It is no exaggeration to say that the entire Polish nation was outraged and insulted by President Obama’s clumsy reference in a May 28 speech to “Polish death camps.”  Not only did the Poles play no part in setting up and running the Nazi camps where millions of Jews were murdered, but when the killings took place, there was no Poland.  The Polish government was in exile in London, and the Polish armed forces were still fighting the Nazis.  The death camps were located in what had been and would one day again be the core of Poland, but was, at that time, the Generalgouvernement, an administrative region of the Third Reich.  The higher camp officials were German, and the ordinary guards were various Eastern Europeans.  No Poles were involved.

Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski has called Obama’s gaffe “an outrageous error” and a display of “ignorance and incompetence.”  The White House completely underestimated the justified anger of the Polish people and expressed “regret” that the President had “misspoke.”  Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was, understandably, not satisfied and demanded a proper formal apology for the use of such a “false and unjust phrase.”  It was not a mere slip of the tongue from Obama, that great “hope and change” TelePrompTer orator.  It was a true reflection of the mind of a man who knows nothing of history and cares little about Europe.  Neither do his aides, and that tells us much about the man who appointed them.

What makes it worse is that Obama used this abominable phrase during a ceremony to bestow (posthumously) the Medal of Freedom on Dr. Jan Karski, a hero of the Polish wartime resistance movement.  In 1942 Karski had at the request of the Polish government and at great risk to himself posed as a Jew and entered the Warsaw Ghetto; impersonating a guard, he visited a transit point for the Belzec camp where the Jews were being murdered.  The Polish underground subsequently produced a report entitled The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland.  Karski traveled perilously across Germany, France, Spain, and England to present the report and his own eyewitness account to President Roosevelt and his coterie.  FDR’s close friend and advisor, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, told Karski that he did not believe him.  Roosevelt showed no interest and did nothing.  Perhaps in the future, Obama should refer to the “New Deal death camps,” which would at least make more sense than blaming the Poles.

The presidential debacle serves as a reminder of the exemplary heroism and dreadful sufferings of the Polish people in World War II.  Poland is truly “a country of memorable honor.”  The Poles fought from the very first day of that war to the very last.  Despite being invaded by both Nazi Germany and its Soviet ally, the Poles never surrendered.  The Polish II Corps under Gen. Wladyslaw Anders took Monte Cassino in the Battle for Rome, when all other Allied units had failed.  Polish destroyers and submarines took part in the Battle of the Atlantic, and Polish sailors died in the pursuit of the Bismarck.  Polish pilots and airmen were crucial in the Battle of Britain (1940), which lessened the bombing of England and prevented invasion.  We Brits owe our freedom to the Poles.  Yet after the war, the British government did not allow the Polish troops to march in the Victory Parade, nor Polish planes to join the fly-past; they were afraid it might offend Stalin.  For decades the British government refused to allow its own citizens of Polish descent to erect a proper memorial to the officers and chaplains murdered by the Soviets at Katyn.

Roosevelt, influenced by his communist-sympathetic advisors, had, of course, sold the Poles into slavery at Yalta.  People of a similar persuasion in Britain wanted to send the Polish ex-servicemen now living there back to Poland, where they would have been killed or put in camps.  Most remained but endured great discrimination.  Obama’s insult is merely the latest in a long series.

Poland was one of the few countries that did not provide recruits for the SS during the war.  The SS had, among others, French, Dutch, Belgian, Norwegian, and Bosnian Muslim units, but there were no Poles, not even in SS Galicia.  The Vichy government in France handed over more Jews to be killed than the Nazis had actually demanded.  The Poles, by contrast, saved individuals and sought to inform the West about the holocaust, hoping to bring it to an end.

Perhaps the last word should come from Jan Karski himself, on the occasion of his acceptance of honorary Israeli citizenship in 1994:

This is the proudest and most meaningful day of my life.  Through the honorary citizenship of the state of Israel I have reached the spiritual source of my Christian faith. . . . And now I, Jan Karski, by birth Jan Kozielewski—a Pole, an American, a Catholic—have also become an Israeli.

There was a dignity about that occasion, one utterly lacking in the White House farce.