Canada’s National Holocaust Monument: Why not before, or just “why”?

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Coming to Ottawa by next fall? A rendering of Canada’s National Holocaust Monument. Image courtesy Lord Cultural Resources, Studio Daniel Libeskind, Claude Cormier + Associés, Edward Burtynsky, Doris Bergen

This past Monday the Canadian government announced its pick for the design of a planned National Holocaust Monument, scheduled to open in the fall of 2015.

As reported by Tom Spears in the Ottawa Citizen,

…the monument is a gaunt concrete structure whose six triangles form a Star of David, to be built on the northeast corner of Booth and Wellington Streets.

Landscape architect Claude Cormier said visitors will walk in at one end, where a slope carries them down to the centre. Surrounded by concrete and cut off from their surroundings, they can see explanations of the horrors of the Holocaust.

“Then at the end there’s a stair that somehow emerges, and provides you with this notion of hope.” It leads upward with the Peace Tower visible at the end, “so it has positioned Canada in that reality: We don’t want this to ever happen again.

“So there’s a hope, and a harshness embedded in the hope at the same time.”

Here’s more about the design team and the design from CTV (with video).

I believe the Holocaust happened. That it was a terrible crime against humanity. That something like that should never happen again. (Sadly though, things of some similarity have happened/are happening since then.)

But I had another reaction too: “Why? Why now? Does every nation need to have one of these?”

Others have practically the opposite response, as expressed by Martin Knelman in the Toronto Star:

One question lingers about the Holocaust memorial to be built in Ottawa. What took so long? Why has Canada waited 70 years to build a Holocaust monument in its capital city?

The U.S., Great Britain and Russia all have Holocaust monuments or museums in their capital cities. So does South Africa.

It was a tragic mistake that the Holocaust was left out of the story when the Canadian War Museum was built.

Now at last that mistake will be corrected.

Indeed, this advocacy site proclaims that “Canada is the only Allied Nation without a Holocaust Museum in its National Capital. This must change.”

Maybe my own bewilderment stems for the latency of this memorial, which does show up looking like a “better late than never” effort. Considering this list of Holocaust Memorials and Museums around the world, it does sort of seem like Canada was asleep at that particular wheel. Having said that, it turns out Canada already has at least three memorials/educational centres on the Holocaust, in Montréal, Toronto and Vancouver (though those are not “national” in funding or scope).

Done right, monuments, memorials or museums commemorate and expand awareness in truly important ways. I also wonder, though, about the significance of location. Here’s the travel writer Rick Steves explaining how a specific place, Berlin, has incorporated different symbols of remembrance in deeply meaningful ways:

As you stroll through Berlin’s residential neighbourhoods, you might notice small bronze plaques in the pavement. These are a different sort of memorial, called Stolpersteine, or “stumbling blocks.” Meant to commemorate in a more personal way those persecuted by the Nazis, the stones are placed in front of the spot where victims resided. Each stone begins with “Here lived” and give one name, remembering just one person. The inscription ends with the place, usually a concentration camp, and the date on which the individual died. So far, there are more than 5,000 Stolpersteine are installed around Berlin.

Of course one can come at this broader topic from different sides. As in monuments are great and important. And the work is still markedly unfinished. Where are the memorials for slavery? For killing or displacing indigenous peoples? For oppressing women across so many centuries?

Or there’s the other point of view: does everything have to be viewed in terms of some group’s suffering that requires specific acknowledgement?

There’s no single answer, I suppose. It’s just something to ponder.

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13 Comments on “Canada’s National Holocaust Monument: Why not before, or just “why”?”

  1. Jonathan Brown says:

    There is a single answer, in a single word: denial.

    There’s already an awful lot of it. It’s going to get worse as time goes by.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/05/the-world-is-full-of-holocaust-deniers/370870/

    http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007272

    FWIW, slavery, killing and displacing indigenous people and oppression of women should have memorials, too.

    But Martin Knelman is right. It has taken too long.

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  2. Patricia says:

    I would have to agree that erecting a national memorial is a bit late, but it cannot go without notice that there are existing memorials in Canada. Perhaps the money to build and maintain a “national” monument would better be directed toward eliminating present day Holocaust actions taking place around the world. While memorials are important – a remembrance of those who have been lost in such senseless actions – perhaps prevention is more important at this time. In addition we could ask, what better way to honor those lost in the Holocaust than to prevent more people from being lost in the same way?

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  3. mervel says:

    Well what was Canada’s role during the holocaust? I don’t know, but I would guess it is not huge.

    Does Canada support Israel today? I mean if Canada has a huge connection to the Jewish community I think it is good, other wise at some point PC gets old.

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  4. mervel says:

    Then again if the Canadian taxpayers want to pay for it, go for it.

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  5. mervel says:

    How many monuments in Canada celebrate the Native people who were destroyed by Canada and are still suffering today…. hmmm

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  6. The Original Larry says:

    If you think opening a museum or erecting a monument helps somehow, go right ahead. What would make much more sense is education, it seems ignorance is more a problem than denial. Also, don’t expect much from countries that are the sworn enemies of Israel. They will not be sympathetic in any way.

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  7. Will Doolittle says:

    A couple of things:
    It’s unnecessary, and strange, to say you believe the Holocaust happened. Would you say you believe World War II happened, in a post about a WWII memorial? It’s not a question. It’s not a debate.
    Also, I am not a world history expert, but I don’t know of anything similar to the Holocaust that has occurred since then — no state-sponsored mass murder on that scale, nothing even remotely as deliberate, intentional, official and widespread. Nothing that horrible that involved the cooperation, active or tacit, of so much of a country’s population. Nothing so organized, long-lasting, documented, systematic.
    The Holocaust stands alone, at least in modern history, in its combination of efficiency and horror. It shows us the depth of evil to which we can descend, not only as individuals but as whole communities, as nations. That is why so many countries feel, justifiably, it demands a memorial.

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  8. Jon Sklaroff says:

    Will, I think it is important for Lucy to address her belief in the Holocaust for two reasons.

    1. As Jonathan points out, there are countless Holocaust deniers in the world today.
    2. By setting number 1 up, it allows her to question the construction of the museum without being questioned in her belief of the past.

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  9. The Original Larry says:

    You might look into the Armenian Genocide, the Japanese rape of China in the early days of WW II or Stalin’s artificial famine in Ukraine.

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  10. Lucy Martin says:

    Will, I had a feeling the wording “I believe” could be problematic. But it was intended as Jon Sklaroff surmised: to accept the fact of a very bad thing – without assuming there is a single proper response to very bad things.

    While the Nazi Holocaust was uniquely horrific – and was by no means focused solely upon Jews – I am not comfortable ranking atrocities. You know: most unique, most inhumane, most successful in original intent, least effective….or what-have-you.

    If you go by most humans rubbed out of a given population, I suspect other places could give Hilter a good run, in terms of killing power. Case in point, this source says the Khmer Rouge could lay claim to something Nazi-like in scope and effect:

    “The Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979, in which approximately 1.7 million people lost their lives (21% of the country’s population), was one of the worst human tragedies of the last century. As in the Ottoman Empire during the Armenian genocide, in Nazi Germany, and more recently in East Timor, Guatemala, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda, the Khmer Rouge regime headed by Pol Pot combined extremist ideology with ethnic animosity and a diabolical disregard for human life to produce repression, misery, and murder on a massive scale.”

    There’s bound to be disagreement on how to see these horrors. Or how to memorialize them.

    Some of the conversation makes it feel as if a Holocaust Monument is on some check list of “must-have” things for national capitals. Like a collector’s item, to belong in the “important nation club”.

    Hey, if you feel it, go ahead. Build one.

    Real people died: Jews, Gypsies, disabled adults and children, homosexuals, communists, Christians and dissenters who opposed Nazi doctrine.

    A great culture (Germany) shamed itself in a way other nations should view as a cautionary tale. That lesson is huge and _completely_ relevant today.

    Comparing U.S. drone policy to the holocaust, for example, is obviously ridiculously disproportionate. However I would argue the moral issues of both are not completely dissimilar. (Does the ends justify the means? Who defines the ends? Where is due process, or rule of law? Discuss.)

    But if a nation, such as Canada, is just keeping up with the Jones for appearances’ sake, well, that strikes me as tacky – even disrespectful of the dead – and a waste of tax dollars.

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  11. Will Doolittle says:

    Yes, comparing U.S. drone policy to the Holocaust is ridiculous. I do not think the same set of questions is raised by the two events, or even that there is much overlap.
    And yes, other groups beside Jews were targeted by the Nazis, put in concentration camps and killed. I’m not sure why you are bringing that up, but since you have, I think it is worth saying the primary target of the Nazis was Jews; many, many more Jews were killed than people in other groups; and more than that, Jews served as the scapegoats of the Nazis, not only physically (through torture and death) but emotionally and culturally; and finally, Jews had been the target of scapegoating and brutal pogroms for centuries in Europe.
    It may be a tricky business to rank genocides, but we make distinctions among horrible events all the time. Columbine was horrible; it is different from the Holodomor. Everything is degree, and the Holocaust, I believe, stands alone (and hopefully always will) for its combination of bureaucratic, systematic, long-term, state-organized and sponsored murder; and the sheer scope and horror of its particulars.

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  12. The Original Larry says:

    So we’re going to keep score, are we? 7.5 M of anything is anumber most people cannot comprehend. But when you meet an elderly man who says: “I was 12 years old and they took my father, my mother and my little sister and murdered them right in front of me, now, that’s a Holocaust and
    you don’t need statistics or a museum to validate it. That guy could be Jewish, a gypsy, Chinese, Cambodian, or Ukrainian. It all counts the same to him.

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  13. Will Doolittle says:

    Yes, OL, but it’s a different argument you’re making: “After the first death there is no other.” From one perspective, any single murder is an unmeasurable tragedy and horror. But we do make distinctions among events, based on their magnitude, based on many factors. We do distinguish between a flood that wipes out one person’s family and a flood that wipes out 5,000 families. But the magnitude of the Holocaust is not only about the huge number of people, the great majority of them Jews, who were murdered. The details of how it was carried out, and the context in which it was carried out, also add to its terrible significance.

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