Barack Obama and Poland: injurious ignorance

The American president's award to the wartime Polish hero Jan Karski was tarnished by a historical blunder that reveals all too much, says Adam J Chmielewski.

Adam J Chmielewski
31 May 2012

The occasion had been long awaited. Jan Karski, the legendary Polish hero who risked his life to gather firsthand knowledge of the degradation and extermination of Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland, and who as a special envoy travelled to the capital cities of Poland's Allies to share this knowledge, was at last to be formally honoured at a ceremony in the White House on 29 May 2012. The current president of the United States was to award Karski the highest national honour: the presidential medal of freedom.

This overdue act of recognition had, on the part of the United States (and Britain) an element of restitution about it. For when Karski reached their shores in 1942-43, virtually none of the great politicians in the two countries was willing to listen to his message. Thus, the Allies did nothing to save the lives of Jews being annihilated on the territory of Poland - then a nation without a state, after the invasions and partition of the country by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in September 1939.

Among the most drastic examples of indifference to Karski’s desperate appeal is that President Franklin D Roosevelt was more interested in the Nazis' treatment of horses than Jews, and that the supreme-court judge Felix Frankfurter responded to the materials presented by Karski by saying: "‘Mr Karski, A man like me talking to a man like you must be totally frank. So I must say: I am unable to believe in what I have just heard, in all the things that you have just told me."

It is very unfortunate, then, that during the award ceremony, President Obama used the expression "Polish death camps". The implication these words carry is that it was Poles themselves who had invented and operated the Nazis' mass-extermination machine. It is difficult to imagine words more insulting and offensive, or that more deeply convey disregard for the cause Jan Karski risked his life to pursue.

Jan Karski, after all, is recognised at Yad Vashem, the memorial museum of the Holocaust in Israel, as belonging to the "righteous among the nations". Yet on the very occasion that he is being honoured in Washington, with these words his memory is defiled. It is as if the campaign for Karski's recognition undertaken by the Polish government and intellectuals, led in the United States by Alex Storozynski - the chairman of the Kosciuszko Foundation - had never been understood in the White House.

The outrage in Poland is enormous, even after a weak admission that the president "misspoke". Polish media across the world are full of protests against this serious faux pas. Nowy Dziennik, the best Polish-language newspaper, which happens to be published in New York, calls for a joint resolution of the US congress and senate concerning a ban on this expression, which is mindlessly propagated by many English-language newspapers. The blunder has also provoked wild speculation among extreme right-wing Polish parties to the effect that Obama's use of these words was deliberate, on the grounds that the largest ethnic minority in America is supposedly German.

This has not been Obama's first great error in relation to Poland. In 2009 the American administration chose 17 September to announce that it was abandoning its planned "anti-missile shield" over Poland and the Czech Republic, which had been designed with the putative threat from Iran in mind. It is worth stressing that Poles, great enthusiasts of this misbegotten programme, always thought that its true purpose was to defend them from potential Russian aggression.

The gravity of this earlier misjudgment is that every 17 September in Poland is solemnly remembered as the anniversary of the launch of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 - two weeks after the invasion by Nazi Germany from the west. The American president seemingly did not know or care that his decision would be connected with a Soviet attack that has long been ingrained into Polish consciousness as a "knife in the back". Many Poles saw the coincidence as a knife in the chests of a later generation of Poles, descendants of those who had fought bravely against two overwhelming enemies.

Mind and heart

On an apparently different note, for months the Polish press has been debating the deplorable condition of Polish universities. In the discussion, Harvard University is often cited as the best example to follow and learn from.

It seems appropriate to recall that President Obama graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School. I do not know in detail what was taught at these two prestigious institutions at the time, but I can state with confidence that at the law faculties of Poland's much criticised universities the students do study history. Moreover, Polish high-school pupils in general know much more about the United States than do their American peers about Europe as a whole or any of its constituent nations.

Obama’s repeated blunders suggest that the Polish enthusiasts of the American educational system, who are also harsh critics of the Polish one, would do well to rethink their position. Everyone else, especially active politicians, would do well to take into consideration people’s feelings. For in political action few things are more important than the hard facts of human sentiment.

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