Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk angrily demanded Wednesday that President Barack Obama explain his reference to “a Polish death camp” during a high-profile White House ceremony a day earlier, saying the remark smacked of “ignorance, lack of knowledge, bad intentions” and amounted to “a distortion of history.”
“When someone says ‘Polish death camps,’ it is as if there were no Nazis, no German responsibility, as if there was no Hitler—that is why our Polish sensitivity in these situations is so much more than just simply a feeling of national pride,” the prime minister said.
Tusk bluntly rejected National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor’s expression of “regret” for the remarks and acknowledgment that Obama “misspoke” as falling woefully short of making up for the mistake.
“I am convinced that today, our American friends are capable of a stronger reaction—a clearer one, and one which perhaps eliminates, once and for all, these types of mistakes—than just the correction itself and the regret which we heard from the White House spokesperson,” the prime minister said in a statement posted in English on his official website.
“We take note of these words, but it seems that it would be even more important for the United States than for Poland to end this with class. That is how one acts with regard to tried-and-tested friends, but this is also how one acts in your own, well-defined interest. I believe our allies are capable of such behavior,” Tusk said.
Obama ignited the diplomatic flare-up on Tuesday as he honored Polish resistance hero Jan Karski and others with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.
“Jan served as a courier for the Polish resistance during the darkest days of World War II. Before one trip across enemy lines, resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale, and smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself,” the president said.
Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski immediately demanded on Twitter that the White House apologize for what he called an “outrageous mistake” and said the ceremony had been “overshadowed by ignorance and incompetence.” Conservatives happily piled on: David Frum, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, likened Obama’s comment to saying that the Atlantic slave trade had been run by Africans.
“Obviously the insult to Poles was unintentional. That’s what’s shocking. Cdnt be bothered to get it right, even when honoring a Polish hero,” Frum added in a subsequent tweet.
But while the White House could easily shrug off criticism from partisan sources, Tusk’s blistering statement suggested that Obama himself would need to try to defuse the controversy.
“The words uttered yesterday by the President of the United States Barack Obama concerning ‘Polish death camps’ touched all Poles,” Tusk said.
“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,” the prime minister said.
“Here, in Poland, we cannot accept such words even if they are spoken by the leader of a friendly power—or perhaps especially in such situations—since we expect diligence, care, and respect from our friends on issues of such importance as World War II remembrance. In Polish-American relations, in friendly relations, respect vis-à-vis the smaller partner should be the most recognizable sign of such relations,” Tusk said.
Obama has avoided that blunder before. In a late-April visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, he cited the Poles among the victims of Nazi genocide. “We tell them, our children, about the millions of Poles and Catholics and Roma and gay people and so many others who also must never be forgotten,” Obama said.
And in a January 27, 2010, videotaped statement for the ceremony marking the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Obama paid tribute to the Polish resistance.
“Even as we recall man’s capacity for evil, Auschwitz also tells another story—of man’s capacity for good. The small acts of compassion—the sharing of some bread that kept a child alive. The great acts of resistance that blew up the crematorium and tried to stop the slaughter. The Polish Rescuers and those who earned their place forever in the Righteous Among the Nations,” he said.