What To Do with Erstwhile Heroes Who Now Look Like Villains?
On Friday, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day by calling for the removal from Broadway’s Canyon of Heroes two sidewalk plaques that honor French government officials who later collaborated with Nazi Germany.
One recalls the October 26, 1931, ticker tape parade honoring Henri Philippe Petain, a French general whose service in World War One earned him the admiring nickname, “the Lion of Verdun.” Petain’s record in the Second World War, however, was considerably darker. After the fall of France, he was appointed by the Nazi occupation authorities as the chief of a new French government, which functioned as a German puppet. In this capacity, he recruited French troops to fight alongside the Nazis, and oversaw the deportation of more than 100,000 French Jews to their deaths in German concentrations camps. For such acts of collaboration, Petain was tried for treason after the war had ended, and sentenced to death—although this was commuted to life imprisonment.
Similar ambiguity surrounds the plaque honoring Pierre Laval, who, as premier of France, was honored with a ticker tape parade along Broadway just four days prior to Petain’s. A decade later, Laval was literally Petain’s partner in crime. When the Nazis installed the aging general as chief of state in their French client government, they chose a younger politician, Laval, as the head of government. Like Petain, Laval was tried for treason after the war, and sentenced to death. Unlike Petain, his sentence was not commuted, and Laval was executed in 1946.
“We are making a clear call today, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, that these names be removed from the Canyon of Heroes,” Mr. Levine said at a rally on Friday, at the site of the markers. He noted that New York is home to “the largest community of Holocaust survivors on Earth outside of Israel. It is unacceptable that these two men would occupy a place of honor here.”
Menachem Rosensaft, the founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors (who was born in the former concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, in 1948, after it had been converted into a displaced persons facility), said, “Leval and Petain were evil incarnate, alongside Hitler, Himmler, Eichmann, and all the other architects and perpetrators of the genocide of European Jewry.”
Gideon Taylor, chief executive officer of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said, “this is not removing history or hiding history. It is telling history.”
City Council member Eric Dinowitz, added, “there’s something to be said about our emotional health, knowing that we live in a city that honors Nazi collaborators. And that’s what these names here on the ground here do. People who would have seen my family, our families, millions and millions of families, destroyed. It’s not an exaggeration to say we are living in a time when it is becoming less and less safe to be Jewish. Anti-Semitic crimes, acts of bias, and attacks are on the rise. And by having these names here, we are giving a tacit endorsement to those attacks. We are saying as a city, ‘we honor those who hate others for who they are and what they believe.’”
He continued, “on this day, we are commanded to remember the Holocaust. And in the Jewish faith, we remember by acting. We remember by doing things. So let’s do something today and have these names removed from the Canyon of Heroes.”
Not mentioned at Friday’s event, but perhaps worthy of runner-up status was the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, who was honored with a ticker tape parade in June 1927, in recognition of his history-making solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean a few years earlier. The event drew an enraptured crowd of almost four million people. A decade later, however, Lindbergh became a leading advocate for leaving Western Europe to its fate at the hands of the Nazis. In 1938, he accepted a medal, the Service Cross of the German Eagle (right), from Hermann Goering, who presented it on behalf of Adolf Hitler. Lindbergh also made a series of speeches as the war engulfed Europe, and as American involvement drew nearer, invoking vile anti-Semitic tropes. A few weeks before Pearl Harbor, he said of American Jews, “their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.”
All three of these sidewalk markers were placed along Broadway’s Canyon of Heroes, the route taken by ticker tape parades, in 2003 and 2004, as part of a project recalling more than 200 such parades, from 1886 through the present.
In 2017, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio focused on the Petain plaque, when he announced the formation of a Mayoral Advisory Commission, saying that the “commemoration for Nazi collaborator Philippe Petain in the Canyon of Heroes will be one of the first we remove.” In 2018, the Commission recommended leaving in place the plaque honoring Petain, and offered no guidance on what to do with those commemorating Laval and Lindbergh. The panel noted, “first, the Petain marker is one part of a project designed as a whole to acknowledge the history of parades along Broadway; and second, the project accurately records a chronology of events in place… The Commission believes that if a marker is accurate, and not celebratory of egregious values or actions, it should not be removed.”
In this context, the Petain marker was deemed to be a chronological and documentary artifact, rather than one that was lauded its subject. The report also raised the questions of whether the “Canyon of Heroes [is] a set of markers or a monument in itself? Is a marker placed in the sidewalk perceived as honorific?”
The report noted that a majority of the Commission’s members “advocate to keep all markers in place and add context in order to reframe this list as a teachable moment (e.g., wayfinding, on-site signage, and historical information about the people for whom parades were held).” The panel also suggested removing “references to the name ‘Canyon of Heroes’ from Lower Broadway, as it mischaracterizes the installation as a celebration of heroic figures who, in some cases, do not reflect contemporary values of New York City.”
Mr. de Blasio announced that additional information would provide context surrounding the complicated moral questions related to figures later judged by history to be villains, rather than protagonists. Neither the commission’s recommendations nor the Mayor’s promised context were implemented, and nothing was done.
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