How a swastika-engraved gravestone got into a Utah military cemetery and why some want it gone

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The grave of German POW Paul Eilert, with the Knights Cross and Oak Leaves as well as a swastika, in the Fort Douglas Cemetery in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 15, 2020.

Little is known about Paul Eilert, a 38-year-old German prisoner of war buried in a Salt Lake City military cemetery.

He was older than most of the other Germans he lived with and died before all of them of intestinal cancer, according to Utah historian Kent Powell.

And before that, Eilert worked with the estimated 10,000 Italian and Germans POWs in Ogden, spending his time at the Union Depot. During his military career, he had apparently earned the Knight’s Cross, among the highest military honors given in Nazi Germany.

And his comrades must have revered him — because they pooled their earnings to buy the engraved tombstone that’s recently drawn national ire, the only one with a swastika in Fort Douglas Post Cemetery, which holds the graves of 20 other German prisoners.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League and members of Congress from both political parties have called for the Utah gravestone (and two others at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in Texas) to be removed.

“Surely the Veterans Administration does not support Nazis. Have they forgotten the nearly half-million of American soldiers who sacrificed their lives to defeat them in World War II?” Eric K. Ward, a senior fellow at SPLC, asked in a recent blog post. “Have they forgotten the millions of Jews who died in the Holocaust?"

The Department of Veterans Affairs has said it won’t remove the gravestones, citing its responsibility to protect "historic resources, including those that recognize divisive historical figures or events,” under the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act.

On Thursday, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie wouldn’t commit to removing the three headstones, Roll Call reported. He said he wanted to work with members of Congress to put their swastikas and messages honoring Adolf Hitler in the proper “historical context.”

“Erasing these headstones removes them from memory and as we continue to study the Holocaust, the last thing any Holocaust scholar wants to do is erase that memory,” Wilkie said during testimony before the House Military Construction-V.A. Appropriations subcommittee.

Seth Brysk, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League’s Central Pacific Region, said the response so far hasn’t been sufficient.

“There may be past mistakes that were made, there may be ways in which our country has fallen short, or individuals have fallen short,” he said, “but it is never too late to do the right thing.”

The man and the gravestone

Powell, who wrote “Splinters of a Nation: German Prisoners of War in Utah,” said he’s looked for more information on Eilert, but he hasn’t found much. The same is true for the gravestone with the swastika — why does Eilert have one but others don’t?

It could be about timing. Eilert died June 8, 1944, at a time when Powell assumes the other POWs could sense the war wasn’t going well for Germans. Two days before Eilert died, for instance, Allied troops invaded the beaches of Normandy.

“It was another way to show their unity with him,” Powell said, “and probably reflected their own fears that this could happen to any of them, lose their lives and die of whatever" — and that if they passed, they’d be far from home.

Had Eilert died later, his gravestone might be indistinguishable from the rest. At the time he died, the U.S. had standardized gravestones for its service members but not for POWs, and Eilert was the first German POW to die in Utah.

That policy eventually changed, Powell said.

At the time Eilert and the other POWs were in Utah, the U.S. had liberal policies about swastikas. The symbols were displayed in the Germans’ housing and prisoners were allowed to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday. Some in Utah wore their Nazi uniforms to intimidate fellow prisoners, according to research by Weber State University.

Powell said he’s surprised the gravestone has remained unmolested in the cemetery. He supports its removal, partly on the grounds that it might be better protected if it were displayed in a museum.

“It should be respected as an artifact of WWII,” Powell said, “whether it has a swastika or not, it should be preserved for that.”

‘We need things from history’

Fort Douglas Military Museum is adjacent to the cemetery. But Beau Burgess, director and curator, said in his opinion it would be wrong to move the stone, and that doing so could raise more questions:

How would Eilert’s relatives feel about relocating the gravestone? Since it was privately purchased, are there legal implications of moving it? Would adding informational placards, instead, distract visitors from the other gravesites?

Relocating the gravestone, he said, removes it from its original setting and context — a tribute from men honoring their fallen comrade, and bestowing on him the medal he’d earned, with a half-inch by half-inch swastika carved in its center.

According to coverage in The Salt Lake Tribune in October 1944, the men spent $275 on the grave marker, raised by donations from the 80 cents they earned for a day’s work. The Knight’s Cross is also inscribed with 1939, the year Germany invaded Poland.

The burial of Paul Eilert, the first Nazi POW to be interred at Fort Douglas, is covered in this issue of The Salt Lake Tribune from Oct. 6, 1944.

The swastika comes up in the news from time to time because people have a visceral reaction to it; that’s the power of symbols, Burgess said. He pointed to a news article in the museum’s collection describing people’s uneasiness on the day it was erected.

The museum also holds the Army’s 1944 communications about the gravestone. The POWs had applied for permission to use the design, and the Army granted it. Even if that decision was a mistake, Army officials said at the time, the approval had been given and the stone should stay.

The Army oversaw the Fort Douglas Post Cemetery until 2019, when the Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration took over.

Removing a relic of the past doesn’t change the past, as hateful as it may be, Burgess said, and it’s better to use those pieces as catalysts for discussion than to erase them.

“We need things from history to remind us where we’ve come from, where we’ve been, what we’ve learned from the past,” Burgess said, "and sometimes, unfortunately, what we haven’t learned for the past.”

‘Hatred in our midst’

Months before national groups and politicians started demanding the removal of the marker, University of Utah history professor Bob Goldberg published an op-ed in The Salt Lake Tribune decrying the “symbol of hatred in our midst."

He wrote, “I consider this symbol of hate an affront to the American service men and women buried in the Fort Douglas cemetery. As a Jew, and as the son of a World War II combat medic wounded in Europe in 1944, I felt this pain personally.”

It’s that article, Goldberg recently told The Tribune, that caught the attention of civil liberties groups and, later, politicians.

Brysk said when he first learned of this gravestone and the two others he was surprised, then sad. “I was sad that our government had permitted then to continue for so long," he said, “and that our tax dollars are helping to fund the preservation of symbols and words of hate and exclusion.”

Brysk said the ADL wants the gravestone gone. Like Goldberg and Powell, the group wants it housed in a museum, a place it can be thoughtfully presented.

Without proper context, Brysk said, it’s possible someone could happen upon the marker and think it means the government endorses anti-Semitism. It could also be a distraction to families visiting the grave of loved ones who died fighting the Nazis, he said.

He added the gravestone also doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Outside the cemetery walls, hate crimes and displays of hatred against Jewish people are on the rise.

The FBI’s annual hate crime report consistently shows that most of the hate crimes committed in connection with a person’s religion are perpetrated against Jewish people. The ADL counted more anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. — 2,107 — than it has since it started keeping track in 1979.

And often, these incidents of hate are underreported. Brysk added that the record high comes after several years of seeing such incidents trend upward.

Part of that increase, he said, is attributed to the normalization of hate crimes and extremism, which can emboldened people with these views to act on them.

This grave marker, out in a cemetery with no context, is one of those, he said.