Update: Official response from the Polish Consulate in Chicago now online here.
Do Poles still matter? At the time of this writing, Poles everywhere are still shaking off the dust from our last battle for acceptance, when the President made the gaffe about “Polish Death Camps” last May. The mistake caused understandable uproar, since it came during a ceremony meant to honor The Polish hero, Jan Karski, for his efforts in alerting the West to the horrors that were being perpetuated by Nazi Germany on Polish soil. You simply couldn’t pick a more opportune time to tell Poles that they were unimportant. Now several months later, our own Detroit Free Press exhibits insensitivity by scoffing at our cries for fairness.
The Free Press had impeccable timing. The original article by Mark Stryker that contained the phrase within a photo caption, was originally intended to raise awareness of Nazi genocide, and commemorate the experience of those who miraculously survived. It highlighted the commendable Portraits of Honor project, and in it Stryker (an arts and music critic by profession) detailed the experiences of Manny Mittelman and Miriam Ferber. Their experience at the hands of Nazi German death squads occupying Poland is an awe-inspiring testament to courage. It’s terrible that the Free Press blunder took attention away from the unique online memoirs.
Slipshod publishing blurred the lines dividing Mrs. Ferber’s youthful reminisces of Poland, and the hellish police state brought on by the occupying Nazis. For Polish-Americans, the offending phrase has become emblematic of the prevailing apathy and disrespect for the very same people and causes our Polish grandparents sacrificed so much for.
As one of the nation’s oldest Polish organizations, right here in Michigan, we’re stunned completely. Especially since, together with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum (A-BSM) in Poland, we’ve undertaken to create an educational program aimed precisely at enlightening the community on this important topic. Our state, in which 1 million Polish-Americans reside, was chosen specifically to welcome the Forbidden Art exhibition from A-BSM. The project was crafted especially for an American audience, and the Polish Mission was selected as the exclusive North American partner to present it. This exhibition program, which has been fully supported by the Vice President and Polish consular offices across America, features never-before-seen artwork, and public lectures by visiting museum experts. Diverse crowds of thousands of respectful visitors have testified to the importance of the project already. The tour has come through select universities and institutions across the country, (Wayne State University, Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, and UCLA to name a few) and will continue to do so well into this new year. Despite that tremendous effort and purpose, new disappointment comes from our own hometown newspaper. Even columnist Neal Rubin at the Detroit News gave our efforts praise and support when Forbidden Art premiered last year.
So why don’t the Free Press editors understand why this so disrespectful? People today claim to champion the values of a rich and diverse population, but apparently few people listen when Poles call for fairness, as has been evidenced by a long campaign to eradicate the phrase “Polish death camps” from the lexicon. Leading cultural institutions like the Kosciusko Foundation in New York have waged fierce battle against the phrase for years, using the righteous weapons of pen and paper to reveal the pain caused by it, to the unknowing population. Success seemingly followed on their heels as the petition created by Kosciuszko foundation director Mr. Storozynski reached over 300,000 signatures that included those of Former President and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Lech Wałęsa, Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich, and renowned historian Norman Davies.
Where is the respect to which Polish-Americans are entitled? Countless apologies have been made for these slanderous remarks, but the remarks are still coming, and we demand to know why. When criticized for the utterance, a common excuse is that the offending individual “misspoke,” but the unfactual suggestion implied in the phrase can in no way be regarded as something so trivial. According to Polish President Bronisław Komorowski and the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, history is distorted and the truth is concealed when people belittle the impact of the phrase by citing the geographic reference. Moreover, according to the American Jewish Committee, “ [T]his is not a mere semantic matter. Historical integrity and accuracy hang in the balance.”
You are invited to learn more about the experience of Poland during World War II. To that end, we’d like to schedule a meeting between your most deserving editorial staff, and A-BSM director Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński during his upcoming visit to the US. Until that time, as a gesture of good will, we’d like to offer the Free Press staff a special tour of our historic collections here at Orchard Lake, and discuss the details of the 68th anniversary events that commemorate the Auschwitz camp liberation which will happen on January 27th.
In the meantime, I’d like to leave you with the following quote that may help you understand our point:
“The most important task is to root out all Polish leaders […] In order to render them harmless. […] All specialists of Polish decent will be exploited for the needs of our war industry. And then all Poles will disappear from the face of the earth.”
Heinrich Himmler, Reichführer-SS