When Ann Arbor T-Shirt Company owner Jerry Kozak gave the greenlight on the Polska Pride design line, he envisioned Polish Americans like himself purchasing the shirts as a way to connect with their roots.
As with similar pride lines for other countries, the designers took a national symbol, in this case a white, crowned eagle that harkens back to 1295, and photoshopped it together with a list of modern Polish cities and towns.
The alternate design has the town name in the center of a heart made up of cute stylized national pastimes — jousting? — buildings and animals.
But when you take such a heart and juxtapose it with the Polish name for Auschwitz, Oswiecim, the effect is less than warm and fuzzy.
It would be next to impossible to find areas of Poland untainted by anti-Semitism or murder of Jews during World War II. But the town of Oswiecim, annexed by Nazi Germany in 1939, was the site of the largest and most notorious extermination camps during World War II, where approximately one in six Jews who died in the Holocaust were killed.
Today Oswiecim, located near Krakow, houses some 40,000 Polish citizens.
Other notorious sites were also part of the original line. The Times of Israel received an email Wednesday with a screenshot of another questionable choice — Jedwabne, where some 340 Polish Jews were massacred in 1941 while locked in a blazing fire that was controversially lit by Polish nationals.
In a brief conversation with The Times of Israel, owner Kozak explained he and his company had no intention of being controversial in their location choices. Indeed, when the case of Jedwabne was brought to his attention, he pulled the Amazon sales page for it “within five minutes,” he said, calling it a “pretty simple miscommunication.”
“Clearly if we had ever known that a massacre was there, we wouldn’t have sold it,” said Kozak.
Kozak’s designers took the names from modern towns’ maps without researching their histories. All T-shirts are printed on order and there is no backstock. Kozak said he is receptive to emails (firstname.lastname@example.org) about other potentially problematic locations.
“It is interesting that a place can be tainted by one event — if you think about the Warsaw Ghetto and concentration camp there, Warsaw is so much older and bigger that you would never associate it just with that,” said Kozak, comparing it to New York City, which is “so much bigger” than just the World Trade Center attack.
“It’s all fairly benign when you’re just working with places on a map,” said Kozak.