Saturday, 25 September 2010

Poland's German Death Camps

I mentioned in my last post that Jews were "murdered by the Germans in one of their Polish death camps. Michael commented:
Polish death camps? Like the British death camps on Alderney? Thank you, Michael; right on cue and nicely put, as well.

I first heard about Polish sensitivity to the phrase 'Polish death camps' when the Polish Ambassador in the USA complained about a news article that used it. Whilst I sympathise with the emotion generated by reading about what might be taken as referring to something set up by Poles, the article seemed clearly to use the meaning 'of/in Poland', which is a perfectly good meaning of 'Polish'. The Ambassador demanded an apology, which seemed pretty daft to me: the news company would repeat the statement, explain why the article was in fact accurate and not misleading, and then apologise that they have offended someone who either does not understand English properly or is too hyper-sensitive to accept a valid description of the truth. This seemed to me to be an embarrassment to Poland.

However, I assumed my reaction was itself an over-reaction. On considering this further I was reminded that Poland did not exist at the time and that they were not then Polish in the sense of the country rather than the people. This still did not eliminate the truth of the statement, nor the embarrassment that the Ambassador was unable to recognise this, but it at least gave a two-to-one balance against using the term: not Polish people, not Poland at the time, but Poland now.

However, I recently saw Wiktor Moszczynski's Blog, referenced above. In this, he describes journalists as "lazy unfeeling bastards". Sure. This is one of the standard principles of the trade. However, I can't see why the entire business should reform itself to avoid a truthful description that a few people find politically objectionable. Thank you, however, Wiktor, as it did make me think about the issue again and decide that I was wrong.

I was wrong because Poland did exist at the time of the concentration camps. The great and good (the Allies) declared that the invasion was illegal. Poland had a legitimate government in London. It had an army, part of which operated on its home territory of Poland - the Armia Krajowa, normally translated the Home Army, although National Army would be equally good. Part of the Army oath demonstrated their belief that Poland still existed: "I swear to be faithful to my homeland, the Republic of Poland". The USA Government attested to the legitimacy of this army and demanded that captive soldiers be treated as prisoners of war. Even the Germans gave recognition to the existence of Poland, at least for the camp I mentioned in the last article, in the title of their 'Generalgouvernement für die besetzten polnischen Gebiete' - General Government for the Occupied Polish Territories.

So the place was Polish and it is Polish: even the odds are against the objectors. What seems to be happening is an integral part of today's' Polish nationalist, historical perspective. This eliminates Polish existence from those parts of history that are objectionable from the Polish self-view. Such things as the regularly repeated statement that Poland disappeared for over a century after the Third Partition (when the Tsar became King of Poland), made me wonder how Poland had managed to survive. In fact, it disappeared for less than 50 years.

So I'm sorry Wiktor, whilst I understand your sympathies, you are the one that is intolerant. Indeed, you are wrong. Worse than that, such aggressive attacks immediately generate a strong counter-reaction: arrogant and ignorant criticism of you reinforces the belief that you are right and that you are right to behave in the way you do. On the other hand, I read Michael's comment as being: 'please be aware that this may cause offence'. Quite right, sorry.

So back to Michael's question, which I will rephrase slightly: did the Germans set up 'British death camps on Alderney'? I suspect this gets to the nub of the problem. As I have said 'Polish' means 'of Poland' or 'of the Polish people'. Alderney is, however, a separate self governing territory, whose people can be described as British - whether they would like that or not I don't know. 'British' here therefore only means 'of the British people'. which is incorrect, unless in the context that the camps only housed Brits. They might, however, be described as the only British Commonwealth death camps (set up by the Germans).

As for Wiktor's rant: my Great Uncle Charlie - my favourite Uncle - had the distinction of fighting in both World Wars. For much of the Second World War, he was in Burmese Prisoner of War camps run by the Japanese.

I only used 'Polish death camps' in my last post to see if it would generate a reaction to which I could respond. It was completely gratuitous. I thought about using 'Poland's death camps' and would be interested to know if that would also be unacceptable. Normally, however, I would not use either: I don't want to cause offence (at least, not for anything so trivial as the ambiguity of words).


Michael Dembinski said...

Steve - the beef with "Polish death camps" is the implication that Poles set them up and ran them. To our generation - palpable nonsense. To today's dumbed-down youth, reared on reality TV, there is a real risk that reading "Polish death camp" once too often will get them assuming that Poland played an active role in the Holocaust.

How do you feel about the term "British death camps on Alderney", BTW?

Jan_Niechwiadowicz said...

You are wrong on so many reasons. For a start Polish is an adjective. Therefore it means “pertaining to Poland or its inhabitants” or “characteristic of Poland”. The death camps may be characteristic of Germans but not Poles.

Today you want to talk incorrectly about the camps just because they were placed in occupied Poland by the Germans, next you will be referring to the guards as "Polish" just because the guards were in occupied Poland. Before you know it, we will read about the "Polish" army attacking Warsaw in 1939. We have already seen journalists choosing to call camps in Germany and Austria "Polish" just because people wrongly associate the Holocaust with Poland rather than those who actually were responsible, the Germans.

Further you fail to take into account the lack of knowledge of what happen during World War Two. As Anti-Defamation League, an organization devoted to nurturing Holocaust remembrance, supports Poland's concern over the frequent description of Auschwitz as a Polish camp, which suggests the object was built on behalf of the Polish nation

Every expert on the planet says you are wrong. Australian Press Board put it this way “the expression "Polish death camps" could mislead Australian readers, is offensive to Poles, and therefore violates the principles of Australian journalism.”

It is considered a form of Holocaust denial according to Yisrael Gutman (Director of research at the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem and editor in chief of "The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust" 1990)

I finish with the wise words of David A. Harris, American Jewish Committee Executive Director: The camps were located in German-occupied Poland, the European country with by far the largest Jewish population, but they were most emphatically not "Polish camps". This is not a mere semantic matter. Historical integrity and accuracy hang in the balance. Any misrepresentation of Poland's role in the Second World War, whether intentional or accidental, would be most regrettable and therefore should not be left unchallenged.

Thanks for at least considering the issue.

Jan Niechwiadowicz, Cardiff

Pan Steeva said...

I understand the fear and thank you Jan for: the 'Australian Press Board put it this way “the expression "Polish death camps" could mislead Australian readers, is offensive to Poles, and therefore violates the principles of Australian journalism" '. A perfectly worded guideline. I had written a lot already, so I did not attempt to balance the position beyond giving my own normal intention not to use it. I therefore did not add my expectation that the UK Foreign Office's Polish briefing notes for civil servants will have a guideline written along similar lines to the Australian Press Board and that others should do the same.

My concern is about the way Poland and Polish public figures attempt to deal with failure of journalists, etc to comply with this principle. The wording I was thinking of for the potential reaction to the Ambassador's approach was: "ask for our sympathy and we will give your our hand, demand it and we'll give you the finger". A demand carries more weight, of course, but we remain with the possibility/likelihood that we will gain resentment at the same time. Do the Australians have similar guidelines for the Burmese? I have no idea, but their note gives the impression - "please note that the Polish are much more sensitive than anyone else, so please adjust your normal use of English to deal with them".

Michael: please see my third to last paragraph about Alderney in the post. I might add that your phrase only engendered interest in Alderney, a place I had never really thought about before. It was interesting to see how useful such phrases as "British death camps" can be, when used effectively.

Danuta said...

As well as 'British Death Camps', you will find, via this nomenclature, French Death Camps, Austrian Death Camps, Ukrainian Death Camps, Slovekian Death Camps and Belarusian Death Camps. Oddly, we never hear of these. Remember the revered Stephen Fry saying something on the lines of 'We know which side of the border Auschwitz was on.'

Danuta said...

Oops. Posted before I finished. I was going on to say that the belief that the Poles were responsible for the death camps is out there, which is why it's important to be careful about wording.