The Department of Veterans Affairs will begin a legal process that could remove three headstones containing swastikas and messages honoring Adolf Hitler from the graves of German prisoners of war.
Monday's announcement follows a week of tense back-and-forth between the VA and a bipartisan group of senior lawmakers, who released a letter one week ago calling on the department to remove the gravestones from veterans' cemeteries in Texas and Utah.
“It is understandably upsetting to our Veterans and their families to see Nazi inscriptions near those who gave their lives for this nation. That’s why VA will initiate the process required to replace these POW headstones," Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement Monday.
Wilkie said at a congressional hearing last week that he thought the gravestones with their markings, first erected in the 1940s, should remain but with the addition of "historical context."
In Monday's statement, the agency said it plans to "install interpretive signs at all VA national cemeteries where foreign enemy prisoners of war are interred in order to provide historical context about how non-U.S. service members from World War I and World War II were interred and buried on American soil."
The VA will now begin a process under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 that will allow the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to decide if removing the gravestones would create an adverse effect.
The decision comes four just days after Wilkie told the House Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee that seeking the headstones' removal would require him to "engage in a very long process right now in order to erase" the anti-Semitic imagery.
"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," Wilkie said.
After receiving complaints from lawmakers, prior to last week's House hearing, National Cemetery Administration official Tim Nosal said in an emailed statement that the grave markings were likely to stay put.
"Headstones of enemy prisoners of war stand only in cemeteries where enemy POWs are buried, and we have no plans to change the posture of previous administrations by disturbing those gravesites," Nosal said.
Wilkie's testimony did not sit well with House Military Construction-VA Subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., who told him the grave markers would be "dealt with one way or another."