Obama’s Polish “Gaffe”

During a Medal of Freedom ceremony to posthumously honor Jan Karski for his heroic efforts to inform Roosevelt of the plight of Jews in Poland during WWII, President Obama made the apparently unforgivable mistake of calling death camps built and operated in Poland with full knowledge of large swathes of the Polish people “Polish death camps.”

The Polish government is up in arms. Prime Minister Donald Tusk claimed Obama was guilty of “ignorance, lack of knowledge, bad intentions” and that “When someone says ‘Polish death camps,’ it’s as if there were no Nazis, no German responsibility, as if there was no Hitler.” Yes, because I think we can all agree that to assign any level of blame to any of the other countries in Europe for the atrocities of the WWII it is, as Husk explains, like saying Hitler never existed. I’d also like to agree with Husk that the entire point of remembering the Holocaust is to make sure everyone knows that the Germans were the sole responsible parties. For everything.

That a country would look to downplay its role in the H-caust is not all that surprising. (If the Holocaust had been a “success,” killing all the Jews, everybody’d be taking credit! Failure is an orphan, but success has many fathers, as they say.) What I’ve found quite surprising though is the general media response. They are lighting up the internet as we speak with articles, blog posts and tweets (obviously the best way to print solid, deeply researched news) that completely accept as fact the idea that Obama’s words were a major “gaffe.”

Mark Landler of the New York Times said the statement “was a grave distortion of the darkest chapter in Polish history.” Why was it the darkest chapter? I mean, they didn’t do anything, right? In a particularly galling last line, Alex Storozynski’s piece for the Huffington Post explains that “no one did than the Poles to save Jews during the Holocaust.” Odd, given that in Kielce in 1946 (after the Nazi’s defeat) Poland held the largest post-war pogrom against the Jews. Don’t worry, they blame this one on the Soviets.

As much as it may sound like it, I honestly, have no beef with people of Poland. A lot of people did terrible things in WWII, and their generation is dying out anyway. It doesn’t keep me up at night. (See you at the Euro 2012?) And Obama half-apologized already, saying he should have said “Nazi death camps in occupied Poland” or some other equally ham-fisted wording of the exact same thing he already said more succinctly the first time.

But is this really all about a grammatical construction? Because if it’s not, then it’s an attempt to contend that there were no “Polish death camps.” And that really chaps my ass. To put it in perspective, here’s a partial list: Chelmno, Belzec, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdenek, Sobibor, Treblinka… Turns out, there were, like, a bunch of them.

What do you think?

About The Author

Samuel Johnson

Sam Johnson was born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but is now an LA-based writer/director/producer. Follow him @smorganjohnson on the twitter.

9 Responses

  1. Jacob

    “(If the Holocaust had been a “success,” killing all the jews, everybody’d be taking credit! Failure is an orphan, but success has many fathers, as they say.)”

    If the Holocaust has been a success the Poles would have been next. Hitler’s timeline including exterminating them by 1960. All well documented historical facts.

    The media reaction is correct. Obama’s remark was a gaffe, and deserving of a mea culpa. You on the other hand are a bigot. That is much worse. Between you and Obama one could easily think that a Harvard education is greatly overrated.

  2. Clay Sills

    Pre-war Poland had the largest population of Jews in the world, and of the 6 million Poles killed by the Nazis, half weren’t Jews. Large swathes of of the Polish people knowing about a camp doesn’t correlate to them having the power to change things.

  3. Paul

    woow. this article is a doozy.

    1) Poland had by far the most Jewish people living in the country prior to WWII. Many of them prominent members of society. If there was such a wide intolerance of the Jewish people, why were there so many of them flocking to live in Poland? Accusations of total lack of tolerance seem unjust. 2) Over 3 million non-Jewish Poles were killed by Germany in during WWII. In fact, it was the German plan to either exterminate Poles in general, or turn them into a slave-like servant population for the German people. 3) Poland has by far the most citizens officially recognized as helping the Jewish people during WWII (Yad Vashem). 4) Poland was the ONLY country under German occupation where it was STANDARD PRACTICE AND LAW to kill any Pole that helped a Jewish person in any way (for obvious reason, aka: it happened often).

    Open your eyes, sir.

  4. Howie

    Nice dose of gravity for this site. Indeed, the prez laid it straight. And Mr. 1,2,3? You should be asking ‘why didn’t Jews return to live in Poland after the war?’ There’s a reason most extermination camps were in Poland.

  5. Chad

    We all know Anti-Semitism was pervasive before and after WW2 in Europe. To say Poland or France or Italy or Russian had no role whatsoever in the Holocaust is…. convenient, right? It might make us feel better to blame the German’s solely for the Holocaust, but this means washing our collective hands of the crime. It might be painful and inconvenient to acknowledge, but not everyone in Europe was in the bloody resistance during WW2. There is a very real reason why Hitler thrived during WW2 and it wasn’t solely power & intimidation that kept him in power, but also an unspoken and pervasive hatred of the Jews that allowed Europeans of all of stripes to look the other way while the Jews were annihilated.

  6. Jacob

    @HOWIE. Lets answer your questions:

    1)”‘why didn’t Jews return to live in Poland after the war?’”

    Most were dead. Of the 500,000 remaining Jews: Many left to fight for Israel. Some left to the US. Some ended up in the Soviet Union (Jews generally lived in Eastern Poland, and these areas were annexed by the USSR). Many remained in Poland through 1968 when the communist government started an anti-zionist campaign and wide scale discrimination. Many still continued to live in Poland, but under communist pressure hid their Jewish roots. They have recently begun to recover their heritage and are rebuilding the Polish Jewish community.

    2) There’s a reason most extermination camps were in Poland.

    Yes, for logistical purposes. It made macabre sense to build death camps close to where the victims lived.


    “There is a very real reason why Hitler thrived during WW2 and it wasn’t solely power & intimidation that kept him in power, but also an unspoken and pervasive hatred of the Jews that allowed Europeans of all of stripes to look the other way while the Jews were annihilated.”

    The whole point of this Karski affair is that the US President knew exactly what was happening to the Jews and didn’t care, did nothinb to stop it. As for regular Europeans you seem to forget that the Holocaust did not happen in a vacuum. People where not casually living their lives sipping on wine and turning a blind eye to the Holocaust. There was this other thing called WW2. 60 million people died, including 6 million Jews.

  7. Chad


    The vast majority of Europeans put their heads in the sand while Hitler’s machine moved throughout Europe and slaughtered the Jews. Europeans might not have been sipping wine and nibbling on cheese during WW2, but the resistance we hear about today is a part of a new revisionist folklore to deny Europe’s shared complicity in the Holocaust. The entire reason why the Pole’s are up in arms about Obama calling a death camp a “Polish death camp” is for this very reason. There is one vast and immane difference between war and a systematic campaign to eradicate one group off the face of the planet by the Nazi’s with the “complicity” of the local population. You naively assume the two are one in the same, when in fact they are vastly different.

    • Howie

      Wait up with the exposition! Neither of you parsed my note, ought to sharpen up the reading skills;I’m good with Obama’s speech. Poles- Ukrainians too- reveled in the Shoah and were damn satisfied with the aftermath. If I laid claim to my familial home and business Polacks would cut my balls off. Nothing has changed, as evinced in this BBC piece: thathttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwDGjG_41f0

  8. James

    Jews were never appreciated by the Polish populace. They were always the whipping boys and scapegoats everytime anything went wrong. Jewish history in Poland is punctuated by one pogrom after another with ethnic Poles being among the most enthusiastic participants even when it was occupying governments ordering them. In WW1, Jews were presumed collaborators of the Germans and were hated and punished as such.

    Poland may have been, at one time or another, the most hospitable place for a Jew to live in Europe, but when you consider the alternatives, that’s not saying much.

    The citizens of Continental Europe, for the most part, were not prevented from sleeping at night by the thought of their Jewish neighbours being first targeted for discrimination, then deported. That goes for France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Austria, Hungary and all the rest. They disliked Jews; many of them probably still do for one reason or another. Sad but true.


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