Just one year ago, Canada opened its National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa.
The winning result of an international design competition was a powerful depiction of the Star of David pieced together by enormous cement blocks. One enters the structure feeling quite overwhelmed by the weight of the structure. As one exits the monument, one is presented with a ray of hope in the distance — a clear view of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill, signalling Canada’s commitment to fighting antisemitism, racism and all forms of intolerance for evermore.
No visitor to Canada’s monument harbours any doubt as to the nature of the edifice. Its design speaks for itself — the Star of David shape is an unambiguous reminder of the horrors endured by Jews persecuted and murdered by Nazi Germany.
Presumably, other Holocaust monuments would likewise seek to serve as clear representations of their purpose and meaning. It is thus unsurprising that eight Jewish peers have expressed their consternation with the winning design of Britain’s proposed Holocaust monument. In their words, “the design evokes neither the Holocaust nor Jewish history, and the risk is that its purpose will not be obvious to passers-by.”
In addition, they question the positioning of the monument alongside the Parliament, with some suggesting that a more appropriate location would be at the Imperial War Museum. One cannot but wonder whether they have derived their inspiration from Canada’s placement of its monument opposite the National War Museum.
Why did Canada choose the Star of David design and the placement of the monument opposite the War Museum? Were those two decisions the optimal choices?
In the original plan for Canada’s monument, it was to be built upon a lot between the Parliament and the Supreme Court, as a dramatic symbol of Canada’s commitment to eradicating hatred from this world. Unfortunately, due to complicated ancillary technical issues, the site could not be used. As a compromise, the monument was erected opposite the War Museum, in an empty field called LeBreton Flats. That last note is necessary if one wishes to understand why the ultimate design was chosen. As opposed to Parliament Hill, LeBreton Flats is not a well-traversed area, and so when the location switch took place, it became necessary to ensure the monument would be clearly identifiable in terms of its nature and purpose.
Had the monument been built alongside the Parliament, it could well have looked very different. Most Holocaust monuments do not immediately self-identify. The general approach taken by Holocaust monument designers and architects is to create a structure that is jarring, one that does not seem to fit into the surrounding environment. The hope is that passers-by be awoken from their day-to-day slumber and ask what this massive eyesore is doing here. If there are questions around whether Britain’s Holocaust monument will appear misplaced, then the project is, remarkably, on the right track.
Turning to the matter of Jewish history, what the eight peers fail to comprehend is that the story our future Holocaust monument tells is much larger than one of Jewish history. Certainly, the primary victims of the Nazis were the six million Jews murdered. The eternal message, however, is that we as Britons must be forever committed to rooting out evil wherever in the world it rears its ugly head. Moreover, there is no intention, as they have suggested to convey the “impression of national guilt”.
If anything, Britain’s history of the Kindertransport, and ultimate victory over Germany, demonstrate this country’s pivotal role in stemming the genocidal actions of the Nazis. The monument will thus serve as a tribute to a history that all Britons can be proud of.
Finally, the authors of the letter suggest that the money may be better spent on education. At the same time, they acknowledge that despite past attempts at Holocaust education, we are witnessing rising rates of antisemitism in this country. And that is precisely why we need the Holocaust Memorial to stand alongside our most important national edifices. We need more than mere education — the memorial will serve as an indelible mark on the national psyche that we have always stood at the forefront of the battle against evil. That is who we are as a nation.
Daniel Friedman chaired the National Holocaust Monument of Canada. He serves as the rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London