent take very seriously.”
“This isn’t the first time this mistake was made,” said DPSA member Joanna Buksa, 19. “A few months ago some reporter made a similar mistake, and earlier than that another similar incident happened.”
The fact that Obama retracted his statement in a formal apology to the Polish president is commendable and just. Because of its grand scale, this will hopefully be a precedent for journalists and speechwriters to take note, so that misunderstandings of history need no correcting again.