An advocacy group is preparing to go to court unless the Department of Veterans Affairs swiftly removes Nazi symbols and references to Adolf Hitler from the headstones of three German prisoners of war from World War II buried in national veterans cemeteries.
The swastikas and inscriptions, which state in German, “He died far from his home for the Führer, people and fatherland,” should not be allowed in VA cemeteries where American veterans are interred, said Mikey Weinstein, chairman of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.
The symbols and the inscriptions “must be eradicated and eradicated now,” he said Tuesday. “This is completely and totally wrong.”
Weinstein, a former Air Force captain and graduate of the Air Force Academy, said MRFF is prepared to go to federal court if the VA refuses to remove the headstones. He also called on Congress to take action.
He said the VA should follow the example of Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger, who in April banned public displays of Confederate flags and paraphernalia at all Marine installations.
In a letter to all Marines, Berger wrote, “I am focused solely on building a uniquely capable warfighting team whose members come from all walks of life and must learn to operate side-by-side.”
He said the Confederate flag “has shown it has the power to inflame feelings of division.”
The three German POWs, whose remains were unclaimed after the war, are buried at two VA national cemeteries — two at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in Texas and one at Fort Douglas Post Cemetery in Utah.
Weinstein said he was alerted to their presence by a retired colonel, whose name he withheld, who saw the headstones while visiting his Jewish grandfather’s grave at the Texas cemetery and learned of the third headstone in Utah.
Weinstein said he wrote to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie last Monday, demanding their removal.
In a statement Wednesday, the VA’s National Cemetery Administration said that the headstones could not be changed or removed under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.
The VA is required “to protect historic resources, including those that recognize divisive historical figures or events,” according to the statement.
Since MRFF raised the issue, other groups have called on the VA to remove the headstones or erase the symbols and inscriptions.
In a statement last Thursday, the Southern Poverty Law Center said that the VA “isn’t responsible for the mistakes of past cemetery managers. The graves are a relic of the prisoners of war transferred to the U.S. at the end of World War II who died here, the majority of whom were repatriated.”
However, “the VA’s defense of the swastika — the preeminent symbol of antisemitism — only gives oxygen to the white nationalist movement,” the law center said.
In a letter to Wilkie last Friday backing MRFF, B’nai B’rith International, the Jewish service organization, expressed “outrage over the display of swastikas, iron crosses, and quotes honoring Adolf Hitler” on the three headstones.
“These deeply offensive symbols and language appear alongside the tombstones of American soldiers, including some who fought Nazi oppression in World War II,” and should be removed, B’nai B’rith said.
In a statement Monday, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida and chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, said, “The VA’s decision to leave the swastikas in place, as well as the messages honoring Hitler, while ignoring calls to take the headstones down, is callous, irresponsible and unacceptable.”
— Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.
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