Polish Language Blog

Obama’s holocaust comment Posted by on May 30, 2012 in Culture, Current News

Poland has demanded an apology from Washington after President Barack Obama spoke of a “Polish death camp” while announcing an award to a resistance fighter for alerting the world to the Nazi Holocaust, largely perpetrated on Polish soil.

The matter is a delicate one in Poland, which suffered a brutal Nazi occupation during World War Two and has long campaigned against suggestions it bore any responsibility for the slaughter of some 6 million European Jews.

“The White House will apologise for the outrageous mistake,” Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski wrote on his Twitter account on Tuesday. “It’s a pity that ignorance and incompetence overshadowed such a momentous ceremony.”

On Wednesday, Sikorski said he did not suspect Obama of ill will and blamed the “grave mistake” on the White House’s speech writers and press service.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said: “The president misspoke – he was referring to Nazi death camps in Poland. We regret this misstatement, which should not detract from the clear intention to honour Mr. Karski and those brave citizens who stood on the side of human dignity in the face of tyranny.”

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, speaking after the issue filled Polish media on Wednesday, said: “When somebody says ‘Polish death camps’ it is as if there were no Nazis, no German responsibility, no Hitler.”

He urged Washington to make up for the mistake by actively supporting Warsaw’s drive against such rhetoric.

The posthumous award for Jan Karski was to honour him for bringing some of the first eyewitness testimony of the Holocaust to the outside world, after he was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Nazi camp (read post US Medal of Freedom for Jan Karski)

Karski travelled to London, Washington and elsewhere urging action to prevent the mass extermination of Jews.

Israel’s Yad Vashem institute has awarded Karski the Righteous Among the Nations title for his efforts to aid Jews, and to more than 6,300 other Poles, more than any other nationality, despite the fact that Poland’s history is littered with anti-Semitism.

Some 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland before 1939. Most perished during World War Two, among nearly 6 million Polish deaths in total.

A museum dedicated to the history of Polish Jews is now under construction in the capital Warsaw.

“We should use this huge gaffe to make sure nobody, nowhere in the world, ever says that again,” said Lech Wałęsa, Poland’s Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Do następnego razu… (Till next time…)

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About the Author: Kasia

My name is Kasia Scontsas. I grew near Lublin, Poland and moved to Warsaw to study International Business. I have passion for languages: any languages! Currently I live in New Hampshire. I enjoy skiing, kayaking, biking and paddle boarding. My husband speaks a little Polish, but our daughters are fluent in it! I wanted to make sure that they can communicate with their Polish relatives in our native language. Teaching them Polish since they were born was the best thing I could have given them! I have been writing about learning Polish language and culture for Transparent Language’s Polish Blog since 2010.


  1. russ:

    It always seemed obvious to me that “Polish” in expressions like “Polish death camps” was simply referring to LOCATION, not to the CREATORS and is simply a concise way of saying more lengthily “Nazi death camps in Poland” (analogous to how people sometimes say expressions like “Polish occupation” or “Occupation of Poland” instead of something longer like “Occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany” or whatever) – in the context of World War 2, doesn’t every educated person know that it was Germany who occupied Poland and built concentration camps there?

    Similarly, I don’t think anyone saying “the Russian front” or “the Battle of Britain” intends to suggest that “there were no Nazis, no German responsibility, no Hitler” even though they name the countries of the location (Russia, Britain), but not the initiator (Germany).

    But if there are younger uneducated people who somehow get the impression that it means Poland CREATED the death camps instead of that we’re talking about Nazi death camps IN Poland as opposed to Nazi death camps in some OTHER country where the Nazis ALSO built death camps (are really there many such people who are unaware that the Germans created the death camps? I don’t know…), then indeed it makes sense to be less ambiguous in the phrasing.

  2. Marie Reimers:

    As an American, I am more than vaguely aware of the desire for political correctness in American language usage. Thus, I don’t believe there is any excuse here – either by the President or his speech writers. Mr. Sikorski has kindly attempted to release Mr. Obama from fault in this matter, blaming only the speech writers. I disagree heartily. Mr. Obama, with a degree from Harvard Law School, is responsible for every word he speaks, whether or not it is in a speech written by someone else. An apology is owed to the people of Poland by President Obama.