To some, it may seem like a small, negligible slip of the tongue. But to a country that suffered firsthand the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, it’s kind of a big deal.
During a ceremony honoring World War II hero Jan Karski, President Obama said the following [emphasis added]:
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. Jan took that information to President Franklin Roosevelt, giving one of the first accounts of the Holocaust and imploring the world to take action.
The phrase causing all the outrage is "Polish death camps."
Watch the president’s remarks (via C-SPAN):
We assume the president is aware that Poland was occupied by invading Nazi forces and that the death camps were built and staffed by Nazis. And that he is also aware it was the Polish people who were being killed in these camps.
Needless to say, the Poles are not happy.
"The White House will apologize for this outrageous error. [Prime Minister Donald] Tusk will make a statement in the morning. It's a pity that this important ceremony was upstaged by ignorance and incompetence,” Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski tweeted last night.
In fact, it’s safe to say the Polish people are furious with the president's misstatement.
"The president misspoke," said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. "He was referring to Nazi death camps in Poland."
"We regret this misstatement, which should not detract from the clear intention to honor Mr. Karski and those brave citizens who stood on the side of human dignity in the face of tyranny," he added.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk is unsatisfied with this meager explanation and is demanding a "stronger, more pointed” response from the White House.
“The words uttered yesterday by the President of the United States Barack Obama concerning ‘Polish death camps’ touched all Poles,” the Polish PM said in a statement.
“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,” he added.
This truth about World War II is important and must also have importance for every other nation. 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. 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 behaviour," Tusk concluded.
This story has been updated.