“Polish Concentration Camps” Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  May 31 2012 @ 11:43am

More readers sound off on the controversy:

You're missing the point of why the Poles are taking such offense at the "Polish death camps" slip-up.

You're right it was an honest mistake and for someone not familiar with it it can seem like the reaction is totally out of proportion. But the fact is that many, many people – politicians, newspapers, the list goes on – for many years years have "accidentally" referred to Auschwitz or other concentration camps as "Polish death camps". There has been a longstanding campaign in Poland to raise awareness about the misuse of this phrase and to get people to change their style guides, like the NYT eventually did. If you read the Polish news, they talk about incidents like this all the time – people are very aware of it.

Poles feel America doesn't respect them. They get treated like antisemites and Nazi collaborators even though more Poles died in the Holocaust than any other nationality, even though Poland never had a collaborationist government (unlike almost every other country in Eastern Europe) and even though more Poles have their names listed at Yad Vashem as heroes than any other country. But time and again on this issue and others (ask a Pole about visas sometime) Poland gets insulted and kicked around by America, even when Poland is one of the most pro-American countries in the world and has always stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the US.

It's a huge embarrassment that nobody on Obama's staff caught this before it went out on TV, given how sensitive and long-standing an issue it is in Poland. And are we really so ignorant about the history of the Second World War in this country that someone could write that the death camps were Polish and no one would think twice?


OK, I admit, this is a bit of a rant, but there is a fundamental, gargantuan difference between the American (mine and yours) and the Polish point of view on this "mistake". I live in Warsaw, have lived in Krakow, have visited Auschwitz, Plaszow (the work camp roughly depicted in "Schindler's List"), Schindler's Factory and the Warsaw Rising Museum, which is one of the best in the world, in my opinion. The simple truth is it's extremely complicated how some came to help the Nazis and most did not. Your reader's comments are valid, but only from his singular perspective. Your summation of it as "perspective, please", is more than a bit condescending given the overall situation. I agree in all parts that a single speaking gaffe may not be much, and I support Obama not only in speech but with my money, however I'm with Poland on this one.

Poles have detected a particular pattern of U.S. disdain for its relationship with Poland, including Poles' exclusion from the visa-waiver program despite rock-solid support in Iraq and Afghanistan and a history of close ties (e.g., Chicago); Obama ending missile defense support on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion in '39; the U.S. sending Patriots loaded with fake missiles instead of real ones (and not disclosing it); Obama choosing to play golf on the day of the funeral of the Polish president killed in a plane crash (when most other world leaders were there or quietly going about business).

On the point of the specific language gaffe, well, there's a history to it. Poland's history makes the word "complicated" seem abominably shallow, as attested to by "God's Playground" by Norman Davies. American/British lecturing of Poland on what's important is particularly irritating to Poles, who had their lands torn away and violated by their powerful neighbours, then desecrated with the worst atrocities in mankind. So yeah, a few Poles saw no other future in their lifetimes than cooperation with the bloody invaders. Anybody who thinks Americans or Brits would be 100 percent perfect in that situation are delusional.

While there is certainly still some denial here about Polish involvement, there is equally honest accounting for instances in which Poles didn't do the right thing. I found a sign posted somewhere on a mellow mountaintop about some Poles who sold out their Jewish-clan neighbours (who hadn't even intermingled with the wider world for years) when threatened by Nazis. Perhaps some even bought into the propaganda, but Poles were in no way spared by Hitler and his minions. No one thinks Poles instigated the Holocaust or would have participated in it in any form if it hadn't been for Nazi Germany's blitzkrieg of Poland and subjugation of its people. In Hitler's world, Poles were akin to Jews in many respects (soldiers were admonished to treat them similarly on pain of death) and Poles suffered greatly and many died right next to Jews and others. Remember, that many Jewish people in Poland were also Polish citizens. They were not just some random people who happened to be there. They were invited during previous times of persecutions to live in safety in Poland and were a part of the city's fabric (see Kazimierz in Krakow). Hitler and Stalin denied that safe haven when they attacked in 1939 and trapped Poles (Jews and non-Jews) in a web of horror no American or Brit can fully understand (watch the opening bridge scene of "Katyn").

As for the video you posted of the racism at the football stadiums, that is another thing. There is a version of past events here that makes little sense to outsiders. When I arrived in 2007, I found the whole situation – from the graffiti to the stadium actions – appalling, and despite many explanations that it has something to do with the reverse of what we think it means, I still find it disgusting and won't attempt to explain it because it's bullshit. A man was even murdered near my flat in Krakow, partly because he belonged to the wrong group of supporters. It's insane and it needs to be changed. Poland deserves a big black eye for not getting this sorted before now.

But so again do the Netherlands and Britain, especially England, home to some of the "thuggiest" of football supporters. The fact is EURO 2012 will be attended by a higher class of people than these ultras (during the stadium opening, there was a refreshingly positive energy in the air compared to the edgy local matches). The entire country is on high alert to this as well as terrorism. I doubt there will be any significant event involving hooliganism or in-stadium racism in any direct way connected with the tournament.

Wish I could write more, but I think this is enough for now. I just think Americans really need to get off their arse and visit Poland for a week or two to get a sense of how important the history of this place is, and how "Polish concentration camps", given that we are now far removed from the event, can be seen as misleading to future generations and highly offensive.


Another thing to add is that while Germany has worked hard to repair its relationship with Jews of the world and the children and grandchildren have and continue to grapple with their loved ones' participation in the Holocaust (see the really excellent Israeli movie "Walk on Water"); that simply hasn't happened in Poland. When Jews remember the Holocaust, we don't think of Germany as the only culprit.

When Jews were taken away from their homes (often after being tipped off by their Polish neighbors), they left behind everything – their homes, their clothes, any hidden riches and artwork, etc. and the Poles took everything. I personally know people who have gone back to visit their homes who weren't let in by their ex-neighbors who had quickly moved in, people they recognized from 50-60 years back, because of the fear that these Jews had come back to reclaim their home. When I went to Poland with a group from my school, not only was the door slammed in our faces when we attempted to visit the home my classmate's grandmother had grown up in, Polish teenagers followed our tour buses, screaming curses and racial epithets at us. Especially considering why we were there, I had never been more scared in my life.