“[Obama] was referring to Nazi death camps in Poland. We regret this misstatement, which should not detract from the clear intention to honour Mr Karski and those brave citizens who stood on the side of human dignity in the face of tyranny,” Vietor adds in an official statement released Wednesday.
“Before one trip across enemy lines, resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale, and smuggled him [Jan Karski] into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself,” Obama said during the ceremony which bestowed Karski with the US Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian award.
The ceremony honoured Jan Karski, a resistance fighter accredited with alerting the West to the Holocaust during World War II. After the war, Karski settled in the United States and became a naturalised citizen in 1954.
Twelve other people were also awarded with the medal, Tuesday.
Reactions to the blunder were immediate in Poland. Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski tweeted that “it is a shame that such a momentous occasion be overshadowed by ignorance and incompetence,” and that “the White House will apologise for this outrageous mistake.”
Government spokesman Pawel Gras also wrote on his Twitter microblog that “we await a swift and decided response from the US Administration.”
Gras added that Prime Minister Donald Tusk is expected to make a statement on Obama’s gaffe before noon today, Wednesday.
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Adam Rotfeld, who collected the Medal of Freedom award in Karski’s name at the White House ceremony, has also condemned the blunder.
President Barack Obama’s words come after years of campaigning by the Kosciuszko Foundation, a Polonia organisation based in the United States, to clamp down on the phrase “Polish concentration camps” or “Polish death camps”, successfully managing to rally a number of newspapers as well as wire services to change their style guides to “camps in Nazi-occupied Poland”.
Alex Storozynski, president of the Kosciuszko Foundation, is quoted by the Associated Press agency as saying that Obama’s comment “shocked the Poles present at the White House.”
“I am amazed that the President, who was a senator in Chicago, […] where there are a million Poles, does not know Poland to the extent that these were not Polish camps,” Storozynski said, the Polish Press Agency quotes. (jb)
Audio report by Slawek Szefs