The Recent Debacle Involving
Congressman Stephen Cohen
The following is a review of the debacle involving Congressman Cohen, his words on CNN, and his subsequent “explanatory” letter.
On May 24, 2021, United States Congressman Stephen Cohen of Tenessee was on CNN’s Anderson Cooper show to comment on inappropriate statements made by Congresswoman Marjorie Greene, who used the Holocaust to make a political point and compared the compulsory wearing of the Star of David by Jews in Nazi Germany to the current mask-wearing mandates in the United States and thereby trivialized the Holocaust. Several years prior, however, Congressman Cohen himself was also criticized for making inappropriate statements that used the Holocaust to make a political point. He compared Republicans who criticized healthcare policies in the US to Goebbels, whose propaganda incited hatred towards Jews and Poles and inspired Germans to commit genocide against those two groups. Congressman Cohen thereby also trivialized the Holocaust.
Congressman Cohen made no mention on CNN of his own transgression as he criticized Congresswoman Marjorie Greene, which many would consider hypocritical. He also made the following outrageous statement falsely suggesting that Poland was responsible for the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps: “Well, it’s sad to see that Members of Congress have gotten to this low level. They don’t understand history. They don’t understand the Holocaust. You know, it was not just Nazi Germany; it was Poland where some of this more severe, serious concentration camps were – Auschwitz and Birkenau.”
This instance of misinformation caused outrage among Poles in the US and abroad who agreed with Congressman Cohen on only one point, i.e., it is truly sad to see that members of Congress have fallen to this low level. Poles, however, are thinking of one Congressman in particular, Stephen Cohen. The Kosciuszko Foundation, for example, wrote a letter to Congressman Cohen pointing out that Auschwitz was a German camp, run by German guards with German shepherds and hung the German words !Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Will Make You Free), over the entrance.
In response to the outcry, and a letter from Polish Ambassador to the United States Piotr Wilczek, who criticized his CNN comments, Congressman Cohen replied with a letter of contrition. Unfortunately, his letter revealed that he may not be aware of simple facts regarding the German-perpetrated genocide of the Poles. First of all, it was genocide, although he does not use this term in his letter. Is Congressman Cohen denying that what the Germans did to the Poles during World War II was genocide; yes or no? The Polish community has a right to demand that Congressman Cohen answer this question for the sake of clarity and transparency.
The Congressman should know that six million of thirty-six million Polish citizens, or one out of six, were killed. Three million of three and a half million, nine out of 10, Polish Jews perished. Three million of thirty million Poles (not Jewish), or one out of ten, died at the hands of the Germans. (Three million Jews from other European countries also were killed in the Holocaust). Yet out of all the things he could have said on CNN, Congressman Cohen chose to equate Nazi Germany, the perpetrators of the Holocaust, with Poland, the victim of the Holocaust. Out of all the things he could have written in his letter, he chose to diminish the suffering of the Poles by failing to describe their deaths as genocide or mention the statistics that accurately portray the fate of the Poles. While he mentioned the number of Polish Jews who died, which he was correct in doing, he did not acknowledge the number of Polish victims who died, even though he was trying to make amends for wrongly suggesting, intentionally or not, that the Poles were responsible for the German Nazi death camps.
While Mr. Cohen believes, mistakenly in the opinion of many Poles, that he is an authority on the Holocaust, it should be pointed out that Germany did not attempt to exterminate the Jews based on religion, as he incorrectly writes in his letter, but on ethnicity. While most Jewish victims of the Holocaust were religious Jews, non-religious Jews and Jews that converted to Christianity were treated the same as religious Jews. In fact, anyone who had just one Jewish grandparent was classified by the Germans as Jewish. So, someone who was three quarters Polish by ethnicity, in other words by blood, and considered themselves Polish, was considered Jewish in accordance with the extermination policies of the Germans if that person was one quarter Jewish. Cohen is a politician and a lawyer; he should not pretend to be an expert on the history of the Holocaust, and it does not look like he is the best person to lecture others in regards.
In his letter, Congressman Cohen tries to justify his CNN statement by writing that he was only referring to geography. This still does not explain how he went from commenting on Congresswoman Greene’s inappropriate comparison of mask-wearing mandates in the United States with the mandate for Jews to wear the Star of David in Nazi Germany to “it was Poland where some of this (sic) more severe, serious concentration camps were – Auschwitz and Birkenau.” Cohen actually spent more space in his letter attacking Congresswoman Greene than focusing on his own problematic words on CNN.
In his letter, Cohen writes “While my words were never intended as they have been interpreted. I understand why some Polish people were angry and hurt …” While Cohen may not have intended to have his words interpreted as they have been, it is solely because of how he worded them that they were interpreted the way they were. Congressman Cohen needs to take responsibility for spreading misinformation, intentionally or not, on a mainstream TV network with hundreds of thousands of people seeing and hearing him say those words. It is impossible to know how many viewers believed those words because they came from a United States Congressman. Writing an individual letter does not compensate for the hurtful misinformation that Congressman Cohen stated on national TV. Out of common decency, his letter of contrition should have at the least been posted on his official website and on his official Facebook page, especially since he posts other letters there. To be frank, he really should address his hurtful and anti-Polish comments on the Anderson Cooper show, and if that is not feasible, in a paid announcement on CNN. Absent these steps, Polish people have good reason to be skeptical of Cohen’s sincerity. There actually were no words of apology or regret. The closest to an apology or regret is in the following three excerpts: (1) I should have simply concentrated on her ignorance and not on the geography of the Nazi occupied places, (2) Please excuse my reference to Poland as a (sic) geography (3) While my words were never intended as they have been interpreted, I understand why some Polish people were angry and hurt with my comments, because their own families and the Polish people suffered so greatly.
Polish people can be very forgiving. That is one of the main tenets of their religion and a fundamental value of their culture. That does not mean Congressmen who wrongly offend them should not make amends for their mistakes, intentional or not, or that they should be allowed to treat the suffering of the Polish people dismissively, or that false information should not be retracted, or that they should not apologize when it is clearly called for. Congressman Cohen still owes Poles an answer on whether he recognizes the treatment of Poles by Nazi Germany to constitute genocide and to be part of the Holocaust. He needs to publicly express his contrition and apologize without trying to redirect responsibility for his words onto another Congressperson.
Regrettably, the letter by Congressman Cohen to the Polish Ambassador is insufficient. The Polish community requests a meeting with Congressman Cohen to discuss this issue and further requests a statement to be posted on his website and Facebook page. The Polish community also asks that he apologize on CNN. Cohen’s apology should unequivocally nullify the false suggestions of his words, make clear his regret for making those false suggestions, and not diminish the suffering of the Poles at the hands of the Germans.
Son of Witold Komar,
member of the WW II
Polish Underground unit Zośka,
famous, amongst other things
for saving 350 Jews from German
custody in 1944.
PS Poland, during World War II lost six million men, women and children, half of them Jewish, due to German genocidal activities designed to completely annihilate Jews and Poles, considered by Germany to be “sub human” and unworthy of life. Poles were in fact the first prisoners sent to Auschwitz, and the second largest group that perished there, for NO OTHER REASON THAN BEING POLISH! Polish inmates at Auschwitz created a resistance in the camp, and sent out information to the Polish Underground to inform on what was occurring there, and were the first to report on the industrial scale mass murder of the Jews. The Polish Underground, turned this information over to the Polish government-in -exile, which immediately informed the world, and gave specific actions requested by the inmates to slow the killing, such as bombing the railroad tracks or gas chambers. The world did nothing. It could have! \
Poles rebuffed early overtures by Hitler to join in an alliance with Germany against the Soviet Union, only to be invaded by both Germany and the Soviet Union, who were allies for two years after. Poles were the first to stand up to Nazi Germany, refused to create a collaborative government, fielded the largest resistance movement in occupied Europe; had the fourth largest allied military force fighting outside of occupied Poland against Germany. Polish forces took part in the Battle of Britain, and battles in North Africa, Norway, France, Belgium, Italy, Russia, and even in Berlin. The Polish navy and Merchant marines assisted the allies on the seas and oceans, with a Polish navy ship being the first to engage the Bismarck prior to it being destroyed. Polish mathematicians were the first to break the German enigma code and passed this information to the British prior to the start of the war. The Polish Underground located the production plants of the new modern V rockets that could have helped Nazi Germany win the war, which lead to the plants being destroyed in targeted bombings. The Polish Underground even provided one of the rockets that failed to explode on a testing ground to the British. The capital of Poland, Warsaw, was the only city that rebelled twice against German rule, in 1943 and 1944, to be thoroughly destroyed so as it resembled Nagasaki after the atomic bomb. Precisely because of this total Polish defiance of Nazi Germany, even against all odds, often with no hope of success, and out of PURE PRINCIPLE, Poles suffered the most brutal and harshest reprisals at the hands of the German Nazis.
In spite of the above, Poland ended up under Soviet occupation under which non Communist Polish heroes, considered threats to the Soviet takeover, were called “Nazis”, arrested, tortured, sent to the gulag, blacklisted, convicted in mock trials and/or killed as the US press glorified Stalin, referring to him as “Uncle Joe”. Soviet and Communist propaganda vilified non-Communist Poles, leveling all sorts of false accusations at them that Poland is now attempting to correct.
We believe that Poles paid a steep price in blood not to have the memory of their loved ones tarnished, intentionally or not, even in the most subtle way, by a hateful, ignorant US Congressman who is spewing misinformation that serves to potentially weaken not only the Polish American alliance, but also Polish Israeli and Polish Jewish relations.
For the Polish people, including Polish Americans, such a statement by Congressman Cohen is highly hurtful and infuriating. Most people can agree that such ethnic hatred has no place in the United States Congress. The Polish community in the United States has every right to expect condemnation of Congressman Cohen by his peers Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Greene was rebuked by her peers in Congress. It is time for the peers of Congressman Cohen to step up and rebuked him for his Holocaust distortion and revisionism, failure to apologize, for diminishing the suffering of the Polish people, and for failing to correct the damage he caused towards the Polish victims of genocide.
Ethnic hatred against any group is hatred against all groups. Hate is allowed to flourish when good people do nothing to stop it.
NOTE: Regrettably, upon review, it has been determined that the letter by Congressman Cohen to the Polish Ambassador is insufficient. The Polish community (1) requests a meeting with Congressman Cohen to discuss this issue and (2) further requests a statement to be posted on his website and Facebook page. The Polish community (3) also asks that he apologize on CNN. Cohen’s statements (4) should unequivocally nullify the false suggestions of his words, make clear his regret for making those false suggestions, and not diminish the suffering of the Poles at the hands of the Germans.