WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Obama did it, now the FBI director has done it, and each time it has caused huge offense to a U.S. ally: using language to suggest that Poles were accomplices in the Holocaust.
Poles were waiting to see if FBI director James Comey would issue an apology — something that hadn’t happened by late Monday. Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna said he expected him to say sorry so the matter can be settled.
Comey said last week, “In their minds, the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland, and Hungary, and so many, many other places didn’t do something evil.
“They convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do. That’s what people do. And that should truly frighten us.”
Comey’s comments are particularly offensive to Poles not only because they had no role in running Auschwitz and other death camps where Jews were murdered during World War II, but because they were themselves victims of the Third Reich. In all, 6 million Polish citizens were killed during the war, about half of them Jewish and the other half Christians, with many Polish priests, members of the intelligentsia and political resistance killed in Auschwitz and elsewhere.
Poland also had a committed anti-Nazi resistance movement and Polish fighters fought alongside the Allies throughout the war. Poles see themselves as heroes of the war who have never been properly recognized, making comments like Comey’s hurt even more.
Comey originally delivered the remarks on Wednesday at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in arguing for the importance of Holocaust education. The speech was adapted for an article published in The Washington Post on Thursday.
So far, there has been no reaction to Comey’s words from the government of Hungary, which did collaborate with the Nazis for most of the war.
But the Polish reaction was swift.
On Sunday, the U.S. ambassador to Poland, Stephen Mull, was called to the Foreign Ministry in a formal act of protest. Mull, a well-liked figure in Poland, went into damage-control mode.
“Saying that Poland and any other country other than Nazi Germany were responsible for the Holocaust is a mistake, is harmful and is offensive,” Mull said. “Director Comey certainly did not mean to suggest that Poland was in any way responsible for those crimes.”
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf later echoed that sentiment, saying that “Poles certainly bore a huge brunt of the barbarism of Nazi Germany.”
“Director Comey certainly did not intend to suggest otherwise, did not intend to suggest that Poland was in some way responsible for the Holocaust,” she said.
The FBI had no immediate comment on the matter.
Polish leaders all had something to say about the controversy.
“To those who are incapable of presenting the historic truth in an honest way, I want to say that Poland was not a perpetrator but a victim of World War II,” Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz said Sunday. “I would expect full historical knowledge from officials who speak on the matter.”
Not all Poles behaved heroically during the war. Anti-Semitism was deep in the 1930s and some Poles pointed Jews out to the Nazis, who often could not tell Jew from non-Jew. There were also some cases of Poles murdering Jews during the war.
But collaborating was never the official state position, as it was with Vichy France, for instance. In fact, during the war, the Polish underground army had a program to save Jews, called Zegota. And Poles caught denouncing Jews to the Nazis were even killed by the Polish resistance.
President Barack Obama caused a similar controversy in 2012 when he used the wording “Polish death camp.” Poles feel that that wording implies Polish complicity, and Obama later expressed “regret” for the gaffe.
“In referring to ‘a Polish death camp’ rather than ‘a Nazi death camp in German-occupied Poland,’ I inadvertently used a phrase that has caused many Poles anguish over the years and that Poland has rightly campaigned to eliminate from public discourse around the world,” Obama wrote at the time. “I regret the error and agree that this moment is an opportunity to ensure that this and future generations know the truth.”
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.
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