In Defense of Obama: This Pole's Response to Obama's 'Polish Death Camp' Blunder


I am the proud descendant of two of the bravest people I will ever know. My Dziadek [grandfather] Antoni Kraszkiewicz was a translation officer in the Polish Army. My Babcia [grandmother] Izabella Kraszkiewicz was a schoolgirl who came home to find her family's house taken over by Nazi soldiers. The late 1930's and up until 1945 was the most challenging chapter in their lives. I felt I should explain for those who didn't catch on to my last name - Kraszkiewicz - when alluding to my qualifications to offer quite relevant commentary on this issue.

Right now I am in Brussels for the summer studying abroad. Belgium also happens to be the first place my grandparents moved after World War II, before finally settling in Canada. So needless to say this past week - and the next six weeks to come - they have been constantly on my mind.

When checking the Huffington Post headlines, I came across the news ticker's weekly reason for why Obama is the worst president ever. Not really, but with Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski's critical comments accusing the president of "ignorance and incompetence" one would think good old George W. was back in office. 

While my family is not Jewish, ethnically or religiously, my grandparents did find themselves subjected to inhumane treatment at the hands of the Nazis. However their tenure in captivity was in the prison camps, rather than in the death camps -- they never left Poland for the duration of the Nazi occupation. 

I can confidently say that my grandparents would have adored the fact that the U.S. was recognizing a Polish war hero for his valiant efforts in WWII. This slip-up would have not tarnished the "entire ceremony" and they would have had the grace to recognize it as an honest mistake. In fact such a conversation involving politics and history, along with pierogi and sledzie, was a cornerstone of our family gatherings. This trait was often retained by survivors from Nazi prison camps because these sort of intellectual discussions would be how they passed the time. They were something I came to appreciate, as these discussions would last hours on Wigilia - between the time dinner ended and gift-giving began.

The intent of the phrase "Polish Death Camp" was not to describe the oppression or apportion blame, but rather to indicate geographic locale. This is simple nuance and semantics not anything malicious or anti-Semitic. 

Rather, it is the reaction to this that has been off-base and contemptuous. Personally, as a Pole, I find more embarrassment in the way Poland's Foreign Minister has responded - rather than as an American with Obama's initial slip-up. This is certainly an embarrassing mishap for Obama, but the blame is more on his speechwriter than anyone else. 

Furthermore, this disproportionate response can't help Poland's case when it comes to issues like racism. The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) recently said that it awarded Poland the Euro-Cup 2012 tournament, in part, to help give them an "opportunity to improve their image" and "to tackle social challenges like racism."

So whether or not President Obama's race actually did play a factor in stoking the flames of this issue in Poland, accepting the apology and using more respectful language to address the matter could help Poland with this image issue.

What truly matters is this history is in the past, and Jan Karski was properly honored for his heroic actions: risking his own life to bring light to the most tragic, horrific, and sad events in the course of human history. 

Nevertheless, a very visceral journey down memory lane was thrust into my consciousness. One for which I guess I should thank the president for having misspoke. 

Babcia i Dziadek, B?d? Ci? kocha? zawsze.

RIP Antoni Kraszkiewicz: 17 August 1914 - 8 February 2010

RIP Izabella Kraszkiewicz: 10 February 1924 - 26 December 2010

Author's Note: This photo was taken in 1947 in Belgium. My grandparents were celebrating their first anniversary. Antoni is dressed up in his Polish Military uniform.