New York’s indifference to the Shoah - opinion

Interestingly, the parades honoring Pétain and Laval each occurred in October 1931. This was about a decade before their crimes of genocide against the Jewish people took place.

 A TICKER TAPE parade takes place in New York City’s ‘Canyon of Heroes’ in lower Manhattan last summer to honor essential workers for their work during the outbreak of COVID-19. (photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)
A TICKER TAPE parade takes place in New York City’s ‘Canyon of Heroes’ in lower Manhattan last summer to honor essential workers for their work during the outbreak of COVID-19.
(photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)

The important and pervasive commemorations of Yom Hashoah all over Israel (and the Jewish world) this past week prompt some reflection on the inconsistencies that are prevalent in the public’s choices of which persons and which concepts are actually subjected to cancel culture.

A JTA article entitled “New York City still includes two Nazi collaborators in its Canyon of Heroes” by Menachem Z. Rosensaft (April 13) notes that statues of two United States presidents (Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt) were removed from two NYC sites because one president was a slaveholder and the other was insensitive in describing Native Americans.

Indeed, the (former) Major League Baseball Cleveland Indians dropped their Chief Wahoo logo and renamed the team the Cleveland Guardians. The (former) National Football League Washington Redskins are now called the Washington Commanders. The National Basketball Association Golden Gate (San Francisco) Warriors dropped the Native American logo of their predecessors, the Philadelphia Warriors, and now use the Golden Gate Bridge as their logo. Call these phenomena what you choose, cancel culture or political correctness; they certainly highlight respect for the feelings of certain groups of decent US citizens.

Rosensaft correctly points out that neither of the US presidents was accused of genocidal mass murder. However, Henri Philippe Pétain and Pierre Laval of the French Vichy pro-Nazi government were indeed party to the deportation and murder of almost eighty thousand French Jews during World War II. Rosensaft continues: “Yet, black granite markers engraved with Pétain’s and Laval’s names remain untouched on Broadway’s Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan... The Pétain and Laval plaques and 204 others embedded in the sidewalks between Battery Park and Chambers Street commemorate individuals and groups celebrated with ticker-tape parades beginning in 1886.”

Interestingly, the parades honoring Pétain and Laval each occurred in October 1931. This was about a decade before their crimes of genocide against the Jewish people took place. Both of these men were sentenced to death in 1945 for their crimes. Laval was executed and Pétain’s sentence was commuted to life in prison, where he died in 1951.

 People crowd into 7th Avenue at 42nd street in Manhattan in 2015.  (credit: REUTERS/MIKE SEGAR) People crowd into 7th Avenue at 42nd street in Manhattan in 2015. (credit: REUTERS/MIKE SEGAR)

At the same time, two recent video clips show both Spirit Airlines and Jet Blue, two US air carriers, reminding post-Passover Jewish travelers from Florida to their home destinations to count the Sefirat HaOmer (“Counting of the Omer”). The loud speakers on the planes announced the proper text of the liturgy in an English translation! (As of this writing, we have no knowledge of El Al’s policy on this matter.)

These airline incidents are just an example of the respect shown to US Jews and their faith stateside. One might suggest that there is no better place in the diaspora for Jews than the US. As residents of the US for our entire lives prior to our recent aliyah, we experienced that first hand.

So, how can we explain the fact that almost 60 years after the Shoah, at a time when no one could claim ignorance of the crimes of Pétain and Laval, plaques with their names on them remain untouched and uncriticized in the Canyon of Heroes in NYC, the metropolis with the largest Jewish population in the US? And how do they still remain there unscathed in today’s climate of protecting the sensitivities of so many other minorities?

In our opinion, the answer to these questions is twofold: ignorance and indifference. We do not think that every simple citizen is obligated to know who has a placard in the Canyon of Heroes. But, those who do erect and maintain these plaques do have a responsibility to know exactly whom they are honoring. And each of us does have a responsibility, once we become aware of such a miscarriage of justice, to do everything possible to have the plaques removed.

To honor the Canyon of Heroes, the Downtown Alliance created a granite marker embedded in the sidewalk for each ticker-tape parade up Broadway. After the ticker tape parade for the New York Yankees in 1996, Carl Weisbrod, the president of the Downtown Alliance, and Suzanne O’Keefe, the vice president for design, came up with the idea of commemorating all of the NYC ticker tape parades. Pentagram, a design studio, suggested using simple granite strips which resemble the paper ticker tape. On each strip, the date of the parade was accompanied by a few words of description.

The ticker tape parades for Laval and Pétain were chronologically acceptable in 1931. These parades occurred a full decade before the crimes were committed. But the actual plaques were erected about sixty years after Laval and Pétain committed their crimes.

Rosensaft is not the first to note the inappropriateness of the plaques honoring Laval and Pétain in the context of their crimes. In The Tribeca Trib (May 13, 2017), Carl Glassman wrote an article, “Nazi collaborators in the ‘Canyon of Heroes’: Should they stay or go?” In that article, he quotes David Harris of the American Jewish Committee calling for the removal of these two plaques.

Incredulously, Glassman cites a rabbi who states, “My first impression is that this would be an example of ‘airbrushing the cigarette’ out of Jackson Pollock’s hand, almost like revisionist history. The bottom line is that this is about an era long before the offending years of the Holocaust and I am not aware that he [Pétain] was a lifelong antisemite. He was truly a [WWI] hero and fought against the Kaiser, who was considered the villain at that time. On the other hand, the vast numbers of victims and the depth of perfidy of the Holocaust, and those who aided and abetted it may make this particular case an exception to the need for historical perspective.”

At least the rabbi sees a side to removing those plaques. More incredulous is the author Nicole Gelinas (City Journal, August 22, 2017). “What about Charles Lindbergh, who was honored in 1927 for his solo transatlantic flight? In 1941, Lindbergh accused ‘Jewish groups’ of ‘agitating for war’ with Germany and warned that ‘their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.’”

Gelinas continues: “None of this history is to equate the New York Mets (honored for their World Series victory in 1969) with Philippe Pétain – or to suggest that US cities should continue to honor Confederate notables with statues in public squares. But, the record of New York’s ticker-tape parades, engraved in downtown Broadway’s sidewalks, is not a record of whom New York honors today. It is, rather, a reflection of imperfect New York – and American – history. It honored others, like Pétain and Laval, for good reasons, before these men gave us reason to regret doing so. To remove Pétain’s plaque is thus to create a hole in history and to create an inconsistency. If we take out the Frenchman, then others will have to go, too – the dirigible crew, for starters, and probably Lindbergh, as well.

“Better, instead, that New Yorkers should walk the Canyon of Heroes and wonder: who were these people? Why are long-forgotten Olympic athletes listed along with presidents and generals? Leave Pétain in place and he’ll suffer the ultimate justice of being ignored; most of the people who walk over his plaque don’t notice it. Others can marvel momentarily at all these obscure names from the past placed together and then move on.”

We disagree with Galinas. There is a Jewish tradition to remember (zachor). Very often, our memory demands looking at the written word. Megillat Esther mentions Haman many times. But, it also makes it clear that he is evil! The reference to Haman is not a parve (neutral) reference. If Haman had a pre-Megillah plaque in the Canyon of Heroes with no description of his later, murderous plot, we would shout from the rooftops.

In our view, NYC has two options. One is to keep Pétain and Laval’s plaques standing together, but not in the Canyon of Heroes; rather, in a separate area acknowledging that they were recipients of a ticker tape parade in 1931 and that they were judged and were guilty of genocide. At the same time, Lindbergh can be included with them, noting that he was a rabid antisemite who was loudly and conspicuously sympathetic to Hitler.

The other alternative is to remove their plaques entirely. As much as we are the people of the book and advocates of the written word, we also advocate erasure of evil. If the evil of Pétain and Laval is not noted on their plaques, then their names must be erased. We cannot compartmentalize their achievements without noting clearly that they were evil and perpetrators of genocide.

If America cancels names and logos of sports teams because they are offensive, it should certainly cancel from NYC’s Canyon of Heroes, the names of those who were judged guilty of war crimes and genocide! In this week when we remember the attempted genocide of the Jewish people, we must state that indifference is far more sinister and blameworthy than ignorance.

A new oleh, Heshie Billet is rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Woodmere and a member of the US President’s Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.

A new olah, Rookie Billet recently retired from a long career as a Jewish educator, principal, shul rebbetzin, and yoetzet halacha in the US, and hopes to contribute to life in Israel.