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Poles outraged by Obama’s reference to ‘Polish death camp’

President Barack Obamawards Medal Freedom former Polish Foreign Minister Adam Daniel Rotfeld who is accepting for Jan Karski resistance fighter

President Barack Obama awards the Medal of Freedom to former Polish Foreign Minister Adam Daniel Rotfeld who is accepting for Jan Karski, a resistance fighter against the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 29, 2012. The Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian honor. It's presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the national interests of the United States, to world peace or to other significant endeavors. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

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Updated: July 6, 2012 9:03AM

President Barack Obama’s accidental reference to a “Polish death camp” in a ceremony honoring a Polish resistance fighter during World War II is causing a diplomatic dust-up just a week after Obama’s warm greeting of Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski at the NATO Summit in Chicago.

Poles and Polish-Americans are having a tough time accepting Obama’s apology — the White House said he should have referred to “Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland” — for the gaffe Tuesday. They say they have spent a lot of time correcting the historical record that Poles, like Jews, were victims of the Nazis — not architects or staffers of the death camps during the Holocaust.

“If a Harvard graduate can’t get that straight, shame on him. It’s unacceptable,” said Illinois Appellate Court Justice Aurelia Pucinski, a member of an influential Polish-American political family in Chicago. “On the walk of honor at the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, there are more names of Polish citizens who, at the threat of death, helped Jews escape from the Nazis, than any other nationality.”

Anecdotes of some Poles collaborating with the Nazis to turn over Jews have some times over the years overshadowed the better-documented histories of Poles aiding and sheltering Jews, said Poles and Polish-Americans.

Chicago Attorney John Pikarski headed up Polish-Americans for Obama. But he thinks the president needs a White House Summit with Jews and Poles to straighten out this slight.

“I’m a former co-chair of the Polish-American, Jewish-American National Council dialogue and this is one of the things that we worked for 20 years to eradicate,” Pikarski said. “The president really needs to do something significant to heal the wounds ... maybe have a conference at the White House for some prominent Jewish and Polish Americans ... No slur was intended. But we have worked so hard to eradicate that term.”

Obama had the best of intentions conferring the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, on Jan Karski, for his work in the Polish resistance during World War II.

“Jan served as a courier for the Polish resistance during the darkest days of World War II,” Obama said in a White House ceremony Tuesday. “Before one trip across enemy lines, resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale, and smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself.”

After Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and others erupted in outrage, State Department spokesman Tommy Vietor issued a statement saying Obama “misspoke.

“We regret this misstatement, which should not detract from the clear intention to honor Mr. Karski and those brave Polish citizens who stood on the side of human dignity in the face of tyranny. On several occasions — including his visit last year to the Warsaw Ghetto memorial, his remarks at the Holocaust Museum last month, and his video message at the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz — President Obama has paid tribute to the terrible loss of innocent Poles in Nazi death camps during the Holocaust.”

Donald Tusk said he accepted the White House explanation, but he said he was still waiting for a “stronger, more pointed reaction” that could eliminate the phrasing “once and for all.” Tusk said it was a “matter of the U.S.’s reputation.”

“It was an unfortunate term that should not have happened,” said Maria Ciesla, president of the Polish American Museum of America, whose parents both served time in Nazi forced-labor camps in Germany.

“The Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 and they set up these camps — the Poles didn’t do it,” Pucinski said. “They set them up in other countries. But you don’t hear these being called the ‘Austrian concentration camps.’ How many Polish-Americans does he have on his executive staff? These historical inaccuracies just keep getting perpetuated.”

“There was no Poland during World War II because it was wiped off the map for 6 years,” said Alex Storozynski, president of New York’s Kosciuszko Foundation. “The Germans built concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Poland to murder Polish Jews and then Polish Christians. Obama, who is from Chicago, a city with a million Poles, should know this.”

Contributing: Associated Press

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