"In referring to `a Polish death camp' rather than `a Nazi death camp in German-occupied Poland,' I inadvertently used a phrase that has caused many Poles anguish over the years and that Poland has rightly campaigned to eliminate from public discourse around the world,"..."I regret the error and agree that this moment is an opportunity to ensure that this and future generations know the truth."
--Barack Obama, May 2012
Confronting Historical Inaccuracies
One of the most common problems Polish Americans and Poles the world over face is the misrepresentation of the place of Poles in history, particularly World War II. False historical accounts such as the Polish Cavalry attacking German armor and the failure of Poles to mount a defense against German invasion in 1939, widespread collusion with German forces in carrying out the Holocaust are implied in such commonly used phrases as “Polish Concentration Camps” and “Polish Death Camps”. These false views of World War II are damaging to Poles not only because they obfuscate historical fact but also because they are an insult to the sacrifice of the Polish people in World War II in Europe. Many Polish Americans have family members who served in the US military (where Poles were one of the largest groups per capita*), the Polish military, the Home Army or Polish Army that fought with the Allies in exile. The enormous contributions of the Polish people to Allied Victory in World War II are, unfortunately, largely unknown in the West.
Often the use of phrases such as “Polish Death Camps” are the result of skewed understanding or a serious lack of knowledge of the history of Nazi Rule in Poland. Both contribute to a failure to comprehend why the terms are offensive to Poles. One recent example of this insensitivity surfaced in the remarks of President Obama on the occasion of a ceremony honoring Polish World War II hero Jan Karski with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The President referred to a “Polish Death Camp”. Within three days President Obama made an apology that can be seen above. The fact that the President of the United States used this term in a speech that was likely highly vetted and reviewed shows how deep and unconscious is the use of these terms based on false reading of history in our society. The need to communicate with those who use these terms is as high as ever. Polish Americans need to remind them of their inaccuracy and negative impact on historical knowledge and the memories of those who sacrificed so much in World War II.
Over the course of this year there have been a several instances of the use of terms that implied Polish collaboration in the Holocaust: earlier this year the Wall Street Journal published a book review which spoke of “Poland’s Majdanek concentration camp…” [Michael Shermer 4/1/2014]. Requests to place editorial caveats to acknowledge the erroneous text in future publications of the Wall Street Journal were denied on the grounds that the phrase was accurate even though the style guide of the Wall Street Journal (which the editorial board does not need to follow) advises against using such terms. Arkansas Online more recently published a movie review which referred to “Polish Gas Chambers” [Karen Martin 9/26/2014].
Even more recently radio personality Glenn Beck stated on his radio program: “You know what we’re turning into? We’re turning into the Poles. The smoke is billowing out of the chimney and we’re like, ‘Geez, have you seen the potholes…?’ They’re burning Jews right down the street!”. Mr. Beck used this to drive a point about his perception of a double standard between media coverage of religious violence in the Middle East particularly the terrorist group ISIS and coverage of Christian protests in America. This was clearly done as a way to activate listeners to take action on this issue so as not to be like Poles who showed indifference to the Holocaust taking place under their noses. This is a perfect example of using false history as an easy way to make an argument sound better. In doing so Mr. Beck has reinforced or created a stereotype of Poles as either willfully ignorant of German crimes in German-occupied Poland or as willing partners in the Holocaust in the minds of his listeners.
These statements need to be acknowledged as what they are: damaging and hurtful not only to Poles or Polish Americans but to all people. It would not take much to correct these errors, a simple apology on a radio program or in a subsequent issue of a publication is all that is needed to verify the truth and remind media consumers that these phrases are hurtful.
These damaging understandings of Polish History are often the result of deliberate falsification of Polish History that is still found in popular writings, curriculum materials and textbooks. The recent case of the New Jersey State Curriculum on the Holocaust is a case in point. It directly blamed a non-existent Polish Government for complicity in the Holocaust and indicated that the death camps were in Poland not in Germany because the Germans would not have tolerated them, unlike the Poles. After complaints by the Polish American Congress in New York, the material was dropped.
It is important to note that these anti-Polish remarks also play off of the strong negative stereotype of Poles and Polish Americans that existed in the United States for a century which had its genesis in part with the reaction to the charges that Poles mistreated their minority populations in the wake of the establishment of a reborn Poland in 1918.