MRFF’s Relentless Tenacity Leads to VA (Department of Veterans Affairs) Decision to Remove Swastika Adorned Headstones Maintained in VA National Cemeteries

June 1, 2020

MRFF was originally contacted on May 10, 2020 by a retired senior U.S. Military officer and military academy graduate for assistance regarding the existence of two German headstones among the 140 POW gravesites located in the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery (San Antonio, TX) that were adorned with Nazi swastikas along with an inscription honoring Adolf Hitler.  This MRFF client described the direct personal impact of these Swastika adorned headstones as the descendant of Jewish ancestry while visiting and honoring his Veteran grandfather buried there who fought against the Germans during the Second World War.

On May 12, 2020, MRFF President/Founder Mikey Weinstein sent the following email demand to VA Secretary Robert L. Wilkie, Jr.:

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) hereby demands that V.A. Secretary Robert Wilkie IMMEDIATELY replace the gravestones of all German military personnel interred in V.A. National Cemeteries so that ABSOLUTELY NO Nazi-era symbols, such as the repulsive swastika, and no homages to Adolph Hitler, or the German people and the German fatherland he led as the evil Fuhrer of the Third Reich, will ever again be allowed to appear on such gravestones in V.A. National Cemeteries maintained by U.S. taxpayer dollars.

Indeed, V.A. Secretary Wilkie must first timely explain WHY ANY such former enemy military personnel are even buried In V.A. National Cemeteries, in the first place, alongside our honored deceased American veterans?

Lastly, in light of the shocking and inexcusable existence of these Nazi-adorned gravesites in V.A. National Cemeteries, MRFF demands that Secretary Wilkie issue an immediate and heartfelt apology to all United States veterans and their families

In response to MRFF’s demand on behalf of our client, the VA replied:

VA is aware of three headstones – two at Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery [San Antonio, TX] and one at Ft. Douglas Post Cemetery [Salt Lake City, UT] – that include these symbols.  All of the headstones date back to the 1940s, when the Army approved the inscriptions in question. Both Ft. Sam Houston and Ft. Douglas cemeteries were subsequently transferred to the VA’s National Cemetery Administration, in 1973 and 2019, respectively.

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 assigns stewardship responsibilities to federal agencies, including VA and the Army, to protect historic resources, including those that recognize divisive historical figures or events [emphasis added]. For this reason, VA will continue to preserve these headstones, like every past administration has.

Mikey quickly blasted this ‘non-reply reply’:  “According to the VA, Hitler and his evil, genocidal Third Reich are merely “divisive historical figures or events, now?! …  on the VERY same day that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports the highest level of anti-Semitic incidents EVER in American history.  The VA’s pathetic and feckless response here is disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst.”

MRFF’s demand along with the VA’s pathetically disingenuous response quickly received national and international media attention and statements of support from Jewish and Civil Rights organizations:

  • Jewish Telegraphic Agency
  • The Military Times
  • Business Insider
  • American Jewish Committee
  • Columbus Jewish Foundation
  • Star and Stripes
  • LA Progressive
  • NY Daily News
  • Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)
  • B’nai B’rith
  • Salon
  • Mother Jones
  • Newsweek
  • Military.com
  • DailyKos
  • VoteVets
  • Veterans Service Organizations of the Commander’s Task Force, Department of Veterans Affairs, State of Minnesota
  • Wall Street Journal
  • The Daily Caller
  • CNN
  • The Hill
  • Sputnik News
  • PoliticalTribune.org
  • ABC News (ABC7 WJLA TV NEWS – Washington D.C.)

MRFF’s demand also generated Congressional support from  U.S. House Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee Chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-23), “Allowing these gravestones to remain with the swastikas and messages in place – symbols of hatred, racism, intolerance, and genocide – is offensive to veterans who risked, and often lost, their lives defending this country and our way of life.”  A follow-up letter was also sent to VA Secretary Wilkie asking, “…that you eliminate this antiquated policy and begin the process for removing these gravestones or having them altered immediately. It is never too late to do the right thing.”  This letter was signed by the following bi-partisan Members of Congress:

  • Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL23), Chairwoman Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs
  • John R. Carter (R-TX31), Ranking Member Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs
  • Nita M. Lowey (D-NY17), Chairwoman Committee on Appropriations
  • Kay Granger (R-TX12), Ranking Member Committee on Appropriations

On May 28, 2020, VA Secretary Wilkie testified before a House Appropriations subcommittee on the agency’s response to the coronavirus pandemic where members of the subcommittee also urged the secretary to remove swastikas from the gravestones of German prisoners of war who were buried in VA cemeteries while pointing out the disingenuous response of the VA to continue maintaining these headstones ‘as-is’ based on the National Historic Preservation Act.  Sec. Wilkie responded, in part:

ERASING THESE HEADSTONES REMOVES THEM FROM MEMORY, AND AS WE CONTINUE TO STUDY THE HOLOCAUST, THE LAST THING ANY HOLOCAUST SCHOLAR WANTS TO DO IS ERASE THAT MEMORY. I THINK WE CAN FIND A WAY TO PUT THIS IN A HISTORICAL CONTEXT. THAT IS MY VIEW, THAT WE CANNOT ERASE THE HORROR AND IGNORE IT. WE HAVE TO CONTINUE TO HAMMER IT. MY VIEW IS THAT WE NEED TO LOOK AT HISTORICAL INTERPRETATIONS THAT I AM VERY HAPPY TO PUT UP. I WOULD ALSO NOTE IN THAT HISTORICAL PRESERVATION ACT, IN SECTION 106, THESE CEMETERIES, WHICH WE INHERITED FROM THE ARMY, ARE ON THE NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES. I WOULD HAPPILY ENGAGE IN A VERY LONG PROCESS RIGHT NOW IN ORDER TO — I WOULD HAVE TO ENGAGE IN A VERY LONG PROCESS IN ORDER TO ERASE.

(source:  https://www.c-span.org/video/?472527-1/secretary-wilkie-testifies-va-coronavirus-response&live&vod)

In response to Sec. Wilkie’s testimony, Mikey released a statement on behalf of MRFF condemning “the disgusting, disingenuous and dishonest testimony of VA Secretary Robert Wilkie before members of the United States Congress yesterday regarding the sordid matter of Nazi-adorned headstones at the gravesites of the 3 German POWs from World War II who are buried at 2 VA National Cemeteries.”  Mikey statement also highlighted Sec. Wilkie’s ignoble background:

Let’s be quite clear who this Robert Wilkie person is.

In simple terms, it is abundantly clear that Mr. Wilkie is a nothing more than a repulsive Nazi-apologist of the highest and most repugnant order.

With a mere flick of his pen, pursuant to the easy-to-follow, legal and expeditious, “1-2-3″ bureaucratic roadmap clearly outlined yesterday by questioning Members of  Congress to Wilkie during his testimony, this VA Secretary could have the Nazi-adorned headstones swiftly removed and replaced with headstones that display the information of the deceased German POWs in a proper and decent manner that in no way gloriously extolls Adolf Hitler, his Third Reich and the German people who supported both.

Wilkie’s support of these Nazi headstone is not at all surprising. He is a well known and documented advocate of the Civil War Confederacy who has praised Confederate President Jefferson Davis as a “martyr” and an “exceptional man in an exceptional age” while also condemning, in the most ignoble and vicious terms, the abolitionists who opposed slavery as “radical”, “mendacious” and “enemies of liberty”.

Indeed, during Wilkie’s U.S. Senate confirmation hearings, he deliberately spewed inaccurate information to U.S. Senators as to how long it had been since he last spoke to his beloved pro-Confederate gatherings, thus, making it seem as though it had been a much longer time than it actually had been. Further, he failed to disclose his membership in the Confederate Memorial Committee and omitted his event speeches from responses asking for the details on them.

Wilkie publicly called Civil War-era civil right activists laboring to abolish slavery the names that clearly apply, instead, to him. It is VA Secretary Robert Wilkie who is “radical” (in his support of the Nazis) and is likewise “mendacious” as to the falsehoods and deceptions he has delivered to the United States Congress and, thus, the American people.

Indeed, it is VA Secretary Wilkie who is the true “enemy of liberty.”

On June 1, 2020, at 1:54PM EDT, MRFF was informed by an ABC News executive producer in Washington D.C. that the Veterans Administration has confirmed they plan to remove the swastika headstones. This ABC News Exec. Producer ended his e-mail to Mikey saying just 2 words; “YOU WON”!

VA News Releases

VA to begin legal process of replacing three German POW headstones

6/01/2020 06:02 PM EDT

VA announced today that it will initiate the process required by law to replace three German prisoner of war headstones in national cemeteries in Texas and Utah.

(source:  https://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=5460)

Lest we forget, and in light of VA & Sec. Wilkie’s attempts to downplay, ignore and/or take credit for this reversal:  MRFF was first to demand, in a 5/12/20 letter to VA Sec. Robert Wilkie, that the swastika headstones be removed. MRFF was also first to expose the issue in major media internationally.

 


 

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