Poland: Obama's “Polish Death Camp” Gaffe Causes Controversy

In the last days of May, a storm of controversy struck the Polish public opinion, caused by a verbal gaffe committed by the US President Barack Obama. During the ceremony of posthumously honoring Jan Karski, a Polish World War II resistance hero, with the Medal of Freedom, Obama used the expression “a Polish death camp” rather than stating clearly that what he meant was a Nazi Germany-operated death camp on the Polish territory.

The major irony behind this statement lies with a fact that Jan Karski was being honored for his struggle to tell the outside world about the systematic murder of Jews in his country. During the wartime Karski smuggled himself into the Warsaw Ghetto and witnessed firsthand crimes committed against the Jewish people. That information was taken by him to Allied leaders, among them US President Franklin Roosevelt, in order to cause more radical actions on their part.

This is not the first time when such unfortunate phrase regarding the concentration camps built on the Polish soil by the Nazi regime has been used. According to the data published by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the last three years almost 200 succesfull interventions have been made, in response to untrue expressions appearing in the media around the world. Using phrases such as a “Polish concentration camp” may be prosecuted by Polish courts even outside of the Polish borders. The first such trial is to be held on September 13 against the German publishing company Axel Springer.

According to the Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, harsh reactions of several Polish political and public figures were adequate. “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,” he said.

The Polish online community was also shaken by the news. But in the blogosphere reactions to the faux pas of President Obama were varied.

Maria Dora writes on her blog [pl]:

At first, I wanted to write something about the American affront, but after giving it a little tought, I consider it more of a neglect or carelessness on the part of the president's team rather than the president himself. […] Anyway, it is clear that every time such a phrase is used, we must correct it, because it contributes to the distortion of history.

Janusz Wojciechowski notes [pl]:

The word “Germany” cannot be used in the presence of the word “genocide” because Germans, who are now the leaders of Europe, can't be assocciated with such things. We shouldn't blame Obama. We ourselves let the others blame the war, genocide and the aforementioned “Polish death camps” on us. If today in the Europarliament I was to use a phrase “German death camps,” it would be considered a huge scandal […]

@twitkcg states [pl]:

Most of all, we are defending the historical truth. In this context a phrase “Polish concentration camps” is absurd and scientifically disqualified.

@michalgornicki shared his concern [pl] about the influence of the gaffe on the perception of Poland during the Euro 2012 championship:

After this, all of the European football teams that come to Poland visit only the “Polish concentration camps,” this is just great

Rafał Kmiecik debates [pl] the historical accuracy of the phrase:

The phrase “Polish death camps” is an oxymoron due to the fact that during the war (1939-1945) Poland didn't exist as a country! We were under the German rule. […] All of the camps had German names and were run by the Nazis”

Mmaly comments [pl]:

“Polish concentration camps” is an unfortunate mental leap that may mess with the historically ignorant foreigner, but for a person who is not historically illiterate the meaning of the phrase is clear, and in some contexs even justified. For instance, it may be used to differentiate Nazi concentration camps built on the Polish soil from those built on the territories not asocciated geographically with Poland. That's why I find the harsh comments on Obama's gaffe rather inadequate.

A much harsher reaction on the part of Polish netizens was triggered by an article written by Debbie Schlussel, a US conservative journalist and lawyer. In a note posted on her website, she claims that Obama's gaffe wasn't a gaffe at all. According to her, Poles founded several concentration camps and ruled them along with Germans. They were also personally responsible for the deaths of several milion Jews. “This wasn’t just the Nazis. It was tens of thousands of eager Poles and more” – she says.

Thousands of Polish netizens reacted immediately. Schlussel's website was down for almost 3 days, due to the intentional overload caused by Polish internet users. Her Facebook fanpage was flooded with thousands of letters, posts and comments, both in Polish and English, demanding immediate apology and expressing outrage. An anti-fanpage was created on the spot, containing instructions on how to report Schlussels fanpage to Facebook admins.

Debbie Schlussels responses to polish comments flood

The action of collecting signatures under a letter of protest to Schlussel's employers was advocated on Twitter.

@kurasinski comments [pl] on an article about Schlussel:

Political corectness made in the USA.

@x3LoveRock adds [en]:

Don't understand any crap that Debbie Schlussel says about Poles. She clearly doesn't know Polish History.

On his blog, karkonosznawygnaniu wrote a letter addressed to the journalist. The letter is written in English, and starts with words condemning the lies:

I'm sorry to read that your view on Poland and Poles is so full of hatred and spite, based solemnly on your ignorance and basic knowledge of historical facts. I find it shameful that as a journalist you fail to realize that history of Poles and Jews dates back a millennium, all the way back to the beginning of the Polish nation.

@megi696 wrote [en]:

Debbie Schlussel's “knowledge” is a disgrace. To think that such an individual is a journalist! Hopeless.

Although the majority of Polish netizens decided to express their outrage in cultured and reasonable way – by reporting the Facebook fanpage as one promoting hate, signing the letter to Schlussel's employers, or trying to explain the painful and difficult history of Poland during the times of war – a lot of comments containing anti-Semitic remarks appeared as a reference to Schlussel's Jewish origin. In her latest post, Schlussel comments on those and attaches several highly offensive pictures sent to her during the last days.

davyjones calls [pl] for a more cultured way of expression:

The critique of Debbie Schlussel should be loud, but also to the point. Poland should use this discussion opportunity so that people could learn how it really was […] Only by an open discussion of the facts can we fight against such statements.

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