House lawmakers on Thursday angrily demanded Veterans Affairs officials immediately remove a series of grave markers bearing Nazi swastikas and tributes to Adolf Hitler at a pair of department-run cemeteries, calling leadership’s response so far confusing and offensive.
But in his first public remarks on the controversy, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said he is looking for ways to “find a way to put this in historical context” rather than simply remove the problematic grave markers.
“Anti-Semitism is rearing its head all over Europe and in some places in this country,” he told members of the House Appropriations Committee during a hearing Thursday. “The last thing we need to do is to not remind Americans of the horrors of anti-Semitism and the Nazi cult.
“I happen to think that making sure when people visit our cemeteries they are informed of that horror is an important thing to do … erasing these headstones removes them from memory.”
At issue are three grave sites at two VA cemeteries: Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in Texas and Fort Douglas Post Cemetery in Utah. Both were used to inter dozens of unclaimed remains of enemy troops following World War II.
While most of the foreign troops’ grave markers list only names and dates of death, the three in question— which all date back to the 1940s — are also engraved with with a swastika in the center of an iron cross and in inscription in German which reads “He died far from his home for the Führer, people and fatherland.”
Earlier this month, following complaints from local veterans about the offensive messages, leaders from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation demanded VA remove the grave markers, saying their presence alongside American veterans was unforgivable.
But VA leaders have said that the sites are governed by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which “assigns stewardship responsibilities to federal agencies, including VA and Army, to protect historic resources, including those that recognize divisive historical figures or events.”
Wilkie referenced that regulation again on Thursday, saying that removing the headstones would be a lengthy and complicated process.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. and chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee on veterans issues, disputed that and accused Wilkie of “hiding behind” the federal statute.
“I understand (these graves) were not under jurisdiction of VA at the time they were put in, but there is no excuse now for VA to leave them,” she said. “(The law) is not a blanket excuse to avoid addressing past mistakes.”
Both Republican and Democratic leaders on the panel sent a letter this week demanding action on the issue, accompanied by new letters from groups like the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee decrying the presence of the headstones.
“It’s hard to see in the 21st century why they would stay that way, with all we know about what happened to the Jewish people in that war and the horrors of the concentration camps,” said Rep. John Carter, R-Texas.
Wilkie would not promise to make a change at the sites but did say the department is conducting a review into the issue. That process could include relocating the headstones to a different area or providing some signage explaining the history behind the graves for visitors.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.