It was a small word to get wrong but it had global implications: President Barack Obama's reference to a "Polish death camp" while awarding the Medal of Freedom to a Polish resistance fighter drew the ire of the Polish prime minister, who wants an apology. The White House has said Obama misspoke, and that he regrets the error, but the president hasn't actually apologized.
Obama should have referred to a "Nazi death camp in German-occupied Poland," and the mistake cut deeply: "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," Prime Minister Donald Tusk wrote in a statement on Wednesday. Shortly after the Medal of Freedom ceremony, Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorsky tweeted a demand for an apology, saying the ceremony was "overshadowed by ignorance and incompetence."
Obama was presenting the posthumous award to Jan Karski, a resistance fighter who died in 2000 and who was one of the first to bring news of the concentration camps to the outside world. According to The Associated Press's Nancy Benac, he said Karski "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. Jan took that information to President Franklin Roosevelt, giving one of the first accounts of the Holocaust and imploring to the world to take action."
As an interesting aside, The AP offered what sounded like its own advice to the president, quoting from its stylebook: "The Associated Press Stylebook states that when referring to 'World War II camps in countries occupied by Nazi Germany, do not use phrases like Polish death camps that confuse the location and the perpetrators. Use instead, for example, death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland.' "
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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