The leader of the Department of Veterans Affairs said he believes Nazi gravestones in two national veterans' cemeteries should remain in place for historic preservation.
Lawmakers -- both Republicans and Democrats -- told VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to remove the three gravestones etched with the Nazi swastika and inscriptions honoring Adolph Hitler that mark the graves of German prisoners of war and replace them with alternative grave markers.
Members of Congress confronted Wilkie during a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee Thursday, where the VA secretary also had to answer for his department's response to the coronavirus pandemic so far.
But Wilkie said he wanted the gravestones to stay, instead favoring an approach that would add historical context to their presence in the Texas and Utah cemeteries to help educate visitors about World War II and the Holocaust.
"The last thing we need to do is not remind Americans of the horrors of antisemitism and the horrors of the Nazi cult," Wilkie said, adding that it would be a long process to remove the gravestones from the cemeteries.
"We cannot erase the horror and ignore it," he said.
A military religious rights group is also threatening to sue VA if it does not remove the gravestones after they were discovered by a retired colonel while he was visiting his Jewish grandfather's grave at a national cemetery in Texas.
VA initially said it would not remove the gravestones from the cemeteries at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and Fort Douglas Post in Salt Lake City because they were placed there 30 years before the cemeteries fell under VA jurisdiction and are now protected, adding the department "will continue to preserve these headstones, like every past administration has."
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., accused Wilkie of attempting to "hide behind" the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which she said does not prevent him from amending or removing the gravestones, adding that the Nazi swastika is prohibited even in Germany today.
Wilkie said he would look into the issue, but Schultz was not satisfied.
"A review is not a commitment" to remove the gravestones, she said. "I urge you to immediately ... begin the process to replace these headstones."
Wilkie said he wanted to try to put the gravestones "in a better context," keeping them in the cemeteries but finding a way to educate visitors about their presence there.
"I happen to think making sure people are educated is an incredibly important thing to do," he said. "Erasing these headstones removes them from memory ... My only concern ... is to make sure when we do this, we are still reminding people of that horror and why those soldiers fought and that we educate."
Schultz called the gravestones "deeply troubling."
"These graves sit right alongside men and women who fought for our country and our ideals," she said. "There's no excuse for VA to continue to maintain them."
Chairwoman Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. said it was time "to do the right thing and remove these offensive symbols from the solemn ground where our brave soldiers rest."
"You should replace these stones with just a regular stone," said Rep. John Carter, R-Texas. "Say they're German POWs, but that's it. And take all those Nazi symbols off ... It's the right thing to do as Americans."
At the end of his exchange with lawmakers, Wilkie said he would consider options for the gravestones.
"I want to make sure that the VA is doing the best we can to educate and remind people why the veterans in those cemeteries fought against that horror," he said.