American presidents seem to have a habit of insulting Poland. Gerald Ford probably lost the 1976 election when he maintained in a presidential debate that Poland was not dominated by the Soviets and never would be under a Ford Administration. (The Poles, who were in fact dominated by the Soviets, weren't able to register a protest). Then Ford's hapless successor, Jimmy Carter, told the Poles, through a bad translator, that he "carnally desired" them. And last night, as Tom Fleming notes in his post on the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Barack Obama made reference to "Polish death camps" during World War II. Since Poland is no longer dominated by the Soviet Union, the Polish government was actually in a position to protest, and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said that Obama should apologize for comments that showed "ignorance" and "bad intentions."
Tusk's point, of course, was that the death camps that operated on the territory of Poland during World War II were not "Polish." They were conceived by and run by the Nazis who, together with the Soviets, had conspired to wipe Poland off the face of the map. During World War II, Poland was brutalized by both the Nazis and the Soviets, and some six million Polish citizens, roughly evenly divided between Jews and Catholics, perished.
It is likely that Obama was simply unaware of Polish sensibilities on this point. In a sense, it's hard to blame him. After all, in most portrayals of the Holocaust in film and fiction, Poles are shown as being, at best, crude and vicious. Think of Art Spiegelman's Maus, which depicts Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs. There is little recognition of the scale of Polish suffering during World War II, and much criticism of the Poles for not doing more to help Jews.
In University of Chicago historian Peter Novick's magisterial The Holocaust in American Life, Novick relates the story of one of his students who came to his office to protest that he was letting the Poles off too easy in his discussion of the Holocaust. This student told Novick that others felt as she did, but they were afraid of joining her protest. Novick's reply was appropriately withering. In occupied Poland, Novick told her, if you were caught helping Jews, the Nazis would kill you, kill your family, and burn down your house. Just what did the students who were so critical of the Poles for not doing more to help the Jews think Novick was going to do to them? Perhaps Obama should have audited one of Novick's courses when he was hanging around Hyde Park.
Thomas Piatak is a contributing editor to Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He writes from Cleveland, Ohio.