Big mistake: President Obama marred his White House ceremony last Tuesday evening, during which he presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bob Dylan, Madeline Albright, and other notables, with three fateful words: “Polish death camps.” These he uttered while awarding that medal to a representative of the now-deceased Jan Kozielewski, who during World War II actually had himself smuggled into and then out of the Warsaw ghetto and one of those death camps in order to report to the rest of the world what was going on there. Yes, they were “death camps,” but they were “Polish” only to the extent of being located in Poland. A better adjective is “Nazi” since they were set up, owned, run and operated by Hitler’s regime.
Poles around the world, most especially Polish government representatives, were distinctly displeased by the President’s remarks. No surprise, then, that one of the leading Polish papers, Gazeta Wyborcza, has put out a run-down of what has been done – and not done – in their wake, apology-wise:
Translation: “White House: It was a mistake. We have apologized. And so on.” As in: “So don’t bother us about this anymore.” Yes, there is a palpable sub-text here of the American authorities trying to run away from the controversy, trying to downplay it. Why? Because this is an election year, silly, and so any (alleged) Obama error is sure to be pounced upon by the opposition.
That was the case here, as the piece’s author (and Gazeta’s Washington correspondent) Mariusz Zawadzki, makes clear. Going on the attack, the Washington Post’s ever-reliable Obama-baiter Jennifer Rubin used the incident to mock the President’s education (“After all, he studied at Harvard, didn’t he?”) and to draw the conclusion that “this is just the latest lesson that it doesn’t pay to be America’s ally.” On the other side, Rachel Maddow in her blog argued that “Obama is [merely] the 8,749th person who has [inadvertently] offended the Poles in this way” – so no big deal.
You can be sure that actual Polish opinion is somewhere in-between: OK, it is still definitely worthwhile to be America’s ally, but the affair is decidedly not “no big deal.” The latter was evident in the prickliness exhibited by Polish officials in the face of first administration reactions to the gaffe. Obama’s National Security Advisor (that is Thomas E. Donilon these days) quickly issued a statement regretting the incident, but no less than Polish Premier Donald Tusk waved that away as insufficient: “I hope that our American friends will come up with a very decisive reaction and will conclude this in a classy manner.”
At the same time, the Polish president himself, Bronisław Komorowski, was writing a personal letter to Obama explaining just what it is he had done and urging the President to find a “joint correction of this mistake.” The American administration seized on this as an opening to finally put this thing to bed in the right way. The American ambassador to Poland, Lee Feinstein, was quick to let it be known that Obama intended to answer Komorowski, and apparently that letter in the other direction has been delivered, for Zawadzki is able to mention much of what it says: Obama expressed his regrets, naturally, while explictly acknowledging both that “there simply were no Polish death camps” and that Poles were quite justified in recoiling from the mistaken phrase and endeavoring to ensure that no one ever uses it again.
Don’t expect the entire contents of the President’s letter to be made public, however. It was a private letter that Komorowski sent to Obama in the first place, and it is also a private letter that contained his response. And with that state of affairs, it’s likely that a solution satisfactory to both sides has finally been attained.