"Polish Death Camps" and "American 9/11 Attacks"


tylko ?winie siedz? w kinie
US Holocaust Museum

The controversy over President Obama describing Nazi concentration camps in Poland "Polish death camps" while awarding the Medal of Freedom posthumously to the Pole known as Jan Karski, who was instrumental in bringing news of the Nazis murderous and genocidal ways to a skeptical West, may have blown over quickly in the U.S. press, but it continues to be a hot topic in Poland, where journalists in the country have helped lead a decades-long fight to eradicate the wildly offensive misnomer. David Frum does a really fantastic job over at the Daily Beast explaining exactly why the misnomer is so hurtful coming from the American President. Frum offers up as an analogy the use of the term "Hawaiian sneak attacks on Pearl Harbor," which he calls a "pathetically inadequate approximation."

I don't have much to add to David Frum's very insightful comments on the topic, except to offer my own perhaps less inadequate analogy. Imagine in half a century, some country somewhere in gratitude to all the sacrifices the United States had made for it, honors the last surviving first responders to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and while bestowing honors upon the firefighters, EMS and police officers there, that country's president refers to bravery of the first responders in the "American attacks on 9/11 that took down the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon." The planes all departed from American airports, were part of American airliners, and executed their attack in America. Yet they were no more American attacks than the Nazi's death camps were Polish, even though both tragedies left an indelible mark on the countries they befell.

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  1. Honestly I just read it as “death camps that were in Poland”. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I’m always happy when the Big O does something stupid and is humiliated by it, but I thought this was a tempest in a teapot.

    Maybe my microaggression sensitivity isn’t what it should be.

    1. No, Jimbo, you don’t get it. Obama was implying the Polish death camps were operated like a submarine with a screen door.

      1. Why don’t you make like a tree and get out?

    2. That was pretty much what I thought when I first heard of this. People need to relax and stop looking for things to take offense at.

      1. People need to relax and stop looking for things to take offense at.

        Zeb, when you define your audience’s needs you’ve lost them. That’s because you’re implying that you, somehow, know their needs better than they do.

        How would you react to criticism from a statist that libertarians need to get over their love affair with the constitution? Doesn’t go over very well, does it?

    3. You’re right that it’s in the realm of “microaggression” at most, but it’s not something that arose out of the blue — The Poles have historically been very sensitive to implications of their having collaborated in the Holocaust (there have been more than a few specific accusations by authors and commentators to that effect).

      Are there any fluent Polish-speakers here who could comment on whether this may have sounded more egregious in translation?

      1. Apparently the phrase is a diplomatic no-no when addressing Poles. With his multiculturalism and his genius – in refreshing contrast to Bush’s incuriousity and Ugly Americanism – Obama would have known not to use the phrase, or at least he would have had one of his genius staffers keep him updated on this point.

        Or maybe Obama isn’t really the suave and sophisticated world citizen he’s portrayed as, but the kind of bumpkin who when he travels to India asks for a nice steak sandwich.

        1. Beef curry.

          1. With a side of halal pork barbecue.

        2. At a minimum, an apology would be in order here, along the lines of “I meant to say ‘Nazi death camps in Poland’, and accidentally phrased it in a way that could be perceived as offensive, and I did not mean it that way, and apologize for any hurt feelings.”

          But, that would require a sociopathic narcissist who doesn’t think he ever makes mistakes (aka “a politician”) to admit to making one.

          1. What’s astounding is that this is both the correct thing to do politically and socially, yet he’s not doing it.

  2. Frum offers up as an analogy the use of the term “Hawaiian sneak attacks on Pearl Harbor,”

    Not really semantically similar. More similar to what the President said, ‘Oregonian death camps’ to describe the ones that FEMA put there. There is no reason to assume that Oregonians are responsible in this instance nor assume it is anything more than a geographic description pertaining to location. Context is everything. If you had said ‘Arizonian death camps’ you would need to qualify whether you meant the population control plans of FEMA or some local anti-immigrant initiative instead. Did Obama actually think the Poles were responsible? He is a profoundly ignorant man, but on balance I think in this case, that it is likely not the case he was blaming the Poles. His team should have caught this one though given the Poles have raised a shit fit over this very phrase for years.

  3. Obama’s a dope, but I have to disagree.

    I learned all about “Cuban” concentration camps being set up during the Spanish-American war. And about “Boer” concentration camps being set up during that one. But the Cubans and the Boers sure as hell weren’t the guards.

    It’s grammatically correct to describe camps based on their location, or based on who’s being held there. The position being taken in the Polish press is like saying we should come up with some other name for the Katyn massacre because using the Polish place name makes it sound like the Poles were responsible. Poland is a place as well as a nation. We often talk about “the Hiroshima bomb” but the city fathers of Hiroshima sure didn’t build it or drop it.

    1. Or, say, Japanese internment camp. But while the Cuban and the Boer and the Japanese camps were pretty much exclusively for Cubans, Boers and Japanese-Americans, the Nazi death camps were not exclusively for Poles; they were for all the victims of the Nazis, from throughout the continent.

      1. That parallel doesn’t really work. We call them “Japanese internment camps” because we interned the Japanese in them.

        1. We interned Americans of Japanese descent in them.

          It never ends.

          1. FDR interned Americans in them.


            1. You mean FIFY.


  4. Michael Moynihan does a much better job than either Frum or the Pollack.…..or-victims

    1. What Moynihan wrote is exactly right. The Polish history during WW2 is a very sensitive subject. That’s why it’s so important for foreigners, like Barack Obama, not to make silly mistakes about the history that can be badly received by Poles. Whatever less than honorable things Poles did during WW2, Auschwitz wasn’t among them. After Sarah Palin was selected by John McCain as his running mate in 2008, all the knowledgable, smart foreign affairs experts were scared to death because, obviously, Palin didn’t know that the only appropriate way to refer to Taiwan and China was “Taiwan and mainland China.” Any reference to “Taiwan and China” would cause an unnecessary confrontation with Beijing. Calling Auschwitz a Polish concentration camp is a similar sign of amateurism and inexperience. That’s why it hurts Obama and his team.

    2. Man, even Moynihan apparently feels the need to take the so-and-so-did-it-too approach toward the matter. This is exactly why this subject is so sensitive to Poles – it isn’t semantic inaccuracy so much as this weird impulse to remind Poles that no matter how many armies marched across their ever-shifting borders for a millennium, deep down inside they are really a bunch of cold hearted, murderous louts themselves.

  5. 50 years from now they will call them the American 9-11 attacks, because nobody is going to remember what Queda, Afghanistan, or Pakistan were.

  6. They stopped hanging people in Polish death camps because none of the guards were tall enough to hold up the rope.

  7. How come Krajewski gets to use ISO-8859-2 characters in the alt-text and we commenters don’t get to use them?

    1. wszyscy mog? chyba

      1. yeah it look like you just have to copy and paste the characters in

  8. How about a Cuban military prison run by the US?

    Nope, damn. Still doesn’t work.

  9. Who the hell cares about this bullshit?

    1. heller|5.31.12 @ 9:25PM|#
      “Who the hell cares about this bullshit?”

      Uh, those who care about history and who did what to whom and who gets to claim ‘side of the angels’. That’s who.
      Ask most any Japanese born after 1946. Ask about, oh, Pearl Harbor. Or Nanking. Pretty good bet you’ll get a rant re: Hiroshima, in spite of the fact that the nukes probably saved millions of Japanese lives.

      1. But this has nothing to do with history or anything substantial. It’s a semantic word choice.

    2. The people of Poland, heller. You can legitimately question whether their needs are valid within the context of your belief system, and draw whatever conclusions you wish. However, the reality remains that they are offended for reasons they find valid.

      Poland is one of our staunchest allies if the price of maintaining that alliance is that our politicians and diplomats have to be careful about their phrasing when discussing certain topics it’s a small price to pay.

      See also, “person of color” vs “colored person”.

  10. From the Moynihan article (thanks AET):
    “It should be noted without equivocation that Poland’s Holocaust record, while far from perfect, is better than most countries under Nazi occupation.”

    OK, I’m pretty widely read re: WWII, the holocaust, etc, but that still leaves me with secondary sources. See “Wages of Destruction”, “World at War”, “Bloodlands”, “Postwar”, “Absolute War” and are more.
    What I’ve read says the Poles were, well, maybe better than who? The French? They rounded them up and gave them to the Germans so there was no blood on French hands. Il Duce’ avoided Hitler’s demands long after others gave up. The Hungarians held out until the Nazis occupied the country.
    Calling them “Polish death camps” is incorrect; they were Nazi death camps. But there was no lack of assistance from the (seeming) majority of the Poles in delivering Jews and (after the war) making sure none of them could return.
    So, yes, they were not “Polish death camps”, but methinks they doth protest too much.

    1. Their sensitivity is as a result of the post-WWII pogroms. Because they occurred so quickly after the Holocaust ended, people related them in print to the Holocaust (“mini-holocaust” was used, I believe). Although if the Poles had just given the Jews back their damn land, this all might have been OK.

      And I think the very historically accurate fact that there were pogroms post WWII leads me to think you’re correct re: “Protesting Too Much”

  11. Bear in mind that Obama never, at any point in the speech, mentioned the words “German”, “Germany”, “occupy”, or “occupation”. Add in the description of Poland as “behind enemy lines”, plus the mentions of Warsaw and “Polish death camps”, and it does indeed convey a bad impression.

    If one wasn’t already familiar with the history of Poland and/or the Holocaust, one would indeed be left thinking that the Poles ran the camps.

  12. David Frum’s very insightful comments

    Nope, it is unpossible.

  13. Polish fascism never really worked out. No matter how many pocket watches they shoveled into the boilers, they could never make the trains run on time.

  14. Freiheit macht arbeit.

  15. Like a lot of you guys, I thought “meh, what’s the big deal”, Obama misspoke.

    Apparently this is a big deal to the Poles, though. So, maybe a sincere apology to the Poles by the president is in order. If I were the president I would apologize and be done with it.

    1. being american means never having to say youre sorry.

  16. I doubt I’ll be offended by “American 9/11 Attacks”. They happened in America and I’m quite aware that it wasn’t Americans who did it. So I won’t be offended by such words.

    Now if they say American Jews or the US government did it, I might get “offended”. Or I’ll just laugh at them and think about how stupid they are, and then go about my day.

  17. Awesome…libertarians are now word police.

    1. Libertarians, Word Police

    2. huh, and here I thought people were expressing their opinions.

      Like, say, I think that you, ned, are a douchebag. Now, does that make me the Comment Police? Or just right? Or both?

      1. “here I thought people were expressing their opinions.”

        Yeah, well, you know, that’s just like, uh, your opinion man.

  18. A better analogy is the phrase;

    Auschwitz: the Jewish Death Camp

    The phrase is both correct and offensive.

    Correct in that it was primarily Jews that were killed there.

    Offensive in that the word placement can imply that the Death Camp was operated by Jews.

  19. People who know anything about WWII knew what he meant.

    People who don’t know anything about WWII never heard the speech, nor heard about the scandal on the news.

    I get that the Poles may be sensitive about it, but at worst it was a poor choice of words.

    Hey, how about the fact the US is broke, and getting broker by the hour? Any talking heads want to make concerned faces about that? No?

    Next tempest, please; the teapot is ready.

  20. If I said Hogan’s Heroes was set in an American POW camp, everyone would understand, right?

    1. If by everyone you mean elderly, then yes.

    2. The prisoners in the fictional “Stalag 13” of Hogan’s heroes were not all Americans: LaBeau (French), Newkirk (English). So “Allied POW camp” or “German POW camp” in informal speech, but “German POW camp for Allied prisoners” in more formal settings or where specificity is required.

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