Obama's history error: 6-2/3-12
June 02, 2012
Maybe you heard or saw or read President Obama's bad wording the other day in a talk when he used the term "a Polish death camp" in World War II. What did he really mean? German death camps located in Poland.
As this writer has noted, quite a few people have gotten all over Obama for the misstatement. And, indeed, I think Obama should have corrected himself in the speech because his wording perpetuates a long slander against Poland and the Polish people, a slander that suggests they built the six death camps in which millions of Jews perished on their soil.
Not so, though no doubt some Poles, given their long history of antisemitism, were happy to see the Jews die.
But the reality is that Poland and Poles also suffered brutally at the hands of Hitler's Nazi regime. Many Poles, indeed, ended up as prisoners in Auschwitz, for instance, and many of the country's intelligentsia were wiped out soon after Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Germany marked Poland's leaders for elimination so as to keep the country under more control.
The writer of the piece to which I've linked you suggests that critics have gone nuts in slamming Obama: The president did not mean to imply some Polish responsibility for the creation and operation of the death camps, he said. "It was lousy wording. He should've corrected it. He didn't. Move on."
But wait. I'd be happy to move on if Obama and his speechwriters would acknowledge his poor wording and correct the impression he left. Indeed, they have done just that. If you look at the online text of the speech itself through the link I've given you above, you'll find a correction that says this: "Note – the language
in asterisks below is historically inaccurate. It should instead have been: 'Nazi death camps in German occupied Poland'. We regret the error."
Fair enough. It would be even better if Obama would say he's now going to try never to be that sloppy with history again -- a sloppiness that wounds one people and tends to let another off the hook. But at least the White House knows it botched things.
History matters. Words matter. And there are many instances in which journalists, politicians and others get this precise death camp matter wrong, to the detriment of Poland.
Having co-authored the book They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, I may be especially sensitive to all this history and how it gets told. But perhaps extra sensitivity when it comes to whom should be blamed for genocide is not such a bad thing.
(The photo here today is of me at Auschwitz, the most notorious of the death camps in Poland. My co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, took it.)
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Religion writer Lisa Miller, focusing on the Sikhs, of all people, suggests that technology can be good for religion and not its death knell. I think she's right, even though, as someone quoted in her piece says, technology also often brings out the worst in us. Well, except when you go online to read my blog and columns, tell your friends to do the same and send me complimentary e-mail.
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