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New York community leaders call to remove Nazi collaborators from ‘Canyon of heroes’

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NEW YORK — Jewish community leaders in New York City have called to remove plaques honoring Nazi collaborators from a celebrated section of Broadway in Manhattan.

Henri Philippe Pétain and Pierre Laval were leaders of the Vichy government, a puppet regime installed by the Nazis in France during World War II.

Both were convicted of treason and executed after the war for collaborating with the Nazis, including by helping to deport 75,000 French Jews to concentration camps.

Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine at ane event on Friday, Holocaust Remembrance Day, called on the city to remove their plaques from the “Canyon of Heroes” sidewalk in lower Manhattan.

Members of the city council’s Jewish caucus, descendants of Holocaust survivors, and representatives of the World Jewish Congress and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York joined Levine at the event.

They announced a joint letter that will be sent to the city’s Public Design Commission demanding the Nazi collaborators’ names be removed from the site immediately.

Levine said Pétain and Laval “embody the worst of humanity.”

“We must act swiftly to remove commemorations of people who allied with the Third Reich and perpetuated genocide against Jews and other marginalized groups in Europe,” said Levine, who is Jewish. “In a city home to more than one million Jews – many of whose ancestors fled countries ruled by Nazi collaborators – it is painful and shameful for these plaques to exist.”

“The Holocaust remains one of the darkest periods in history, and we must not honor those who enabled and participated in that atrocity,” said Eric Dinowitz, chair of the city council’s Jewish caucus.

Gideon Taylor, CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said removing the plaques “would not only honor Holocaust survivors, it would be a teaching moment.”

Surveys have shown widespread ignorance about the Holocaust in the US, including in New York, home to the largest Jewish community outside Israel.

A 2020 survey by the Claims Conference, which represents Jews seeking compensation for the Holocaust, found that 60% of New Yorkers did not know six million Jews were murdered; 58% could not name a single concentration camp; 19% believed Jews caused the Holocaust; and 43% did not know what Auschwitz was.

Jews are also targeted in hate crimes in New York City far more than any other group, with an antisemitic incident reported to police on a near-daily basis over the past year.

The memorial in the “Canyon of Heroes” for former French minister Philippe Pétain, in New York City on January 27, 2023. (Angela Weiss/AFP)

The plaques for Pétain and Laval were emplaced at the site, New York’s answer to Hollywood’s “Walk of Fame,” in 2004.

The 13-block sidewalk section commemorates those who have been honored at New York City’s ticker-tape parades, which Pétain and Laval joined in 1931, before their collaboration with the Nazis.

Pétain was invited to the parade because of his status then as the hero who led the French army to victory at the Battle of Verdun in World War I. Laval was honored because he was then French prime minister.

Only nine years later, Pétain was responsible for rounding up more than 10,000 Jews and handing them over to the Nazis while serving as the Vichy regime’s chief of state.

His name remains in place alongside figures including Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion and former US president John F. Kennedy.

In France, all streets named after Pétain have been renamed and no commemoration of the former marshal is left in the country.

Ex-mayor Bill de Blasio had promised to remove the plaques in 2017. Instead, a commission suggested adding some historical context but it never happened.

Last year New York City’s American Museum of Natural History removed a prominent statue of former US president Theodore Roosevelt from city-owned land due to its racist overtones.

In 2021, New York City Hall removed a statue of former US president Thomas Jefferson because he owned slaves.

AFP contributed to this report.

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