The new National Holocaust Monument won’t please everyone. But it should.
In an age of crowd-sourced fads and short-lived enthusiasms, the Holocaust Monument stands as testimony not just to a specific and tragic historical moment, but also to the power of expertise, thoughtfulness and deep, on-going conversations between design practitioners, artists, and the public they serve. The new monument can’t bring back the dead, nor can it guarantee a future free from genocide, hate and violence. However, it can – and does – foster a new conversation about the past, as well as providing a new model of inclusive, urban commemorative practices.
Monuments are, at their heart, commemorative: they provide a place for a particular community to have their pain and loss acknowledged in the wider public sphere. Canada’s commission of a Holocaust Memorial was late, energized at least in part by a sense that the other Allied nations had beaten us in an imaginary race to stem the tide of hate with public art commissions. Fortunately, the result is a spectacularly beautiful, intelligent and timely collaboration between Lord Cultural Resources, Studio Daniel Libeskind, photographer Edward Burtynsky, Claude Cormier + Associés, and the historian Doris Bergen. The monument, like much of Ottawa, is built on government-owned land which has not been ceded by the Algonquin-Anishabeg people. Funds for the design and construction of the jagged Star-of-David-shaped building were provided by private donation and public matching funds. Much of the strength of the monument lies in the dialogue it forges between public and private devotional practices, as well as its commentary on the role of photography in the Holocaust.
The Holocaust Monument is rightfully specific to the Jewish experience of devastation, without underplaying losses suffered by other groups. I first visited the monument while participating in an Indigenous Walk sponsored by Ottawa Architecture Week. The fact that my tour guide was able to affirm her Indigenous heritage and Canadian identity while I viewed a new mural of the chapel at Theresienstadt – the Nazi camp where my great-grandmother died in 1943 – is testimony to the power of this new monument to forge new, unexpected and very welcome alliances.
Angular shadows of the Star of David are evident from multiple perspectives as one walks through the monument, yet the open sky above the thick walls remains silent and universal. Each visitor maintains his or her own agency, moving easily between open and intimate areas of the structure’s interior. There is a private area for contemplation, as well as the much larger open area for crowds and events. The exterior landscaping juxtaposes the traditional Jewish use of stones as remembrance, and the fragile durability of nature in the Canadian environment. Wall text, which is easily avoided if one wants a more contemplative experience, acknowledges the Canadian government’s refusal to open its borders to the thousands of Jews who sought refuge in North America, as well as the country’s role in welcoming a new Jewish community in the second half of the 20th century. The same blue-and-white panels, illustrated with admirably well-chosen archival images, document the sacrifices of the one million Canadians who served in the military. The fact that 45,000 Canadians died to save a people their country would not host until after the war remains a tragedy. This a monument which embraces the complexity and contradictions of Canadian history. As such, it will long have relevance in Ottawa’s landscape.
The National Holocaust Monument is located across from the Canadian War Museum, at the corner of Wellington and Booth Streets.