Widespread anger erupted in Poland over President Obama’s use of the term “Polish Death Camps” to describe the Nazi concentration camps in the country, raising the possibility that Polish anger over both the remark and Obama’s failure to apologize to Poland’s leaders will percolate to Polish voters in the United States.
Polish American voters, some of whom may already be unhappy with Obama over forcing Catholic institutions to cover birth control, are crucial to Obama’s reelection hopes.
According to the 2000 census, the critical swing states of Florida and Ohio each have more than 400,000 people with Polish ancestry. Wisconsin and Michigan – two states that lean toward Obama but which could become battlegrounds, rank #1 and #2 for Polish Americans as a percentage of the population, with nearly one in ten residents claiming Polish ancestry in each. And Pennsylvania, another state Mitt Romney would dearly love to snatch from Obama, ranks #6, with more than 800,000 Polish Americans.
The White House has so far acknowledged the error and expressed “regret” about the remark, made during a ceremony Tuesday at which Polish World War II hero Jan Karski was posthumously awarded a Medal of Freedom. But Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has suggested a stronger statement of apology is in order, as have Polish politicians across the political spectrum.
“The White House will apologize for this outrageous mistake,” Tweeted Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski. The Polish opposition leader has called for a “clear apology” from Obama.
While viewed by many in the United States as – in the words of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney - “a simple misstatement,” Obama has in fact stepped on something of a landmine in Poland.
The idea that Poles may be complicit in some way for the death camps established on their territory is a sensitive issue in Poland. According to The Warsaw Voice, the Polish government “has reacted sharply to previous reports by foreign media which could be taken to mean that the country bore responsibility for” the Holocaust.
Unlike many other groups living under Nazi occupation, Poles in fact refused to help run the German death camps.
The use of the term “Polish death camps” is not unique to Obama and is something Poles have been trying to stamp out for years.
An informal survey by Fakt, Poland’s largest newspaper, found that 85 percent termed Obama’s remarks a “mega-scandal,” while 15 percent said it was just a relatively minor error. A survey in the same newspaper found that by about the same margin – 84-16 percent, Poles think Obama is not “a good president of the USA.”