Nazi Collaborators in the 'Canyon of Heroes': Should They Stay or Go?

On Broadway, near Morris Street, the plaque for Henri Philippe Pétain, a World War I hero honored with a ticker tape parade who would later collaborate with the Nazis. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

May. 13, 2017

For 13 years the names of two Nazi collaborators, complicit in the deaths of thousands of French Jews, have been enshrined in granite plaques along Lower Broadway’s Canyon of Heroes.

Now comes a call by some to erase those infamous figures from the 13-block walk of city history, one that includes the likes of Amelia Earhart, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and more than 200 others celebrated by the city with ticker tape parades.

Henri Philippe Pétain earned his 1931 parade—and eventual plaque on Broadway near Morris Street— for his heroic command of Allied forces during World War I, especially in the Battle of Verdun. But after the Germans World War II occupation of France, Pétain was appointed leader of the Vichy government in the south, where he collaborated with the occupiers in rounding up and deporting some 75,000 Jews to death camps. Pierre Laval, the French prime minister during the early 1930s who was showered with ticker tape in 1931, later served under Pétain during World War II, and also colluded with the Nazis.

After the war, both were convicted of high treason and sentenced to death. Laval was executed while Pétain’s sentence was commuted to life in prison, where he died in 1951 at age 95.

“You have two people who participated in the Final Solution of the Holocaust,” said Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn Assemblyman who is calling for the removal of the plaques. “The record is rather clear in terms of each of these individuals, with Marshall Pétain actually going even beyond the racial laws that Germany demanded from the French.”

Hikind, who compared the issue to the removal of Confederate symbols in the South, said he has been “talking to the mayor’s people” about removing the plaque. “They’re looking into it and trying to figure out what to do and I’m very hopeful that something will be done.” The Mayor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Hikind and Betty Ehrenberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, North America, called for the removal of the plaques after The Jerusalem Post revealed their existence.

“I’m sure this is something no one was aware of because people walk by there every day and may not see it,” Ehrenberg said in a telephone interview. “But once we saw it and it was noticed then we believe it’s important to remove it.”

After World War I, streets throughout France were named for Pétain, only to be later renamed—the last one in 2013.

The Canyon of Heroes plaques is a project of the Downtown Alliance, which began installing them in 2003. In a statement to the Trib, the Alliance acknowledged Petain’s heinous past but defended keeping the controversial plaques as remembrances of city history.

They are not honors, but reminders of past ticker tape parades. Some of the figures who marched in those parades are controversial and, in hindsight, disreputable. But we cant erase the moment they marched up Broadway, nor whitewash history. Instead, we hope that a marker like Petains gives us pause and animates important discussions and teachable moments. When this particular parade was held in 1931, Petain was globally recognized as a French national hero. Less than 10 years later, he went from being an epic military figure of WWI to a justly reviled Nazi supporter and treasonous figure of WWII. In this case, Petains presence can help us remember that heroism in one era can still lead to bigotry and hatred in another. These markers portray history as it was—full of contradictions and regrets. They do also mark the steps of true giants, like Nelson Mandela and like David Ben Gurion, and remind us that the course of history is a difficult and complicated one.


The Trib sought a range of views on the plaque controversy.

David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, a Jewish advocacy organization, said in a statement that “whatever Pétain’s previous achievements, he will be remembered, above all, for being on the wrong side of history—for betraying his country, the cause of the Allied nations, and the titanic struggles against the Third Reich. Accordingly, it’s obvious that his name should not be enshrined today in our city’s ‘Canyon of Heroes,’ far from it.”

Of three elected officials representing Lower Manhattan—Councilwoman Margaret Chin, Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou and state Sen. Daniel Squadron, only Squadron responded to the Tribs request. He condemned Pétain but stopped short of calling for the removal of his plaque. I was surprised to learn that Pétain is included in the Canyon of Heroes,” Squadron said in a statement. “Pétain was clearly no hero. He enabled and was complicit in some of the most unspeakable actions in human history.

Rabbi Jonathan Glass of Tribeca Synagogue, one of three Lower Manhattan rabbis asked by the Trib to comment and the only one who chose to respond, indicated that, for now, his views are mixed. “My first impression is that this would be an example of ‘airbrushing the cigarette’ out of Jackson Pollock’s hand, almost like revisionist history,” he wrote in an email. “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 was a lifelong anti-Semite. He was truly a hero and fought against the Kaiser who was considered the villain at that time.”

“On the other hand,” Glass added, “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.”

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Call it "The Canyon of History"

This controversy might be avoided by changing just one word. Instead of the collective term "Canyon of Heroes," call it "Canyon of History." If we begin retrospective cherry-picking, why stop with Petain & Laval? What about Belgian King Albert, who owned an entire African nation when showered with tickertape? Or Admiral Byrd, who apparently lied about reaching the North Pole? Or Mayor O'Dwyer, honored simply for resigning amid a corruption scandal? As the Downtown Alliance rightly points out, "These markers portray history as it was — full of contradictions and regrets." 

So, just call it what it is, the Canyon of History. This would avoid the messy business of re-evaluating whether each previous honoree deserves the title of "hero." Not to mention the expense of tearing out sidewalk markers and repaving every couple of years. Ro Sheffe

Provide more information, by smartphone or brochure

I wish there were a way clearly to record both facts about him — the heroism and adulation and the atrocities that he later enabled. I’m guessing that most people don’t notice what’s under their feet as they hurry along the Canyon of Heroes. Maybe what’s needed is a block by block exposition for the smartphone, or a brochure, so that those who are interested can learn more, not only about Pétain but about others whose ticker tape parades are memorialized. — Terese Loeb Kreuzer

Add a second plaque, stating their sinister fall

I don't think you should erase the fact that there was a parade for, at the time, justifiable reasons for Laval and Petain. Why not add a plaque underneath stating their sinister fall, something like "Convicted in (year) of being a Nazi collaborator during WWII. Executed in (year)." Then Laval's and Petain's places in history would be complete and this would become a true teaching moment for all to see, right at their feet.  And maybe some would even Google it and learn more.Ron Greenberg


Too many horrible people enshrined there

There are a lot of horrible people enshrined in the Canyon of Heroes, either dig them all up or leave them. The suggestions to add a plaque explaining what Pétain did is ok but then you'd need to do the same for all the other despots and imperialist war criminals. — Carole Ashley


An absurdity

Just read the absurdity of the call to remove Petain and Laval from sidewalk. I am glad with a city with millions of uncollected fines massive corruption and over 60k homeless that these clowns are dealing with important issues. Maybe book burnings next? — Steve Craig