VA secretary wants to keep Nazi gravestones for historical purposes
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 28, 2020
WASHINGTON — Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie argued Thursday against calls from lawmakers to remove German soldiers’ gravestones etched with swastikas from VA-operated cemeteries.
Two gravestones of German prisoners of war are in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas, and one is in Fort Douglas Post Cemetery in Salt Lake City, Utah. The graves are placed among those of American veterans, some of whom fought against Nazi Germany in World War II.
During a hearing of the House Committee on Appropriations on Thursday, Democrats and Republicans called on the VA to replace the three gravestones.
“This is deeply troubling,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. “These graves sit right alongside men and women who fought for our country and our ideals. There’s no excuse for the VA to continue to maintain them.”
Wilkie favored an approach that would keep the gravestones but would add historical context in an effort to educate Americans about the Holocaust.
“This is my view, that we cannot erase the horror and ignore it,” Wilkie said. “The last thing we need to do is not remind America of the horrors of antisemitism. Erasing these headstones removes them from memory.”
The gravestones were discovered recently by a retired colonel visiting his Jewish grandfather’s grave at the San Antonio cemetery. The finding prompted the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which attempts to protect religious freedom for service members, to call for the VA to remove them.
In a previous statement, the VA’s National Cemetery Administration said it “will continue to preserve these headstones, like every past administration has.”
The VA argued that the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 would prevent the department from removing the stones. On Thursday, Wasserman Schultz criticized Wilkie for “hiding behind” the preservation act and said the VA was misinterpreting the policy.
Reps. Nita Lowey, R-N.Y., and John Carter, R-Texas, also urged Wilkie to remove the gravestones.
“I don’t think they should be displayed to the American public,” Carter said. “I think you should replace these stones with just a regular stone. Say they’re German POWs, but that’s it. And take all those Nazi symbols off.”
In addition to the Texas and Utah cemeteries, German POWs were buried at 11 other national cemeteries in the U.S. The gravestones at those sites are not etched with swatstikas.
At the end of Thursday’s discussion, Wilkie said he would consider options, including relocating the gravestones from the burial sites of Americans who died in World War II.
“Because of the times we live in where we have seen antisemitism reach our shores, I want to make sure that the VA is doing the best we can to educate and remind people why the veterans in those cemeteries fought against that horror,” Wilkie said.