‘Polish death camp’ latest in Obama’s foreign policy missteps with Poles, voters

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

President Barack Obama, who has been using the White House as a stage to showcase his foreign policy credentials to U.S. voters, managed to flub his lines Tuesday when he accidentally blamed Poles for committing the Holocaust.

He made the error while explaining his award of a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski, a Polish fighter in World War II who secretly documented Adolf Hitler’s effort to wipe out the Jews.

“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,” Obama said.

“It’s a pity that such a dignified ceremony was overshadowed by ignorance and incompetence,” Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said in reaction May 29.

Obama’s comment “shocked the Poles present at the White House and those watching on C-SPAN. … Karski would have cringed if he heard this,” Alex Storozynski, president of the Kosciuszko Foundation, told the AP.

The White House’s press office quickly apologized for Obama’s flubbed lines.

“The president misspoke,” said a statement from Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council. “He was referring to Nazi death camps in Poland. We regret this misstatement, which should not detract from the clear intention to honor Mr. Karski and those brave citizens who stood on the side of human dignity in the face of tyranny.”

But the Polish government asked May 30 for a more prominent statement.

“I am convinced that our American friends can today allow themselves a stronger reaction than a simple expression of regret from the White House spokesman — a reaction more inclined to eliminate once and for all these kinds of errors,” said the Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk. “Today, this is a problem for the reputation of the United States,” not just Poland, he said.

The camps were built by German occupation forces under orders from Hitler’s Nazi party, whose policy of European-wide socialism for ethnic “Aryans” also called for the removal or killing of Jews, Slavs, Gypsies and others.

Obama’s error, however, was not the first Polish-oriented pratfall by the president.

On Sept. 17, 2009, Obama suddenly announced that he would cancel a joint U.S.-Polish project to build a small-scale missile shield on Polish soil. The Poles were not notified of the change, which the Russians had demanded from Obama and from President George W. Bush.

Obama’s surprise switch came on the 70th anniversary of the day when the Soviet Union suddenly attacked Poland from the East while the Polish army was fighting Nazi invaders on the West side of the country. The joint attacks marked the start of World War II.

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