Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk delivers a statement to the media in Warsaw.… (Grzegorz Jakubowski / AFP/Getty…)
WASHINGTON -- The Polish prime minister is demanding a “stronger, more pointed response” from President Obama after he referred to “Polish death camps” during a White House ceremony Tuesday.
Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Wednesday that Obama should have made it clear that the death camps were run by Nazis in occupied Poland. White House officials issued a statement expressing “regret” for the reference, but Tusk said he is not completely satisfied by the White House explanation that the president misspoke.
“We always react in the same way when ignorance, lack of knowledge, bad intentions lead to such a distortion of history,” Tusk said in a statement posted on the Polish embassy website.
The White House immediately issued a correction after the mistake was pointed out Tuesday, following a ceremony honoring Jan Kozielewski, who also went by the name Karski. An officer in the Polish Underground, Kozielewski was one of the first people to relay an eye-witness account of the camps to the world.
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In honoring Kozielewski, Obama said: “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.”
After Polish officials protested, a spokesman issued a statement saying that the president was “referring to Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland.”
“We regret this misstatement,” the statement said.
References to the Nazi-era death camps are an extremely touchy subject in Poland, where many of the most notorious Nazi camps, such as Auschwitz, were located. For centuries, the country was home to the largest Jewish population in the world -- about 3 million when the Holocaust began, roughly 90% of whom were murdered.
The Nazis also killed and persecuted millions of Poles. At the same time, as in many other countries in Europe, the Nazi atrocities were possible only with the help of some local collaborators.
Polish officials have long insisted that references to the camps as “Polish” wrongly implies that Poles, not Germans, were responsible for the Holocaust, and they have campaigned against any such references by public officials or journalists elsewhere.
The Obama White House generally manages to avoid stumbling on such sensitivities. Speechwriters and strategists regularly run wording of the president’s remarks past cultural, religious and academic experts in an effort to avoid giving offense.
Obama paid tribute to Polish lives lost in the Holocaust during a visit to the Warsaw Ghetto last year. He has also spoken publicly in other venues about Polish rescuers and Polish officials who have preserved the record about atrocities committed in Poland.