I’m a Polish American. Even though I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to two Polish families, my Polish heritage has always been very meaningful in our family. From joining Polish Boy Scouts to listening to my grandparents’ stories from the Second World War, I’m proud of my Polish background. I’m especially proud of my grandparents who fought in the Polish military and resistance movements during the war.
My great grandfather, Mieczyslaw Uzarowicz was murdered by the Soviets in the infamous Katyn massacre in 1940. My grandma, Danuta Sempolinski, along with many Polish scouts, helped in the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazi occupation. Her husband was a captain of a tank division. They sacrificed their lives for their country, their ojczyzna, as the Polish call it.
Jan Karski risked his life like my grandparents. Karski was lucky enough to escape the Katyn massacre. However, he was tortured by the Nazis. The fascist military wanted secret information about the Polish resistance movement. He was tortured repeatedly to the point that Karski pulled out a razor blade and slashed his wrists to avoid further interrogations. He survived and became a renowned Georgetown University faculty member.
Karski is a true Polish hero. He deserved the honorary Presidential Medal of Freedom. People like Karski and my grandparents deserve to be mentioned in such way. They didn’t take freedom for granted. They fought for their independence. They were part of a generation that was venerated in patriotism and love for their country, for good reason.
Poland’s history is far from rosy. Poland didn’t exist for almost a century and a half (1795 to 1918). Poles have been deprived of a constitutional government for a serious part of their history. They struggled even more after World War II in communist rule. Whenever I go to family gatherings, my parents’ Polish friends bring up the point that many of them escaped Poland because of their government’s disrespect for human life and basic rights.
However, the important part of Karski’s story is Obama’s gaffe. As the President awarded the Polish hero, Obama mentioned the fact that Karski was in a “Polish death-camp” instead of a Nazi camp. Many Polish political leaders were outraged. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said:
“When someone says ‘Polish death camps,’ it is as if there were no Nazis, no German responsibility, as if there was no Hitler — that is why our Polish sensitivity in these situations is so much more than just simply a feeling of national pride.”
As a Polish American, I’m upset as well. Poles were not in charge of the concentration camps. Many Poles actually put their lives at risk to save Jews. However, I understand mistakes happen. Many presidents misspeak. If I would get a dollar for every time the White House gaffes then Vice President Joe Biden would make me a millionaire. The White House backtracked.
White House spokesperson Tommy Vietor clarified Obama’s statement and said, “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.” However, Obama still hasn’t personally apologized to the Polish community. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, “We regret the misstatement, but that is what it was.” Thanks?
Obama’s gaffe is a clear reminder of how awful Polish American relations have been with this current administration. Poland is a significant ally. Russia is a growing threat to our European allies and to the balance of power. Mitt Romney is correct in believing that Russia is a threat. Putin owns about 26.7% of the world’s oil. He basically dictates Ukrainian politics by delivering 80% of their oil and has an overwhelming influence in the European Union by piping 25%. We need Poland. Obama’s move in 2009 to scrap his own predecessor’s antiballistic shield in Poland was a blow to the Polish American relations. This gaffe only makes matters worse.
We need to keep those antiballistic missiles and strengthen our influence in East European nations. In no way is this a call for military presence in Warsaw or a neoconservative plea for a military buildup; our military spending should be slashed with other programs like our entitlements to decrease our tumultuous debt. This is a realist plea to strengthen our foreign policy. The Cold War is over, but the growing tyrannical influence from Putin is a serious concern.
But as Obama said, this is not something he’ll address before the elections. Poland doesn’t seem important to this president. A hot mic caught Obama telling Russian President Medvedev, “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.” He’s not going to be tough on the Russians and reinforce the missile defense. Politics is more important for this president.