Obama awards the Medal of Freedom to former Polish Foreign Minister who is accepting for Jan Karski.
Former Polish Foreign Minister Adam Daniel Rotfeld accepts the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama on behalf of Jan Karski in 2012. Photo by AP
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The White House said President Barack Obama misspoke on Tuesday when he referred to a "Polish death camp" while honoring a Polish war hero.

The president's remark had drawn immediate complaints from Poles who said Obama should have called it a "German death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland," to distinguish the perpetrators from the location. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski called it a matter of "ignorance and incompetence."

Obama made the comment while awarding the Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski, a resistance fighter against the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II. Karski died in 2000.

During an East Room ceremony honoring 13 Medal of Freedom recipients, Obama said that Karski "served as a courier for the Polish resistance during the darkest days of World War II. 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. Jan took that information to President Franklin Roosevelt, giving one of the first accounts of the Holocaust and imploring to the world to take action."

Sikorski tweeted that the White House would apologize for "this outrageous error" and that Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk would address the matter on Wednesday.

"It's a pity that such a dignified ceremony was overshadowed by ignorance and incompetence."

Alex Storozynski, president of the Kosciuszko Foundation, said Obama's comment "shocked the Poles present at the White House and those watching on C-SPAN. ... Karski would have cringed if he heard this."

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said: "The president misspoke. He was referring to Nazi death camps in Poland. 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."

Anxious to quell the controversy, the White House also noted that the president had visited the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial while in Poland and that he has repeatedly discussed the bravery of Poles during World War II.

The Polish Embassy in Washington, on its website, has a "how-to guide" on concentration camps that states that references to Polish death camps are "factually incorrect slurs" that should be corrected.

There was a varied reaction by Jewish community leaders to the incident. William Daroff, Director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, said that while Poles were victims of Nazi atrocities and many died in death camps during the Nazi occupation, "Poles doth protest too much about this 'controversy.' Hiding behind the crimes of the Nazis does not lessen the fact that Polish anti-Semitism has hundreds of years of murderous history."

"Pogroms occurred before the Nazis occupied Poland, and they occurred after the Nazis were defeated. While there are many enlightened Poles today, who speak out vehemently against crimes committed against the Jewish people, there are still too few who condemn continuing acts of anti-Semitism, such as the very popular Radio Maryja, which for twenty years has spewed hatred against Jews, " he said. 

Abraham H. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor from Poland and the national director of the Anti Defamation League, preferred to commend the White House for "appropriately recognizing their error in describing the Nazi death camps in Poland as “Polish camps” and immediately expressing regret for the mistake. This is a perennial problem, and the president’s unwitting mistake only highlights the need for ongoing education about the history of World War II and the Holocaust."

Foxman suggested, "turn this mistake into a teachable moment for the American public and explain more fully why the expression 'Polish death camps' offends our strong ally, Poland, and distorts the history of the Holocaust."