NEW YORK — After close to four months of deliberation, the City of New York has decided not to remove the plaque honoring French Nazi collaborator Henri Philippe Petain from the 13-block stretch on Broadway known as the “Canyon of Heroes.”
Instead, it was decided that the city will generally “explore opportunities to add context such as wayfinding, on-site signage, and historical information” about all those whose names are part of the canyon.
The granite plaque, which was brought to the city’s attention last spring, was placed in downtown Manhattan to commemorate Petain’s 1931 ticker-tape parade there, which he earned for defending France during World War I.
The plaque was installed in 2004, when the city decided to immortalize those who had been honored with ticker tape parades.
Petain’s plaque was included in the Canyon of Heroes despite the fact that only nine years after the celebration, he 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.
It will now remain in place, alongside names such as Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion and US president John F. Kennedy.
“It is honestly incomprehensible to me,” Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who has strongly advocated for the removal of the plaque, told The Times of Israel on Friday. “I don’t want to accuse anyone of being ignorant, but anyone who has read the history knows it’s simple and it’s not debatable.”
In the spring when the issue first surfaced, Hikind met with Mayor Bill De Blasio and said he was “pretty confident that [the authorities] were going to do something.”
“Nothing in the world shocks me, but I really thought they were going to do something,” he said. “It’s sad that the mayor did not do the right thing.”
Hikind added that not removing the plaque is “immoral,” especially as New York City is home to the largest Jewish community in the world outside of Israel.
The Jewish community in New York, which had pushed for Petain’s name to be erased from the street, saw a glimmer of hope last August when following the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, Mayor De Blasio appointed a special commission to conduct a “90-day review of all symbols of hate on city property.”
The decision to leave the marker in place contradicts the mayor’s original announcement on Twitter which clearly stated: “The commemoration for Nazi collaborator Philippe Pétain in the Canyon of Heroes will be one of the first we remove.”
According to the commission’s report, which reviewed many monuments such as an iconic statue of Christopher Columbus as well, “if a marker is accurate, and not celebratory of egregious values or actions, it should not be removed.”
In addition, the commission members believe that Petain’s plaque cannot be considered alone and that all 206 markers along the historic parade route must be looked at as a complete chronology.
“It was considered an all or nothing proposition […] Therefore, the only two propositions considered were to remove all the markers or to keep them all in place,” the report states.
“Clearly, some ticker-tape parades misjudged some so-called heroes whom history later cast in shadows,” it goes on. “It is often difficult for us to acknowledge judgments of the past from our perspective in the present, but removal of the vestiges of past decisions risks leading to cultural amnesia.”
The commission also mentions the possibility of changing the name “Canyon of Heroes” in order to avoid misleading people about the list of names included.
The World Jewish Congress, which had also joined the efforts against the plaque with a social media campaign, expressed its disappointment on Friday.
Betty Ehrenberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress in North America, told The Times of Israel that Petain’s name “should not be included with the memorials to those who truly deserve admiration and veneration.”
“We hope that this decision to leave the plaque in place will be reconsidered and that there will be a change of policy in this regard,” she added. “New York, a city of so many faiths, cultures, and ethnic groups, is a bastion of tolerance and diversity and must teach a better historical lesson for now and for the future.”
In France, all streets named after Henri Philippe Petain have been renamed and no commemoration of the former marshal is left in the country.
While his name will remain engraved in the sidewalk with vague plans to add context to the plaque, the commission decided to place new historical markers in or around Christopher Columbus’s statue at Columbus Circle, as well as add a new monument recognizing indigenous peoples.
It will also relocate a statue of J. Marion Sims, a pioneer in gynecology who conducted medical experimentation on women of color.