President Barack Obama handed out the 2011 Medals of Freedom at the White House yesterday, honoring several notable figures in the Jewish community.
Israeli President Shimon Peres was among the 13 recipients, as was the late Jan Karski, a Polish World War II resistance fighter. Jewish-musician Bob Dylan was also honored, along with former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, who's new book explores her hidden Jewish roots.
“For years, Jan Karski’s students at Georgetown University knew he was a great professor,” Obama said. “What they didn’t realize was he was also a hero.”
In 1939, Karski managed to escape a train headed for a prisoner of war camp, instead joining resistance group ZWZ in Poland. He would later give one of the original firsthand accounts of the Nazi death camps to President Franklin Roosevelt, risking his life to do so.
The AJC commended the inclusion of Karski, who died in 2000.
"Karski, a Polish Catholic, stands out as one of the towering figures of the war, indeed of the 20th century. A moral giant, he showed extraordinary courage and determination in his valiant effort to wake up a largely indifferent world to the plight of the Jewish people," said AJC Executive Director David Harris. 'We applaud the United States for paying tribute to this remarkable man. We only wish he could have lived to this day to receive the medal in person."
President Peres was not present at the ceremony due to other responsibilities, though Obama did note he would host the Israeli leader at a special dinner to present the award. Obama added that Peres “has done more for the cause of peace in the Middle East than just about anyone in the world.”
Peres' acceptance of the honor caused some controversy in Israel, as some dissenters urged the Jewish leader to use the bestowal as an opportunity to petition for the release of imprisoned Israeli spy, Jonathan Pollard.
Meanwhile, the ADL praised the White House for its apology over a gaffe at the ceremony. In his speech, Obama used the phrase “Polish camps,” a common faux pas that insinuates camps built by Nazis in Poland were done so with Polish support.
“We 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,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL national director. “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.”