'Regret' over Obama Holocaust comment

President Barack Obama. Photo /AP
President Barack Obama. Photo /AP

The White House on Wednesday shrugged off Polish demands to express more than mere 'regret' after President Barack Obama mistakenly referred to a Nazi Holocaust site as a "Polish death camp."

"We regret the misstatement, but that is what it was," said Obama spokesman Jay Carney, reiterating that the president "misspoke" during a ceremony awarding the highest US civilian honor to late Holocaust hero Jan Karski.

"He was referring to Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland."

Poland had earlier insisted that Washington must do more than simply express the "regret" offered by another White House spokesman late on Tuesday, hours after Obama's use of words deemed offensive by Warsaw.

Obama's verbal slip overshadowed his posthumous award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Karski, a Polish underground officer who provided the Allies with early eyewitness accounts of Nazi genocide against European Jews.

Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Obama's words had hurt all Poles and he expected more from Washington than just regret.

"I am convinced that our American friends can today allow themselves a stronger reaction than a simple expression of regret from the White House spokesman - a reaction more inclined to eliminate once and for all these kinds of errors," Tusk told reporters in Warsaw.

"Today, this is a problem for the reputation of the United States," the prime minister said.

Members of Poland's Jewish community - including the country's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich - said in a statement that: "We expect President Barack Obama to personally correct his words."

Poland's President Bronislaw Komorowski said meanwhile he had sent a letter to Obama "counting on (...) cooperation in correcting this unfortunate error" which "I am certain in no way reflects the thoughts or views of our American friend."

US officials reiterated Wednesday that Obama had visited the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial during his visit to Poland last year and had repeatedly paid tribute to the bravery of Poles during World War II.

Between 1939 and 1945, nearly six million Polish citizens perished under Nazi Germany's brutal World War II occupation of their country.

More than half of Poland's victims were of Jewish origin and they, in turn, accounted for half of the six million European Jews who perished during the Holocaust.

Many were killed in death camps set up by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland - including the most notorious, Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Poland's government keenly watches the global media for descriptions of former Nazi German death camps as "Polish" because it says the term - even if used simply as a geographical indicator - can give the impression that Poland bore responsibility for Nazi Germany's World War II genocide.

Karski, who was a clandestine officer of the Polish government-in-exile in London, witnessed scenes of starvation and death after infiltrating Warsaw's Jewish Ghetto and visiting a Nazi transit camp sending Jews to death chambers.

Karski took his eye witness testimony to wartime US president Franklin Roosevelt. He later became a professor of history at Georgetown University and died in Washington aged 86 in 2000.

- AP

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