President Obama sparked a firestorm earlier this week when he referred to "Polish death camps" in referring to Nazi concentration camps on occupied Polish soil. Although the White House issued a statement of regret about the slip, the Polish government remains on edge about the matter.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Polish Prime Minister Donald Trusk wrote: “We always react in the same way when ignorance, lack of knowledge, bad intentions lead to such a distortion of history, so painful for us here in Poland, in a country which suffered like no other in Europe during World War II. The words uttered yesterday by the president of the United States Barack Obama concerning ‘Polish death camps’ touched all Poles,” Politico reported.
But the White House dug in, refusing to make a higher-level apology. White House spokesman Jay Carney said, "We regret the misstatement, but that is what it was," the AFP reported.
David Frumm is outraged for what he sees as a sin against history. The popular misconception since WWII, he argues, is that life for Jews in Poland before the Nazis was harsh and oppressive. That's not entirely true, says Frum, who is Jewish and whose family emgrigrated from Poland before the war.
"Polish Jews owned factories, shops and country houses. There were Jewish chaplains in the Polish Army. (The head chaplain was murdered by the Soviets in the Katyn Forest, alongside his brother officers.) That story needs to be rediscovered too, and since 1989, it has been," Frum wrote.
Michael Tomasky at the Daily Beast, a staunch and feisty Obama supporter, said the comment was "just ghastly" and questioned the professionalism of all involved: "How in the world could that happen? Some callow kid in the speechwriting office didn't know the difference? His or her boss also didn't know? And what of Obama? I will assume that he does know better. But he said the words."
Scott Johnson at Powerline was also put off by the error, but chose to focus instead on the courage of the man who was supposed to be honored at the White House event and whose story has been overshadowed by it.
"Karski was an amazingly brave man. As Walter Laqueur writes in "The Terrible Secret," a book for which he questioned Karski in detail, Karski was neither the first nor the last courier to arrive in the West from Warsaw with news of the Holocaust, but as far as the information about the fate of the Jews in Poland was concerned, he was certainly the most important," Johnson wrote.
Johnson offers a detailed account of Karski's exploits, in which he infiltrated a Nazi death camp and brought word to the West in 1942.
Others dismissed the whole matter as overwrought. "I'm willing to grant some umbrage in instances where the misstatement betrays something about the speaker's thinking," wrote Alec MacGillis at the New Republic. "Obama's unfortunate 2008 comment about working-class whites who 'cling to guns and religion.' So it would be a problem if we thought the president truly believed that the death camps were Polish in the sense of Polish-run. But there is absolutely zero reason to believe that."
For its part, Poland seems intent on using the event as a teaching moment, to drive home Poland's role as a victim and a victor during WWII. Poland has long been anxious to remind the world that it was not only overrun in WWII, but fought back, with hundreds of thousands of soldiers fighting on the Western and Mediterranean fronts, as well as fighting alongside the Soviets in the East.
To the Poles, the casual error from the White House is a symptom of ongoing Western ignorance and indifference regarding Poland's role as an oft-subjugated, freedom-loving people.
In 1976, as Ann Althouse notes, President Gerald Ford famously stumbled in a debate with Jimmy Carter, asserting that Yugoslavia, Hungary and Poland were not dominated by the Soviet Union. "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration," Ford said at the time.