We told you earlier this week about the anger in Poland over remarks made by the head of the FBI linking that country to the Holocaust. Hungary, which James Comey also mentioned in his speech, has now joined in the protests against the comments. The FBI chief, in an interview Tuesday, said he has no apology.
“The words of the FBI director bear witness to astounding insensitivity and impermissible superficiality,” the Hungarian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “We do not accept from anyone the formulation of such a generalization and defamation.”
In a speech last week at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, a version of which was published in The Washington Post, Comey called the Holocaust “the most significant event in world history.” But it was his remarks about who participated in the killing of Jews that drew most of the attention. Comey said:
“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.”
Poland summoned Stephen Mull, the U.S. ambassador to Warsaw, to the Foreign Ministry on Sunday to demand an apology.
Mull later told reporters that suggesting any country other than Nazi Germany was responsible for the Holocaust “is harmful and offensive.” But he added: “Director Comey certainly did not mean to suggest that Poland was in any way responsible for those crimes.”
Comey himself addressed the controversy on Tuesday when he was asked by Tennessee’s WATE-TV if he had an apology to those offended by his remarks.
“I don’t,” he said. “Except I didn’t say Poland was responsible for the Holocaust. In a way I wish very much that I hadn’t mentioned any countries because it’s distracted some folks from my point.
“I worry a little bit in some countries that point has gotten lost. There is no doubt that people in Poland heroically resisted the Nazis, and some people heroically protected the Jews, but there’s also no doubt that in every country occupied by the Nazis, there were people collaborating with the Nazis.”
The issue is a sensitive one in Poland, which was angered by President Obama’s remarks in 2012 when he referred to a “Polish death camp.” The White House called that a “misstatement” that it regretted.
But as Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor from Poland who now heads the Anti-Defamation League, notes, the issue is more complicated. In an essay on MSNBC, Foxman says that a Polish Catholic woman saved his life when he was a boy. He adds:
“Poles have a right to set the record straight about their history when it is distorted or conflated with that of the Nazis and Germany. But Mr. Comey was not wrong in what was his essential message: As evil as the Nazis were, their phantasmagoric mission to destroy the Jewish people was made much easier because the public in most European countries, Poland included, too often acted as bystanders and sometimes even as accomplices.”
Writing in The Post, Laurence Weinbaum, director of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, called Comey’s remarks “carelessly drafted, though presumably well-intentioned.” But he says:
“Thanks to the efforts of Polish researchers, we now know that more Poles participated in the destruction and despoliation of their Jewish neighbors than was previously believed. Many Poles saw the removal of the Jews from Poland as the one beneficial byproduct of an otherwise grievous occupation. For the least scrupulous local people, the Holocaust was also an El Dorado-like opportunity for self-enrichment and gratification. For some, this temptation was irresistible, and they did not recoil from committing acts of murder, rape and larceny — not always orchestrated by the Germans.”
The Associated Press reports that Frank Spula, head of the Polish American Congress, an organization that represents at least 10 million Americans of Polish descent, said he would expect Comey to resign over his remarks.