Two years ago I was copy editing an Associated Press article that was being considered as an addition to our Nation-World page. The story was about the infamous Nazi sign at Auschwitz, a concentration camp in Poland during World War II. The sign was stolen.
The AP story, and other stories about the sign, ran on the New York Times’ website, Time Magazine — in partnership with CNN and the Wall Street Journal — all with the same mistake. They wrote the sign was from a “Polish concentration camp.” The New York Times, on several occasions going back to 1986, has used the phrase.
They were wrong.
I’m not sure if the errors are because many of today’s journalists are young, as are the copy editors whose “the buck stops here” job is to catch these errors. But they certainly don’t know their history, or are trying to revise it.
Before, and during World War II, Auschwitz, along with many other death camps, were built by the Nazis in Germany, and the occupied territories — notably Poland and the former Soviet Union.
Thus, the distinction: These are German Nazi camps in Poland. They are not Polish camps.
I pointed this out in my book, “Military Reporters Stylebook and Reference Guide” since it was apparent the AP didn’t have a style for this.
Well today, two years after their mistake on this issue and petitions from various Holocaust groups, the AP has finally come out with an official writing style:
concentration camps: For World War II camps in countries occupied by Nazi Germany, do not use phrases like Polish death camps that confuse the location and the perpetrators. Use instead, for example, death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland.
I can’t go back through all of AP’s archives, but a quick look does show that, at least as late as 1967, they had it correctly as “Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp.” Perhaps The reporters of the Greatest Generation and baby boomers remember history better than today’s journalists.
To their credit, each time the New York Times wrote in error, they made a correction. But, it’s time for the Times to add this to their style book as well. This way future journalists can get this right.