Ghosts in the “Polish death camps” fracas

The former newspaper copy editor in me has been watching the development of the whole “Polish death camp” debate this week, which led, of course, to a political resolution of this rather small-scale media storm.

In case you missed it, here’s what should be the final word from the Associated Press:

WASHINGTON – The White House said President Obama misspoke on Tuesday when he referred to a “Polish death camp” while honoring a Polish war hero.

The president’s remark had drawn immediate complaints from Poles who said Obama should have called it a “German death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland,” to distinguish the perpetrators from the location. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski called it a matter of “ignorance and incompetence.”

Obama made the comment while awarding the Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski, a resistance fighter against the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II. Karski died in 2000.

During an East Room ceremony honoring 13 Medal of Freedom recipients, Obama said that Karski “served as a courier for the Polish resistance during the darkest days of World War II. Before one trip across enemy lines, resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale and smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself. Jan took that information to President Franklin Roosevelt, giving one of the first accounts of the Holocaust and imploring to the world to take action.”

It didn’t help that the president was, as critics quickly noted, reading his remarks off a teleprompter — which suggested that this offending phrase had actually been written into his prepared text for the occasion. So who wrote the text?

In terms of journalism, this is one of those hot-button controversies that has even made its way into the Associated Press Stylebook — as this AP story noted, near the end.

The Associated Press Stylebook states that when referring to “World War II camps in countries occupied by Nazi Germany, do not use phrases like Polish death camps that confuse the location and the perpetrators. Use instead, for example, death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland.”

Even that change had its roots in recent history and debates about how to deal with the situation. This was discussed at in a blog item by Andrew Beaujon that ran under the understated headline, “Why do some people hate the phrase ‘Polish death camps’?

As any reporter or editor who’s ever used that phrase in a publication knows, this is an automatic inbox-filler. … The letter-writers’ beef: Concentration
camps were established by occupying Germans, not by any sort of Polish authority.

Earlier this year, the Associated Press updated its Stylebook to ban the phrase. At the time, AP deputy standards editor David Minthorn told my Poynter colleague Craig Silverman that letter-writing campaigns, such as one prominent one by the Kosciuszko Foundation, didn’t figure into the decision.

“We’ve had email exchanges with the Kosciuszko Foundation on their campaign,” he said. “While we listen to anyone with a style suggestion, the decision to include the ‘concentration camp’ entry reiterating longstanding AP guidance was ours alone, not the result of a campaign or request.”

I imagine that some GetReligion readers may, at this point, be asking: OK, I get the fact that this was a political gaffe of some kind, but what does it have to do with religion?

The facts certainly are clear. Nazi Germany built those camps on Polish soil and and ran them. While the vast majority of victims were Jews, priests and nuns and other dissidents died in those camps — often because they tried to help shelter Jewish neighbors.

However, as in many debates linked to the Holocaust, it’s hard to keep the arguments focused on any one topic. Many Polish activists believe that references to “Polish death camps” are veiled attempts to blame the deaths of millions of Jews on the Polish people, as a whole, as well as on the Germans. Why? Because of Poland’s documented history of antisemitism. The question then turns around: Are Polish attempts to ban the use of phrases such as “Polish death camps” actually part of a campaign to deny or obscure this dark element of Polish history? In worst case scenarios, all of this can even get linked to Poland’s rich history of Catholic devotion. This riptide is hard to stop.

Suffice it to say, I think it was wise for the Associated Press to play it safe and, in its Stylebook, make this attempt to promote a simple wording that states the facts. This is a case in which a few additional words add crucial content. When dealing with religious and historical issues this deep, this emotional, this bloody, it’s always wise to display caution and care.

Let’s be careful out there.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia

    The WH had other Polish problems complicating this gaffe.

    The mood soured a bit before Tuesday’s award ceremony. The Poles wanted Lech Walesa to receive the medal on Karski’s behalf, but the White House nixed the choice. Last year, during Mr. Obama’s visit to Poland, the hero of Solidarity refused to attend a large gathering to meet the younger leader. Mr. Walesa felt entitled to a tete-a-tete. Administration officials told Polish journalists that Mr. Walesa’s presence was too “political” for this week’s occasion. Poles read something else into it: Mr. Obama holds grudges. The counter-snub was the talk of Poland last week.

    Former Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld, a Polish Jew, stood in at the White House celebration. The Walesa episode was fading into memory when President Obama made his opening remarks. Karski was “smuggled into . . . a Polish death camp to see for himself,” he read off the teleprompter, that Jews were being murdered. On second reference, Mr. Obama noted it was a Nazi camp. Too late. The damage was done.

  • Ann Rodgers

    This vaguely reminds me of an incident more than 30 years ago, when President Jimmy Carter visited Poland. It turned out that the State Department didn’t have a qualified translator for Polish. In attempting to express his deep affection for the Polish people, President Carter said something like “I lust after Poles.”
    Definitely funnier than this gaffe.

  • Suzanne

    My in-laws are Polish and this is an incredibly sore subject for them. It does appear that it was written into his remarks, so the question is what kind of vetting did it get?

    This was an award to a Polish war hero, for Pete’s sake, in front of an audience that they had to know was full of Polish and Polish-American people. This was a pretty fundamental thing to mess up, particularly in front of that audience.

    My first thought when I read these stories was that I’d have liked to have heard more about how it happened, but my interest in the subject may be kind of parochial.

  • Will

    Carter’s interpreter complained that he was kept waiting for hours, then at the last minute handed the speech text and told “translate this”, forcing him to do off the cuff.

  • Will

    A few days later, the Times compared this with the later press conference where the Polish government interpreter changed a reference to dissidents from “those who wanted to come but were not permitted to come” into “those who wanted to come but were not able to come”, and noted editorially that “in translation there are misdemeanors and felonies.”