Obama 'Polish death camp' comment draws criticism

May 30, 2012 3:32:25 PM PDT
Members of the Polish-American community are upset over what White House officials say was an accidental choice in words by President Barack Obama.

While honoring a Polish war hero with the Medal of Freedom on Tuesday, the president referred to a "Polish death camp" instead of calling it a Nazi death camp in occupied Poland. The Polish say they have spent a great deal of time trying to educate people that the Polish were also Holocaust victims.

In the Chicago area, with nearly 1 million Polish-American's, this comment hit hard. Some local organizations had also been working to rid the use of language connecting Poland to the Nazi concentration camps. Tuesday was evidence, they say, there is more work to be done.

Wednesday, the president of the Polish American Congress formulated a statement to be sent to the White House. Frank Spula is also the president of the Polish National Alliance. From his North Side office, he understands how public figures can make mistakes, but he hopes this will be a teachable moment.

"Perhaps the camps were in Poland, but it was not under the auspices of the Polish government," Spula said. "They were under the auspices of the Nazi government for one, so those remarks are very disparaging and very demeaning more than anything else."

"Though the Polish army fought the Nazi occupier from day one, there was massive destruction of our country, and six million polish citizens lost their lives," said Konrad Zielinski, Polish Consulate.

Tuesday, as President Obama awarded the medals of freedom, he described the work of the late Jan Karski as a resistance fighter smuggled in to witness a "Polish death camp." The White House quickly corrected the comment with regret that should have been a "Nazi death camp in Poland."

But the mistaken assertion that Poland was a willing participant in the Holocaust brought swift criticism.

Illinois Appellate Court Judge Aurelia Pucinski had relatives in Poland during World War II.

"When the president of the United States, a student of history, a Harvard graduate, a lawyer, calls the Nazi concentration camps in Poland 'Polish deaths camps,' that is a slap in the face," said Aurelia Pucinski.

On the Northwest Side, ABC 7 found lunchtime diners appreciating the traditional polish foods at Red Apple. Kelly Plak was raised in the neighborhood and says she will be watching how President Obama handles this situation.

"A mistake is a mistake, but it does set a tone for what he's talking about, and I think in general our candidates should be up to date on things when they're in an election year," Plak said.

The White House statement also expressed hope that the misstatement did not over shadow the work of Karski. But the reality is that headlines Wednesday were about the president's comment, not Karski's work. He was a courier for the Polish resistance during World War II. Karski gave one of the first accounts of the Holocaust imploring the world to take action.

Karski died 12 years ago.

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