The White House on Tuesday expressed regret after Poland took offense at US President Barack Obama's use of the term "Polish Death Camps" while awarding a posthumous Medal of Freedom to Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski.
While honoring Karskim Obama said, "Fluent in four languages, possessed of a photographic memory, Jan served as a courier for the Polish resistance during the darkest days of World War II. Before one trip across enemy lines, resistance fighters 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. Jan took that information to President Franklin Roosevelt, giving one of the first accounts of the Holocaust and imploring to the world to take action."
US National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor stated that Obama "misspoke" by referring to "Polish death camps" rather than "Nazi death camps" inside Poland.
Vietor's statement came after Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski tweeted that Obama "will apologize for this outrageous error," ascribing it to "ignorance and incompetence," according to BuzzFeed. Poles insist on the term "Nazi death camps" to describe facilities such as Auschwitz and Sobibor.
"We regret this misstatement, which should not detract from the clear intention to honor Mr. Karski and those brave citizens who stood on the side of human dignity in the face of tyranny," Vietor said.
Holocaust historians say the record of Polish behavior during the Holocaust is vexed and contradictory.
There was much collaboration with the Nazis, and the resistance did little to protect Jews until 1942, reflecting the pervasive anti-Semitism that infected the country before the German invasion in 1939.
Karski himself, in his first dispatches, fretted that native Polish anti-Semitism would frustrate efforts to save the Jews. In a February 1940 dispatch quoted in The Holocaust Encyclopedia, Karski said that Nazi anti-Jewish measures were creating "something akin to a narrow bridge upon which the Germans and a large portion of Polish society are finding agreement." A Jewish-Polish resistance would encounter "serious resistance" among large parts of Polish society, he reported.
On the other hand, once the scope of the genocide became clear, some of the Polish resistance sought to rescue Jews.
More than 90 percent of Polish Jewry's prewar 3.5 million Jews was wiped out in the Holocaust, and efforts by Jews to return to their homes after the war were in some cases met by pogroms instigated by neighbors who had taken over their properties.
The tiny community that persisted in post-war Poland lay low, in part because anti-Semitism was still pervasive.
Only in recent years, after the fall of Communism, has the community undergone a minor revival.