Bloomberg quotes Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, via his Twitter account.
Sikorski, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, and millions of Poles around the world were horrifically offended by President Obama’s reference to a “Polish death camp” while posthumously awarding the Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski.
“We can’t accept such words in Poland, even if they are spoken by a leader of an allied country,” Prime Minister Donald Tusk told journalists in Warsaw today. “Saying Polish concentration camps is as if there was no German responsibility, no Hitler.”
Prime Minister Tusk is right, of course; President Obama should have been more clear that these were Nazi death camps in Poland so that no one would be confused and think that the Poles had their own death camps that were separate from those built by the Nazis.
But let’s be clear about something.
Approximately 3 million Polish Jews — roughly 90% of the country’s Jewish population — were murdered by the Nazis. The Nazi killing machine was the most effective in Poland of all the occupied countries and it’s pretty clear that the anti-Semitism behind the mass extermination of Jews wasn’t limited to the occupying forces.
Here’s just one quick example, from an article published in 2008:
Gross, a U.S. historian born and educated in Poland became internationally famous for his 2001 book Neighbors, chronicling the massacre of Jews in the village of Jedwabne during the Nazi occupation. That book stoked controversy in Poland because it demonstrated that the Jews of Jedwabne had been brutally murdered not by the Germans, but by local Poles. Fear, published in English in 2006 but first released in Polish just two weeks ago, takes a wider look at post-war anti-Semitism in Poland, investigating why Jews returning to their homes having survived Nazi atrocities were terrorized and sometimes murdered by Poles. Needless to say, it is not a topic with which Poland has been comfortable in dealing.
Gross suggests that being a direct witness to Nazi atrocities — Jews from all over Europe were herded to concentration camps in Poland — unleashed a brutal anti-semitism in the country that had for almost nine centuries been home to one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities. Gross provides extensive evidence of how many Poles chased away or killed Jewish Holocaust survivors, often out of fear that returning Jews would reclaim their property that had, during the occupation, been taken over by other Poles.
I’m sure that the Polish people have thought at great length about these matters in the years since the article was written and I’m sure they’ve confronted the legacy of anti-Semitism in their country. If not, it would be really irresponsible for the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to suggest, as they seem to be doing here, that the killing of Jews in Poland had nothing whatsoever to do with Poles.
It’s interesting to note, also, that Tusk had to respond to allegations of racism and anti-Semitism amongst Polish soccer fans at almost the same time: “Nobody who comes to Poland will be in any danger because of his race …. This is not our custom, as is not pointing out similar incidents in other countries, although we know they take place. In Poland, they’re a rarity.”
Here is one such rarity, via Luis Villa:
Pictured: Anti-Semitic chants at a football match in Poland from the BBC One Panorama special about “racist violence and anti-Semitism at the heart of Polish and Ukrainian football” for Euro 2012, viewable here. [30 minutes]
This isn’t to argue that Obama was right when he said the death camps were Polish; they were very clearly Nazi death camps in Poland and Obama certainly knew this since he was honoring a Pole who helped to alert the world about Nazi crimes against Jews.
This also isn’t to claim that Poles are collectively guilty with regard to the Holocaust in particular or anti-Semitism in general. But we should be clear that Poland wasn’t a nation of Karskis then and it isn’t one now; just as they aren’t collectively guilty, they also aren’t collectively innocent. To pretend otherwise, as Tusk and Sikorski seem to be doing, is also a serious mistake, one that threatens to paper over the racism and anti-Semitism in Poland that desperately needs to be confronted.