Arts & Culture

Holocaust Monument offers glimpses of hope

This fall, the National Holocaust Monument (NHM), located at the busy corner of Wellington and Booth, is set to open to visitors. When this happens, Canada will lose its dubious status as the only allied nation without a Holocaust monument in its capital.

The NHM is located in the city’s new cultural confluence — a nexus where the War Museum, Victoria Island, the Canadian Firefighters Memorial, and the future ‘super library’ (which will also include Library and Archives Canada) converge. In some ways this confluence works. For example, the War Museum’s windows on its north peak, which conveys in Morse code the phrase “Lest We Forget”, seems to point towards the NHM and, as such, helps emphasize the monument’s intent: to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and its victims. That the future Sens stadium will be located in close proximity to the monument is less conducive. For example, how long will it be before inebriated sports fans stumble out from a game to urinate or even desecrate the monument, as happened (though not Sens fans per se) to the National War Memorial during Canada Day, 2006?

Regardless of what may or may not happen, NHM is an impressive, world-class monument that will certainly draw attention to, and create conversation about the Holocaust, but also Canada’s treatment of refugees, both past and future. Ottawa Magazine recently got a sneak peak hard-hat tour, with crews still forming the final walls and adding art.

What the National Holocaust Monument will look like from the air. Courtesy of NCC
What the National Holocaust Monument will look like from the air. Courtesy of NCC

The Walls
Without a doubt, the first thing that catches a visitor’s attention to the monument is the colossal concrete walls of seemingly dimensions that have been set at inconceivable angles to create a jarring, tense atmosphere within the structure. As seen from the air, these walls form a broken Star of David, the symbol the Nazis forced Jews to wear as a means of identification.

The walls serve a dual purpose. Not only do they create tension, reflective of the horrors suffered by Jews during the Holocaust, but they also aid in contemplation — their immense sizes and heights effectively shut the Monument off from the traffic along the busy MacDonald Parkway. Nowhere is this quieting measure more effective than inside a triangular space within the heart of the Star, where, through a narrow slit in the concrete, one passes from the main area — with its paintings and interpretive panels — into a bare space of quiet contemplation. Seated on one of the benches, visitors can watch a flame as it flickers upwards, past the 14 metre-high-walls that enclose the room, and look out onto the sky — a symbol of hope as glimpsed.

What the central gathering space will look like inside the National Holocaust Monument once completed. Courtesy of NCC
What the central gathering space will look like inside the National Holocaust Monument once completed. Courtesy of NCC

The Photographs
Moving about inside the Monument, one both descends and rises on the earth, where, throughout, Edward Burtynsky photographs of holocaust sites have been hand-painted on the walls. “In the selection process, it was very important that these [photographs] highlight different themes,” says Rachel Beriault, project manager, monuments and commemorations for Canadian Heritage. “For example, a prayer room [in Theresienstadt, Prague] highlights the theme of defiance and resiliency.”

The largest of the six images is of the haunting image of the old railway tracks leading through a forest to Treblinka, an extermination camp. This painting will be the only one visible from outside the monument and it was carefully selected because it is the least upsetting – aesthetically speaking – of the photographs.

The Terrace
The Stairs of Hope lead up, through a concrete gap in the angled wall, into a raised terrace. (There is an elevator as well.)  As one climbs the stairs, the peace tower is visible through the gap. “By going up these stairs you get a view of the democratic institutions that provide that beacon of light,” explains Beriault. This view of the Peace Tower is not only a reminder of one of the countries that aided in liberating Europe, but whose immigration policies before, during, and for some time after the war, were restrictive to immigrants, especially towards Jews. The view of the Peace Tower was intended to serve this dual purpose: “It is meant to both portray the terrible past and a hopeful future,” adds Susan Fisher, project manager of the monument for the National Capital Commission.

Photo by Studio Libeskind

The Landscape
Surrounding the NHM is landscaping consisting of river stone and low, evergreen shrub material, which is symbolic of Canada’s boreal forest. The adaptability of these particular plants in a harsh environment is intended to represent the struggle of immigrants — those who’ve come to Canada and “survived and thrived in difficult conditions,” says Fisher.

Even in this unfinished, cluttered state, the NHM visit made an impact. In spite of being there to take notes and hearing details related to its construction, in spite of the absence of didactic panels and unfinished photographs, the monument’s intent resonated — a heavy, somber feeling pressed down throughout the tour.

Yet within this “constricted and constrained atmosphere”, as Fisher described it, there are elements within the structure that convey a sense of hope — whether it be the evergreen shrubs struggling to grow in inhospitable soil, or the glimpse of the sky from inside the heart of the star. In time for Canada’s 150, the realization of the NHM in our capital speaks to the country’s maturation when it comes to our approach to refugees and immigrants; one can only hope that we do, truly, never forget the events of the Holocaust.