The Noble and the Base: Poland and the Holocaust


John Connelly in The Nation:

Earlier this year, while conferring a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom on the Polish hero Jan Karski, Barack Obama inadvertently touched off the greatest crisis in US-Polish relations in recent memory. The man he honored had served as a courier for the Polish resistance against Hitler, and in 1942 Karski traveled across occupied Europe to tell Western leaders about the Nazi war crimes being committed in Poland, including the Holocaust. Karski had been sent on this secret mission, Obama explained, after fellow underground fighters had 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.” It was late evening in Warsaw when Obama spoke, but within minutes Polish officials were demanding an apology for his use of the phrase “Polish death camp,” which they thought scandalous.

Even those well-versed in European history must wonder why. After all, the media routinely speak of “French camps” from which Jews were sent to their deaths, and the phrase doesn’t draw similar ire from the French government. On the contrary, in July the French president himself, François Hollande, began a widely covered speech on the seventieth anniversary of the roundup of Jews at Vélodrome d’Hiver by stating, “We’ve gathered this morning to remember the horror of a crime, express the sorrow of those who experienced the tragedy…and therefore France’s responsibility.” Why are Poles so sensitive on the matter of Polish camps? Readers of Halik Kochanski’s new book, The Eagle Unbowed, will ask the opposite question: How could a famously well-educated person such as Barack Obama be so insensitive regarding the simple facts about Poland, the first country to stand up to Hitler?

Here’s one undisputed, essential fact: after the Nazis and their Soviet allies overran Poland in September 1939, they did not permit the Poles to form a new national government. The Soviets made the eastern Polish territories into western Soviet republics; the Germans annexed the western Polish territories into the Reich and made central Poland a “General Government” that they ruled directly. This arrangement was radically different from those in Nazi-occupied France, Denmark or Slovakia, which were ruled by collaborationist regimes. The French camps, then, really were French—that is, operated by French collaborators (a fact stressed by Hollande in his July speech). In Poland the death camps were German, like most other institutions.