May 30th, 2012

Those Polish death camps

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.

I’ve written before about the Poles who saved Jews during WWII, here and here. Here are a few relevant excerpts:

…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.

25 Responses to “Those Polish death camps”

  1. T Says:

    Once again, the myth of the “smartest” man to sit in the oval office falls falt on its face.

    To describe someone as “smart” is the same as describing them as “rich.” These are collective adjectives and either one is open to a wide definition (Is a brilliant physicist who consistently forgets to turn his auto off when he gets out “smart?” Is a person making $150,000/yr “rich?” $200,000? $250,000?)

    What can be said about Obama & Co. is that, intelligence aside, they are not really very worldly. Like a horse with blinders they are ignorant of the myriad realities around them, yet they persist in thinking of themselves as cultured and urbane.

    I remember the comment made about John Kerry’s contact with the common man (only when he removes a canape from the silver tray the commoner holds), and Obama falls into the same category. Just as he ignores his biracial heritage because it’s politically advantageous for him to do so, he has also adopted the pretense of the educated elite with which he chooses to rub elbows. He claims he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but you’d never know that from his behavior. He is a man who has dismissed his heritage and his past.

    On the death camps, throughout my life I’ve read much about the death camps and the work camps. It absolutely infuriates me when the weak are victimized by the strong and Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Sobibor et. al. take that to an exponential degree. That the Nazi’s would execute children to intimidate the populace is despicable (words fail but this is the best one can do). That Armendariz of the EPA should cloak that same technique in the guise of a Roman crucifixion speaks volumes about this administration and clearly evinces that there is nothing new under the sun.

  2. John Dough Says:

    Wasn’t Obama suppose to rebuild our image with other nations of the world?

    I guess that hopey-change thing isn’t working out too well either.

  3. A_Nonny_Mouse Says:

    The Lefties have become used to treating their words as the Divine Logos (as in: “God said Let there be Light, and there was Light, and it was Good”).

    Lefties say, “We’re doing xyz for Justice”, and they fully expect Justice to manifest itself when they speak the Word. They use the “Word” as a token of the thing they want to manifest. (That’s why, in their messianic little minds, they simply CAN NOT SEE that something they do might have unintended consequences.)

    This Word-As-Token thing makes being a Lefty/ Progressive SO EASY, because all you have to do is “Present the Token” and it’s just as good as having done the engineering course work, gotten the degree, drawn up the plans, had the product fabricated, and have the final result ready for consumption, all shiny-new, perfect, and complete.

    To tie this idea back to the awkward phrasing of the “Polish camp” (and of Hillary’s famous Russian “reset” button which actually said “overcharged”): They’ve spent a lifetime with educrats who have rewarded them for “thinking outside the [dreary traditionalist results-oriented] box”.] They’ve been carefully taught that “Society” is responsible for anything that isn’t 100% wonderful. They’ve been told how bright they are, how special, unique, and precious they are, throughout their formative years. They’ve been primed for self-importance, and graded on creativity (not rote-learning or practicality), and told they have “so much to offer the world” … and of course they’ve believed it; who wouldn’t? So, armed with their worldview that they are simply Better People, and that they Benevolently Seek The Good, and that their Intentions (the only way to judge oneself, you see) are Noble — they see no need to double-check what language the Austrians speak, or who ran the Death-camps, or what the Russian-looking squiggles on the prop button really mean.

    It all comes down to: the would-be destroyers of Western Civilization don’t have to find a psychopathic “Dr. Evil” to do their dirty work. All they need to do is create a couple generations of “entitled children” (adult in body, but never taught that evil resides in all hearts, even theirs; that the quest for “enough power to change things for the better” ENSURES that the power-wielders will have more-than-enough power to change things for the worse; that ALL choices and actions DO have unintended consequences) and let human nature take its course. Voila! The Fall of the West.

  4. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    People pay attention to that which they care about. Neither Obama nor his script writers care about Karski’s deeds, especially as they benefited Jews.

    Obama has consistently demonstrated these assertions, most recently in the recent Medal of Honor ceremony. As he placed the Medal’s ribbon around Sgt. Meyer’s neck, Obama’s facial expressions were entirely negative, quite at odds with the demeanor one would expect of the Commander-in-Chief as he rendered our nations highest military honor upon a man whose bravery and worthiness is undeniable. There was absolutely no pride, no pleasure, no respect upon Obama’s face.

  5. james Says:

    I believe that when normal people are confronted with the “help or not to help decision”, they know (at least unconsciously) this is a no going back, turn it all loose, and let it fly moment that they doubt they’ll or anyone else will survive. There is much more comfort in the 99% doubt than 1% optimism. I think this explains why 99% of heroic acts are unthinking.”I just did it, it was

  6. Occam's Beard Says:

    Because Poland was originally one of the most welcoming and tolerant nations in Europe for the Jews.

    That was true of the various principalities that became modern Germany, too. They welcomed Jews at the time of Inquisition, when France and England either forbade their entrance or severely restricted their numbers.

  7. Occam's Beard Says:

    Obama’s gaffe strikes another blow at the “smartest man in the room” meme the liberals have pushed for so long. The man is a dolt, and obviously an ignoramus. First he refers to his father (grandfather?) liberating Auschwitz, then talks about Polish death camps. Surely he knew Auschwitz was a death camp, and so either he didn’t know that Auschwitz was in Poland, or he didn’t know that the Allies did not liberate Poland.

    Either scenario reveals a shocking ignorance of geopolitical history on the part of a man whose job description comes down to making more of it.

  8. neo-neocon Says:

    Occam’s Beard: here’s an excellent book on the subject of the history of Jews in Germany, prior to WWII.

  9. Occam's Beard Says:

    neo, thanks. Have you read Paul Johnson’s History of the Jews? If so, what did you think of it?

  10. armchair pessimist Says:

    No doubt being a citizen of the world, as he annointed himself in Berlin in 08, is a very demanding role. He can’t possibly keep track of every little sparrow that falls.

  11. Steve Says:

    How much do you want to bet that Obama is relying on a very small group of political advisors, his friends and confidants? They probably are probably smug about their abilities and do not feel it is necessary to vet Obama’s speeches or policy decisions. Hence the numerous examples of ignorance and incompetence.

  12. neo-neocon Says:

    Occam’s Beard: no, I haven’t.

  13. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Not to be pedantic: The German railroads were a perennial target for Allied bombers. Since, as Karski said, it’s hard to hit rail lines from so far up, the targets were frequently places like marshalling yards which are big and concentrate the railroads.
    Problem is, the Germans kept spare parts and they repair guys got overtime and lived nearby, so the bombers had to keep coming back.
    There were special attacks, like 617 Squadron and their Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs.
    Closer to England, fighters would strafe individual trains and you will see lots of dramatic stock footage.
    Some Jews complain–this is the actual complaint–that the Allies didn’t bomb the spurs from the mainlines to the camps.
    True. Bombing the mainlines slows the war effort and the transports. If the mainlines were good up until the spur, the transport passengers would be made to get out and walk. (Duh!) And bombing the spurs wouldn’t slow the German war effort. If you’re going to spend aircrews’ lives and spend bombers, you may as well accomplish both, at least, which means the main lines, marshalling yards, concentrations of lines as they approached bridges, etc.
    The Circular Error Probable for US heavy bombers was a quarter mile, more or less. Meant that half the bombs dropped landed within a quarter mile of the aiming point–a circle a half a mile in diameter–and the other half didn’t. So, even if the target was half a mile in diameter, and had no redeeming qualities, such as civilian homes, half the bombs dropped would not be there. They’d be someplace else.
    The movie “Memphis Belle” was run up by the Air Corps to prove to bomber crews and their parents that you could, indeed, make twenty-five missions, the required number. The Belle was one of the first to do so without bringing back dead crew.
    If you’re going to spend like this, you need to get value for it. Bombing spurs helps nobody, including the Jews.
    None of this is particularly complex. IMO, there are some who wish to find yet others to blame, even if they have to make it up.

  14. neo-neocon Says:

    Richard Aubrey: On the other hand, I remember reading memoirs by camp survivors (don’t remember which ones) who said the inmates wanted the Allies to bomb the camps themselves. Why not? Almost all of them were going to die anyway, and suffer dreadfully into the bargain before that (that is, the ones who weren’t gassed right away), so why not take the whole camps down with them?

    Of course, although the Allies knew something of the conditions in the camps, they were not aware of the full horror in all its details, so it’s hard to see how they could have justified bombing the camps.

  15. james Says:

    If I had been in one of those camps they would have shot me while I painted huge goddamn bulls eye above my bed. Then again can you imagine the german propaganda if we had bombed.

  16. Richard Aubrey Says:

    neo. If the inmates were going to die, by German hand or Allied bombing, they were going to die. The Allies didn’t need to spend their planes and aircrew to speed things along. Winning the war was the most important thing, including to the Jews, whether in hiding or incarcerated.
    Most of the concentration camps/slave labor camps/death camps, except for Dachau and its satellites, were at the end of US bomber range.
    Targets that far were attacked by continuing to Russian fields, gassing up, and returning. Getting cooperation from the Russians was always tricky and the extended flight time over the Reich increased the casualties.
    The Mighty Eighth’s Black Thursday involved raids on Schweinfurt and Regensburg. Twenty percent of the bombers were shot down and many of the rest were written off when they returned, along with dead and wounded aircrew.
    Say, altogether, thirty percent of the men and the planes were lost to further use. You can’t maintain a bomber force when you lose a third in one day very often.
    The Brits’ heavy bombers didn’t have the armor or guns to survive in daylight, so they bombed at night, trying very hard to hit targets as small as cities. They lost about 50k guys, maybe 40%. But, given their need to area bomb at night, I don’t suppose they are relevant to the discussion.
    Point is, it’s easy to say this or that should have been done–and it’s axiomatic that whatever wasn’t done would have worked perfectly–without thinking of the opportunity cost. Including the opportunity to end the war faster.

  17. neo-neocon Says:

    Richard Aubrey: bombing the camps would have been to destroy the gas chambers and ovens—the apparatus of killing—as well as the guards, etc.. In the pandemonium that ensued, some prisoners might have been able to escape (although most probably wouldn’t have survived without papers and that sort of thing). It would have delayed the killing, and it would have taken some time and expense to rebuild and restaff and reorganize the camps.

    I’m not saying it should have been done, though. The logistics made it hard, and I agree that furthering the defeat of Germany was the main thing, because that was the only thing that would stop the engine that drove it all.

  18. Occam's Beard Says:

    the inmates wanted the Allies to bomb the camps themselves

    Much as I like Monday morning quarterbacking, there are any number of problems with this criticism.

    First, Allied planners probably didn’t fully appreciate the situation in the camps. Even if apprised of it, they probably discounted the reports to some extent as incredible, since they were unprecedented. The suspicion that they were propaganda must have been strong.

    Second, if they had bombed them, no one can tell me that leftists wouldn’t be howling about that now. Without the firm conviction that killing camp inmates was preferable to the alternative, it would be impossible to give the order to kill them. Hindsight in this case is 20/10.

    Third, the primary allegiance of Allied war planners was to citizens of Allied nations, and more particularly to spare the lives of servicemen of Allied nations, not to foreign nationals who were out of odor, for whatever reason, with their governments.

    To put it most pointedly, how many boys from Kansas would you be wiling to have die not for a strategic war aim, but to save, e.g., George Soros? What if you were of those boys from Kansas? Would you be willing to tell a mom from Kansas that you were responsible for her son’s dying so that some foreign nationals might live?

    Even with perfect information, that would be a tough question. With imperfect information – i.e., in the real world situation – there is no way anyone – anyone – would ever take that decision.

  19. neo-neocon Says:

    Occam’s Beard: it’s not a criticism. I’m not saying they should have bombed the camps. In fact, here, I pretty much say I don’t think it would have been a good idea.

    I’m merely saying some people who were in the camps wished they would have.

  20. Occam's Beard Says:

    neo, fair enough.

  21. Mike Lief Says:

    I remember reading a declassified memo from the British Foreign Office that said, in essence, that the problem with bombing the rail lines leading into the death camps was that every Jew who survived the war was going to want to go to Palestine … and become His Majesty’s problem.

  22. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Mike Lief.
    Seems the Brit’s FO hasn’t changed much, nor has the general opinion held by UK’s chattering classes.
    Fertilized by the need to seem unislamophobic.

  23. Billypadre Says:

    I got into this argument with an old buddy of mine years ago (he happened to be Jewish & a tenured prof at Michigan).
    He made the charge that the US didn’t do enough to stop the holocaust.
    I replied that we did exactly what we had to do, invade Europe and crush the Germans.
    I asked him what should we have done, dropped the 101st Airborne into Aushwitz and then what?
    He didn’t respond.
    Letting Patton loose, that’s what liberated the death camps.

  24. waltj Says:

    Neo: small clarification: In the Garden of the Righteous at Yad va Shem, Poles do outnumber individual honorees from other nations. However, taken as a whole, the most numerous “righteous” would be Danes. “King Christian X and the People of Denmark”, is the inscription on their plaque, the only sovereign and only entire nation so honored. This, of course, was for Denmark’s safe evacuation of almost all of its Jews, mostly to Sweden, from right under the noses of the Wehrmacht. Denmark was able to pull this off because of its unique maritime location, proximity to neutral Sweden, and because the Danes saw what was coming and gave a damn about getting their Jewish fellow citizens to safety. The Danes also suspected, rightly, that the German hand wouldn’t come down as heavily on them as it did on others, because in Nazi race theory, Danes were fellow “Aryans”. So they took maximum advantage of the relative freedom their conquerors gave them to smuggle their Jews out.

    As others (Occam, Richard Aubrey) have alluded to, bombing accuracy in WW2 was not what it is today. The Norden bombsight was the best in the world in its day, but simple gravity bombs, European weather, flak, and the Luftwaffe played havoc with whatever precision was theoretically achievable, especially until the long-range P-51 Mustangs arrived and the bombers could be escorted all the way to the target. While hitting the gas chambers, crematoria, or SS guards’ quarters might have been desirable, a bombing raid of any size was just as likely to take out the prisoners’ barracks. Add this to the risk of losing aircrew, and the diversion of bombing resources from other targets, and the rationale for attacking the camps becomes less persuasive.

  25. Artfldgr Says:

    I already know what my family did and chose, and we are and were with those who risked it all.

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