Tuesday, May 27, 2008

New Obama Gaffe: Where in the world is Auschwitz?

From the WashingtonPost.com Fact Checker blog: "I had an uncle who was one of the, um, who was part of the first American troops to go into Auschwitz and liberate the concentration camps. And the story in our family is that when he came home he just went up in the attic and he didn't leave the house for six months."
--Barack Obama, Memorial Day speech, Las Cruces, NM.

In an attempt to burnish his credentials with America's veterans, Barack Obama has frequently talked about his grandfather "who served in Patton's army." He has now added a new episode to his World War II repertoire: the uncle who liberated Auschwitz. Unfortunately, the story shows that the presumptive Democratic nominee has a poor grasp of European history and geography.

The Facts

Auschwitz is located in southern Poland, near the city of Krakow. It was liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945. At the time, U.S. armies were still on the western borders of Germany, a thousand miles away, regrouping after the Battle of the Bulge. The Americans had not even crossed the Rhine at this point.

The Obama campaign now says that Obama was referring to his great-uncle on his mother's side, and the camp in question was not Auschwitz, but Ohrdruf, which was part of the Buchenwald camp system in Lower Saxony. Ohrdruf was the first camp to be liberated by the Americans on April 4, 1945, and it was visited a week later by Generals Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley. Eisenhower later wrote to his wife that he "never dreamed that such cruelty, bestiality and savagery could really exist in this world."

The campaign declined to release the name of Obama's great-uncle, apparently because he is an elderly man who does not want to be disturbed by reporters. Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said that he served in the 89th Infantry Division which crossed the Rhine river in March 1945.


The attempt to shield the name of the Obama relative who took part in the liberation of Ohrdruf lasted about an hour. According to the Associated Press, it is Charlie Payne, the brother of Obama's maternal grandmother, Madelyn Lee Payne.

Obama's Auschwitz claim, made during a Memorial Day appearance in New Mexico, was first reported in blog postings by Washington Post reporter Karl Vick and by CBS News. Neither report provided a direct quote, raising the possibility that Obama might have been misquoted. I asked Vick to go back and check his recording of the event.

The above quote is taken from a verbatim transcript. Prior to talking about Auschwitz, Obama mentioned his grandfather (the one in Patton's army), recalling that he did not like talking about the war. This led into a riff on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a term that Obama said was unknown during World War II and the Vietnam War. "People basically had to handle it on their own." He gave the example of his uncle who hid away in the attic after liberating Auschwitz.

Granted, it is getting late in the campaign. The candidates are tired, and prone to making silly mistakes. Many Americans might have problems distinguishing Buchenwald and Ohrdruf from Auschwitz. But should we not expect more from a Harvard-educated presidential candidate? Is it too much to ask that an aspiring commander-in-chief knows (1) that Auschwitz (like many of the other Nazi death camps) is in Poland, and (2) that the eastern advance of the U.S. Army in World War II stopped on the river Elbe? Let me know what you think.