What ignoramus in the White House speechwriting office is responsible for writing the words “a Polish death camp” in the citation Barack Obama delivered in presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski? How could Obama be so ignorant of history—and so insensitive to the heritage of our good ally Poland—to not have edited those words to “a Nazi death camp” or some other formulation? “Ignorance and incompetence” was the tweeted and fully merited response of Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski. David Frum at the Daily Beast has an extended and appropriately indignant response. Poland, as David points out, has been one of the United States’s strongest and most loyal NATO allies. And yet Barack Obama seems once again to be going out of his way to insult and downgrade the Poles.
Yes, Obama should get credit for deciding to award Karski the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and his statement aside from the objectionable words was otherwise quite good. For those who don’t know what Karski is honored for, let me quote the beginning of a review of a Karski biography by Yale historian Timothy Snyder in the Times Literary Supplement published last October—words that sent a chill inside me as I read them.
“We would all like to imagine that we would have tried to stop the Holocaust. We would have crept into the ghettos to learn the truth, found our way to the Allied capitals, and made the case for action. We would have understood the annihilation of the Jews as it was happening, and conveyed its horrors to the great and the good while there was still time to act. Our social world would have included the suffering Jews and those with the power to change their fate; our war would have been one of conspiracy and concern. Of the 2 billion or so adults alive during the Second World War, only one achieved all this: the Polish courier Jan Karski.”
This hero—and Poland—deserved better from our president.