By now you probably know that Obama has committed another huge boo-boo: he has managed to outrage the Poles by referring to a Nazi death camp in Poland as a “Polish death camp.”
The occasion was some scripted remarks during a ceremony posthumously honoring Jan Karski, a Pole who led at least nine lives (all of them heroic) during and after World War II: as a Polish cavalry officer, escaped prisoner of war, resistance member, survivor of torture, observer of the Warsaw Ghetto in its death throes, visitor (in disguise) to a concentration camp, reporter on the Holocaust to London and Washington DC, beloved professor at Georgetown, and American citizen.
It is especially ironic that Obama made his error while honoring Karski, because Karski spent a fair amount of energy combating the notion that Poles all cooperated with the Germans in killing the Jews. And he was hardly the only one who tried to save the Jews of Poland, as the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial acknowledges in its Righteous Among the Nations awards: Poland has the highest number of recipients.
…The camps in Germany were labor camps. Although conditions in labor camps were dreadful, and death was a common and expected occurrence in them, the main purpose of these camps was not to exterminate directly, but rather to harshly extract the full measure of hard labor out of the inmates with the least cost. If they happened to die from the conditions there, then so be it—and die they did, in droves. The death camps, however, existed solely for the purpose of efficiently killing virtually all their inmates shortly after arrival.
A related distinction is also not ordinarily understood: none of the death camps was located in Germany. Rather, all six were in Poland. Why was this? Poland had a large Jewish population, and therefore the camps were located near the source and less transport would be needed. But it seems that the Nazi leadership may also have wanted to protect the German population from exact and precise knowledge of what was happening, by placing the death camps far away…
Anyone who knows Holocaust history knows that Poland was its center. The Polish people have often been condemned for their participation in the death of their Jews–but…it turns out that the situation was far more complex than that. Not only were there also a great many rescuers in Poland…but the Poles had a great deal more to lose than most from saving Jews. Not to minimize the accomplishments of the Danes or the Bulgarians, but to be a hero in Poland was a lot more meaningful than to be one in Denmark or Bulgaria–or even, as it turns out, in Germany.
Why? Because Poland was the only Nazi-occupied country in which helping Jews would officially get you the death penalty. Here are the horrific facts (read them and ask yourself if you would have been as brave as the many Poles who did shelter and save Jews):
Poland was the only place where German law rendered any assistance to Jews punishable by death. That punishment was severe and collective: It was meted out not only to the rescuer but also to his entire family and to anyone else who knew about such activities and did not report them. Almost 1,000 Poles were killed this way, including entire families whose children were not spared.
…Poland itself has a mixed history regarding the Jews (as does Germany, by the way). Why were so many there in the first place? Because Poland was originally one of the most welcoming and tolerant nations in Europe for the Jews. The history of Poland’s long and relatively intimate relationship with its Jewish population includes a golden age in which the Jewish community there flourished.
The varied motivations [of Polish rescuers of Jews during WWII] are delineated in a remarkable book entitled When Light Pierced the Darkness, by Nechama Tec. Some did it for money, some out of political or religious conviction, and some for personal reasons related to the good relations they had previously enjoyed with their Jewish neighbors and friends.
When I write that these people risked their lives, I don’t think the phrase conveys exactly what that meant. But I’ll add an anecdote that might illustrate the situation more graphically (unfortunately, I can’t find a link to it, nor can I recall the source). When the Nazis entered a Polish village and caught someone who had sheltered or aided Jews, they called a meeting of the town. It was compulsory to attend, and villagers were treated to a spectacle guaranteed to discourage further such assistance: a public execution of the offender and his or her family and relatives, including the children.
Effective, no? I would challenge all of you to ask yourselves how brave and noble you would have been in the face of such a threat; I’m by no means absolutely certain of my own answer.
And yet, even under such circumstances, quite a few Poles considered it their duty to help the Jews who had been part of the fabric of their lives.
One of them, of course, was Jan Karski, who worked on a larger scale than most.
It is often asked why the US and other Allies didn’t do more to hamper the Nazi effort to kill the Jews. There have been books written on just that question, and I certainly do not have the definitive answer. But in researching Karski, I came across a 1995 interview where he attempted to explain why bombing the train tracks that led to the death camps would not have been practical:
…[To] bomb a narrow railroad, the planes would have to fly low, they would have many losses, the precision of the bombs is not good,for narrow railroads, would have to drop ten times as many bombs. And where will the bombs fall? They will fall on Polish peasants. And what will be the reaction of the Poles to the bombing without any reason?” To destroy from the air railroads would be very costly. And the Germans having slave labor to repair the railroads, they can do it in no time.
Here is Karski’s explanation for why he tried to save the Jews. It shows, among other things, the tremendous humility of this exceptionally heroic man:
Religious people, for many of them, they did see what was happening. They felt simply human. I am human. In my case, not so much, simply I was in the underground. The authorities told me — two Jews learned about your trip and want you to carry a message for them. I couldn’t say I didn’t want to do it. Now, at my old age, I can say that Jews did not have good luck. They did not choose me, I had my own separate mission. For their mission, they needed someone bigger or stronger. I was unknown, a nobody. I couldn’t talk on an equal basis. My job was to report. Yes, it was very important. They wouldn’t interrupt. And I couldn’t tell them to interrupt me. The Jews did not have much luck. I was too little for the enormity of what I brought to the West.
So, to get back to Obama (yes, let’s by all means do that): what’s up with all these errors in Obama’s scripted remarks? It seems that his speechwriters know almost nothing of history, and since Obama doesn’t seem to know a whole lot more, nobody makes the corrections (that is, if we assume the errors are actually mistakes rather than strategic decisions). I wrote about this phenomenon at some length back in July of 2008. Apparently, the problem has persisted.
And by the way, although it’s perhaps a small point, calling the death camp “Polish” was not Obama’s only error. Actually, the camp Karski visited was not technically a death camp (note the distinction I explain earlier in this post), although Karski himself initially thought it was. However, it was most likely a sorting and transit camp, as Karski later came to believe.
This is a relatively minor error which will probably offend no one—unlike Obama’s other error, which was very offensive to the Poles. But it’s another example of the sloppiness of Obama and his speechwriters. It doesn’t take much effort (really, just a cursory reading of Karski’s history), to find the facts. But they don’t seem to want to bother.