First Obama, Now Fox News: The Term ‘Polish Death Camps’ Persists, and Poland Objects

The Fox News program “Fox & Friends” used the phrase “Polish death camps” in text on screen before correcting its terminology online.CreditRichard Drew/Associated Press

The Polish government criticized a Fox News program this week after a headline on screen referred to “Polish death camps,” a misleading term that has a history of setting off diplomatic incidents and as of this year is illegal to use in Poland.

The admonition, which came from the Polish Embassy in Washington on Tuesday, was in response to a “Fox & Friends” segment on the United States’ deportation of a 95-year-old former Nazi guard to Germany.

The man, Jakiw Palij of Queens, who was expelled on Tuesday, is believed to have served as an armed guard at the Trawniki labor camp in occupied Poland.

The program called it a “Polish death camp” on its chyron.

“Fox & Friends” quickly corrected its terminology on Twitter, writing that the camp was in German-occupied Poland and was “not a ‘Polish Death Camp.’”

Asked about possible legal consequences in Poland, a spokeswoman for Fox News said in a statement that the content in the show’s banner was protected speech in the United States under the First Amendment and noted that the program had followed up with a clarification about the German occupation.

The exchange highlighted Poland’s continuing efforts to warn against the use of such language by journalists outside its borders. This year, Poland’s president signed legislation making it a crime to use the phrase or to suggest that Poland bore any responsibility for Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust.

The second part of the law, which makes it illegal to accuse “the Polish nation” of complicity in the genocide, has attracted criticism and prompted claims that the nationalist government is trying to whitewash its history. In June, Poland softened the law by removing criminal penalties for violators.

The term “Polish death camp” is widely considered historically inaccurate because of the implication that Poland ran the death camps, rather than Nazi Germany.

From 1939 to 1945, about six million Poles were killed, half of whom were ethnic Jews. Although many Poles saved Jews at their own peril, others participated in pogroms that killed hundreds or betrayed their Jewish neighbors.

According to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem, more than 6,800 Polish gentiles risked their lives to save Jews, which is more than from any other European country.

The use of the phrase “Polish death camp” has resulted in mea culpas from journalists and politicians for years. In 2012, President Barack Obama was harshly rebuked by Poland’s prime minister for using the term, and the White House responded by expressing regret for the “misstatement.”

(The New York Times, whose stylebook directs its journalists to avoid the term, has also published corrections after the phrase has appeared.)

The Polish government’s scrutiny of this language has been going on for years, said Geneviève Zubrzycki, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan who has written about how Poland remembers the Holocaust.

But now that the country has a law that bans the phrase, people are paying attention to how it might be enforced.

“Everyone is looking at what the Polish government will do now that it has this law,” she said.

Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, told lawmakers in June that he expected publishers in the United States or Germany to think again before they use phrases like “Polish concentration camps” because they might fear a resulting lawsuit.

The Polish Embassy appeared to be satisfied with the Fox News tweet. In a statement on Wednesday, the embassy said officials were “pleased” that their criticism on Twitter had resulted in a correction.

“We believe that in most cases where false or misleading phrases are used, this is the result of ignorance or a lack of knowledge,” it said in a later statement. “Whenever they do occur in whatever media format, we are responsible for requesting that a correction be made.”

Because Polish news outlets would be highly unlikely to use such a phrase, the issue is typically raised publicly with foreigners, Professor Zubrzycki said. On Tuesday, a court in Germany ruled that a public-service television broadcaster did not have to issue a specifically phrased apology for using the term “Polish death camp,” as a Polish court had ruled it must, according to The Associated Press.

Professor Zubrzycki said she was much more worried that Poland’s law would stifle the speech of journalists and scholars inside the country who speak and write about Polish history during World War II.

The United States and other traditional allies had sharply criticized the Polish government over the law, condemning it as a threat to free speech. Israel’s government first likened the law to Holocaust denial, but then gave its approval to the rollback of criminal penalties.

Joanna Berendt contributed reporting from Warsaw.

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