Observations

By Michael A. Szymanski

I recently shared an issue of the Polish Weekly with a non-Polish friend.  After reading about the controversy stirred up by a public official’s use of the phrase “Polish death camp” when referring to a Nazi concentration camp in Poland during World War II, she asked me what the uproar was about. I explained that, as a Polish American myself and to many other Poles and people of Polish descent, the term “Polish death camp” carries the false implication that such camps were run by Poles. Her reaction was “well, aren’t they just saying that it’s a death camp located in Poland?” She knew that Poles didn’t run death camps, and the “Polish death camps” were located in Poland but were run by the Nazis. When I pointed out that a great number of people didn’t really know that, and could be misled into thinking that someplace like Auschwitz was run by or affiliated with Poles or the Polish authorities, she understood the sensitivity of the issue. This is an example of why we need to be understanding, and not instantly condemning, when we hear someone use the offensive phrase. We should firmly and quickly move to correct the expression, but we should not immediately assume that the person who uses the incorrect phrase purposely means to slander the Polish reputation. Those who do intend the slander and lie, well…that’s another story.

In a related item, this issue we have a book review of “The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery,” a translation by Jarek Garliński of reports by Witold Pilecki written in 1945. Plawecki, a captain in the Polish army, deliberately got himself arrested and sent to Auschwitz so he could report on what went on in the infamous camp. This should make for fascinating reading, and it’s the first time this writing is available in an English translation. It seems to me that this could be the subject for a great movie which would be, as they say, “based on a true story,” and I’ll bet the true story is better than anything a talented screenwriter could “make up.” It’s all about presenting our Polish story to a wider audience.

Recall that Jan Karski is renowned for carrying news of the Holocaust to the Polish government in exile in England and to America during World War II. In this issue’s news from Poland we report on “Jan Karski – A Hero’s Return,” an educational project in Łódź. Karski’s birth centenary is coming up in 2014, and will be celebrated around the world. As we report, earlier this year Jan Karski was posthumously awarded the US Medal of Freedom, America’s top civilian honor, by President Barack Obama.

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