JC Reporter

Should we go ahead with the proposed Westminster Holocaust Memorial?

Ed Balls, Lord Eric Pickles, and Baroness Ruth Deech debate the issue in the JC as the planned memorial still faces opposition years after it was conceived

August 11, 2022 14:08

Years after it was conceived, the planned Holocaust Memorial to be located next to Parliament in Victoria Tower Gardens still faces opposition.

Planning permission was granted for the memorial to go ahead in July 2021. But campaigners appealed to the High Court, which overturned the decision last April.

In order to allow the memorial to go ahead, the government is proposing to pass a short Bill which would bypass section 8 of the London Council Council (Improvements) Act 1900 which “imposes an enduring obligation to lay out and retain the… land for use as a public garden and integral part of the existing Victoria Tower Gardens”.

As the conversation around the memorial continues, leading figures on both sides of the debate have written for the JC, with Ed Balls and Lord Eric Pickles arguing in favour, and Baroness Ruth Deech arguing against.

By Ed Balls and Lord Eric Pickles

The proposed Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre needs to be at the heart of our national life. The site next to Parliament in Victoria Tower Gardens is the right project in the right location. The Holocaust is not only an episode of wartime history or a part of Jewish history. Our National Memorial will emphatically remind all of us, and future citizens, that the Holocaust is central to our own history and society.

Before the summer recess the government and opposition pledged to continue working to make this vital project a reality. We have drawn great strength from the fact that MPs from all sides pressed the government to introduce a short Bill to remove the current blockage. The Bill is currently being drafted by the government and both candidates for PM have pledged to introduce it quickly.

The Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre enjoys overwhelming support, clearly demonstrated at the public inquiry where voices from all occupations echoed their support. The survivors see the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre as part of their legacy, ensuring that we remember the six million murdered Jewish people during the Shoah alongside all victims of Nazi persecution and subsequent genocides.

As the co-chairs of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, we are mindful that the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre is for all the people of the UK from every background, every race and every faith who grasp the importance of understanding and of remembering what mankind is capable of.

We have always said that we plan to combine a striking architectural memorial with an engaging, reflective and powerful exhibition. This will be founded on academic research, which will immerse visitors in the historical content and provoke their critical thinking. The exhibition will confront the immense human calamity caused by the destruction of Europe’s Jewish communities, ensuring a respectful commitment to mourn, remember and act.

The exhibition will adopt a “warts and all” approach. Our narrative will be balanced, addressing the complexities of Britain’s ambiguous responses to the Holocaust, avoiding simplistic judgments, and encouraging visitors to critically reflect on whether more could have been done, both by policymakers and by society.

We are determined to face history honestly and this requires us to question the role of our own parliament, government, and society in the history of the Holocaust and genocides in its aftermath. The rise of contemporary antisemitism will be confronted as we are well aware of the destructive nature of this insidious form of hatred which, sadly, we still see on the streets of our country today.

The Learning Centre will take its place alongside the many impressive UK institutions involved in Holocaust education. We believe that the content of the Learning Centre, which focuses on the Holocaust through a British lens, will be a valued addition. We are working with institutions across the UK to support Holocaust commemoration and education and will complement the permanent exhibition with online material, making links to other UK and international sites, and promoting a deeper understanding of the Holocaust among as wide an audience as possible.

The British people, with our allies, undoubtedly played a decisive role in bringing the Holocaust to an end but that is by no means the whole story. We need to acknowledge where we fell short, not least by failing to tackle antisemitism at home and abroad. We will recognise that the UK denied Jewish people the opportunity to escape Nazi persecution. Our Learning Centre will enable the full unvarnished story to be told.

Holocaust survivors and liberators are our eyewitnesses. We all know the power of testimony and it is this testimony that people who wish to deny the Holocaust find so hard to dispute. But we will not have witnesses for ever. The Memorial and Learning Centre will be a permanent reminder, and a lasting authority, on the facts of the Holocaust.

We are conscious that 2025 will be the 80th anniversary of the Holocaust. Every day that passes means fewer Holocaust survivors will be around to see that we have honoured our pledge in “Britain’s Promise to Remember” to build a striking and prominent new National Memorial in Central London. An Act of Parliament will deliver the certainty of that pledge. So let us see supporters and detractors of the scheme now unite to produce a truly outstanding Memorial.

By Baroness Ruth Deech

Another Holocaust memorial and museum has been proposed to be located at Victoria Tower Gardens, a listed historic garden adjacent to the Palace of Westminster. Planning permission was to be refused but the application was called in by the minister, who eventually granted it. That was recently quashed on appeal, a decision upheld in the Court of Appeal. There are however still those who are determined to see this through. The proposal is misconceived, but if there is to be a new memorial it should be sited elsewhere and its museum should put the Holocaust in context.

There are six Holocaust museums or memorials in the UK already and over 300 around the world.  Most depict the Holocaust in isolation, providing vivid images of Jews being persecuted, dead, desperate or homeless. There is little evidence that any stem antisemitism. No research has been carried out to see what impact they have. Only by education, whether through a museum or otherwise, which explains Jewish culture and history, why the Nazis wanted to end it, and why Jew-hatred has lasted for millennia, might antisemitism be understood and defeated. As Lord Sacks said, the Holocaust has to be placed in context.

At the museum, a visitor will walk through four rooms, one of which will be devoted to the Jewish fate. The eminent historian of Germany, Sir Richard Evans, has said it would compare unfavourably with others internationally and nationally. The museum waters down the Jewish element. Although called a Holocaust memorial, it would exhibit hatred generally through the persecution of LGBT, Roma and Rwandans, as if those deplorable killings were the same as the Shoah.

In some other countries Holocaust museums adjust the narrative to portray their citizens as resistance heroes. Similarly, the proposed museum would endeavour to explain the British reaction to the Holocaust – the liberation of the camps, kindertransport and the Windermere boys. The museum will not explore the roots of Jew-hatred. Rather, it would be in danger of promoting propaganda rather than scholarship, unless difficult British issues are explored as well, such as for example, the excluded parents of the kinder, the internment camps for refugees, the closing of the doors of Palestine to refugees in the 1930s, the failure of Evian, the distaste for Jewish refugees, the occupation of the Channel Islands and the failure to bomb the camps.

If there is a British lesson to be learned, it is that having one’s own state and self defence are the best protection against genocide.

Even if the concept of another Holocaust memorial is believed to be worthwhile, Victoria Tower Gardens is the wrong location. Disregarding a statute protecting it as open space, the proponents believe its location by Parliament will teach visitors that democracy protects against genocide, a proposition that does not bear scrutiny. For anti-Israel and/or antisemitic politicians, the memorial would provide another convenient backdrop for brandishing their anti-racist credentials. It is relatively easy to grieve for dead Jews, harder to protect the living. Apart from these considerations, it is the only green space for nearby offices and flats. Trees will be damaged, flooding is a risk, other small monuments, including the Buxton anti-slavery memorial, will be overshadowed, and Millbank blocked by coaches.

The community will be called on to meet the cost which has soared beyond the £75million government grant, while the National Audit Office has criticised the management and the opacity. Other more suitable sites are available, eg the Imperial War Museum and Richmond House, Whitehall.

The design itself will not have any obvious connection with memorialising the Holocaust. It will look like a giant toast rack with 23 tall “fins”. Nothing will evoke the Shoah or any Jewish connection. The architect claimed it was based on 22 national Jewish communities destroyed by the Nazis, a fact which is likely to be incorrect and would be unknown to most. Abstract memorials are more prone to vandalism than graphic ones.

In 2014 the Board of Deputies envisaged a Central London Holocaust memorial and a funded education forum, more historical context and a renewed campaign for restitution for victims. Those plans however were hijacked by a powerful lobby group seeking to promote “British Values”. The result is a proposal for a site which is too small and which abandons those requirements. The project is irredeemably tainted by the way this group have misrepresented support, provided misleading information and failed to engage with the Jewish community. Many Jewish objectors have been bullied and insulted. It is time to end the divisions and ensure respect for Holocaust victims.

August 11, 2022 14:08

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive