NEW YORK — In a genuine spirit of bipartisanship, Republicans and Democrats should all be able to agree that Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower was one of the great military leaders of the 20th century.
In 1952, Eisenhower was elected president of the United States on the Republican ticket, but he had become an international hero more than seven years earlier, before he declared his political affiliation, when he led the multinational Allied forces to victory over Nazi Germany.
Eisenhower, who died in 1969, remains so widely respected and popular that 30 years after his death, Congress decided to have an official memorial in his honor built in Washington, D.C.
Unfortunately, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission has approved a design by architect Frank Ghery that would highlight Eisenhower’s youth in Kansas far more than his military or political achievements.
Writing in The New Republic, Geoffrey Kabaservice has criticized Ghery’s oversized design, “whose only representation of its subject would be a statue showing him as a barefoot boy” as “both bombastic and silly.”
Members of the Eisenhower family, in particular his granddaughters Susan and Anne, are asking the National Capital Planning Commission to halt the process and direct the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to come up with a different concept.
They are right.
“I just don’t think Dwight Eisenhower is remembered because he was a barefoot boy from Kansas,” Susan Eisenhower told The Washington Post last December. “When I look at this memorial, I don’t see any bit of him in it.”
When school and church groups from across the country, and visitors from throughout the world, come to Washington, they take back with them the images of our nation’s greatness. At the Lincoln Memorial, they see our 16th president, not as a young lawyer in Illinois, but as the thoughtful, contemplative man he became during his years of national leadership.
At the Jefferson Memorial, visitors encounter our third president, not as an adolescent on his father’s Virginia plantation, but as a mature statesman surrounded by his thoughts and writings.
The statue of Winston Churchill in London’s Parliament Square depicts him, not as a schoolboy at Harrow, nor as a young war correspondent in South Africa during the Boer War, but as the wartime prime minister, wearing a military great coat, for that is how he will forever be remembered — as one of Great Britain’s towering personalities.
Eisenhower entered history not as a youth in Kansas or as a graduate of West Point, or, even, as president of the United States. His unique contribution to our country’s and the world’s history was as supreme allied commander for the European Theater during World War II and then, following Germany’s surrender, as military governor of the U.S occupation zone of Germany.
For Holocaust survivors and their families in particular, Eisenhower holds a hallowed place in our hearts and emotions. It was under his leadership that the Nazi concentration camps in Germany and Austria were liberated in the spring of 1945, and in our minds, he, more than anyone else, became the iconic representation of all the Allied liberators.
Rabbi Judah Nadich, who served as the Army’s senior Jewish chaplain in Europe and as Eisenhower’s Jewish adviser, wrote, “Eisenhower’s treatment of the Jewish displaced persons … was marked with understanding and sympathy. His friendship for the Jews left no room for doubt.”
In September 1945, Eisenhower joined several thousand Jewish survivors at Yom Kippur services in the Feldafing Displaced Persons camp, not far from Munich. His “sudden unannounced appearance,” Nadich recalled, “electrified the large congregation. The men and women could not believe their eyes. … The stormy ovation they gave him indicated the esteem, the appreciation and the love they bore him. Their enthusiasm showed that they felt that he was not only the symbol of all of the democratic forces that had set them free, but that he personally understood their plight.”
Eisenhower was also one of the first who understood the urgent need to preserve the memory of the atrocities that had been perpetrated against European Jews and all the other victims of the Third Reich. He personally visited a concentration camp within days of its liberation in order to be able to bear personal witness, and he directed the officers under his command to do the same.
A photograph of Eisenhower taken at Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of Buchenwald near the German city of Gotha, shows him surrounded by American G.I.s and liberated inmates still in their camp uniforms beside a gallows where prisoners had been tortured and hung with piano wire. That is the image of him that should be engraved into our national consciousness.
“The things I saw beggar description,” Eisenhower wrote to Gen. George C. Marshall shortly after visiting Ohrdruf. “The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. … I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in position to give firsthand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’ ”
As the son of two survivors of both the Auschwitz death camp and the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, I agree with the Eisenhower family that the proposed design of the planned Eisenhower Memorial must be changed. Dwight D. Eisenhower should be depicted and remembered in our nation’s capital above all as the U.S. General of the Army who rescued Europe and, indeed, the world, from the scourge of Nazism.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft is an adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School, a lecturer in law at Columbia Law School, a distinguished visiting lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law, and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.)