After months of petitions, the headstones were removed and replaced on Wednesday by Veterans Affairs officials. The headstones were replaced by standard government headstones, inscribed with the name of the deceased, rank, affiliation and date of death.
In addition to the two tombs in San Antonio, a headstone in the Fort Douglas Post cemetery in Salt Lake City features an Iron Cross with an inscribed swastika. The headstone of German prisoner of war Paul Eilert was purchased by his fellow prisoners of war after he died in 1944 using his 50-cent-a-day allowance money, according to the VA.
Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery contains remains of prisoners of war from eight camps operating in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, including Camp Bowie, Texas, where Kafka and Forst were originally buried.
According to the VA, the original tombstones of Kafka and Forst were probably altered between their placement in the field between 1943 and 1946-1947, when the remains and tombstones were transferred to the Fort Sam Houston national cemetery and the inscription was added .
Earlier this year, members of Congress asked federal authorities to remove or alter the headstones of two national cemeteries that contain swastikas.
In a May 25 letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, the Chamber’s group of lawmakers wrote that allowing tombstones “with symbols and messages of hatred, racism, intolerance and genocide is especially offensive to all veterans who are they risked, and often lost, their lives defending this country and our way of life. “
“It is also a stain on the sacred soil where so many veterans and their families are buried,” wrote lawmakers. “Families who visit their loved ones, who are buried in the same cemeteries with the Nazi soldiers they fought against, should never have to face symbols of hatred that are antithetical to our American values.”
Tombstones have been around for decades
The tombstones have been in cemeteries for decades, but were brought to attention earlier this year after the Military Foundation for Religious Freedom (MRFF) asked for their replacement.
Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of MRFF, said in a press release in May that a senior military officer warned his organization about the headstones after visiting the graves of family members at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.
“In light of the shocking and inexcusable existence of these Nazi-adorned tombs in VA national cemeteries, the MRFF requires Secretary Wilkie to issue an immediate and sincere apology to all United States veterans and their families,” Weinstein, a veteran of the Force Aérea, founder and president of MRFF, said in the press release.
Other advocacy groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, echoed calls to remove the headstones.
In May, the VA said it was aware of the gravestones, which date back to the 1940s and were approved by the United States Army. At the time, the department said it would not remove them because it was required by law to preserve historic artifacts.
“The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 assigns management responsibilities to federal agencies, including VA and the Army, to protect historical resources, including those that recognize divisive events or historical figures,” the department said in a statement to Salon.com. “For this reason, the VA will continue to preserve these headstones, as every previous government has done.”
In June, Jewish US war veterans, who worked with the MRFF, announced that VA officials had reversed the course and were beginning the process of removing “offensive headstones and replacing them with appropriate markers.”
A deadline for completion was not announced and no further information on the removal of the Utah tombstone was provided.