Commuters along the Macdonald Parkway or moving back and forth across the Chaudiere Bridge can’t help to have noticed the construction of the National Holocaust Monument, which began in earnest this spring. Colossal concrete walls of seemingly impossible dimensions have been set at unthinkable angles to create a jarring, oppressive impression. 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. Edward Burtynsky photographs of six Holocaust sites in Europe have been hand-painted on the walls. Only one of these photographs — a haunting railway track that would have led to the Treblinka extermination camp — is visible from outside the structure.
Now completed, the monument’s opening ceremony happens on September 27.
The National Holocaust Monument is built at a prime nexus: an intersection that includes the Canadian War Museum and the Canadian Firefighters Memorial, as well as such future landmarks as an LRT station, the central library, and the Sens stadium.
The same cannot be said for the Memorial to the Victims of Communism, which, after getting the go-ahead earlier this year, will be hidden away in the Garden of the Provinces and Territories (that well-shaded plateau kitty-corner to the Library and Archives).
The arrival of these monuments brings contentious details: the aesthetics (ugly or tasteful?), the cost ($8.95 million for the National Holocaust Monument, $3 million for the Communism memorial), and the location — Holocaust next to the War Museum makes sense, but proximity to a future entertainment complex could depreciate its impact. Meanwhile, the location of the Communism memorial suggests Canada always welcomed refugees — which isn’t true. And why is Canada the last of the Second World War allied nations to have a monument to the Holocaust built in its capital?
As we consider these two new monuments, some very basic questions might be overlooked.
Dacia Viejo-Rose, a professor of cultural identity at Cambridge University, has written extensively about monuments, specifically those built in the wake of European conflicts. She asks “… what roles can memorials play, how do they remain relevant and therefore important?” The answer, she suggests, may lie in how they are used, “for better or for worse.”
And so we might ask: How will we use these monuments?
It’s hard to imagine the Holocaust monument being used for anything other than its intended purpose: as a monument to the victims and survivors of the Shoah. But as Menachem Freedman of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre wrote in a 2014 Globe and Mail op-ed column, Ottawa’s monument is “not integrally connected to a Holocaust museum.” As such, it “depends entirely on the viewer to imbue it with significance and content — always a risky proposal.” Over time, he suggests, such monuments become “statements of forgetting rather than prompts for remembering.”
When Freedman wrote about the Holocaust monument, the Syrian refugee crisis was making headlines and the Conservative government’s response was not very inspiring. For Holocaust survivors, that was a reminder of how countries such as Canada turned away Jewish refugees during World War II. This prompted Freedman to write, “Without a renewed commitment to the universal human rights that emerged in the wake of the Shoah, Canada’s new memorial may in fact turn living memory to stone.”
In other words, regardless of the monument’s intent or aesthetic appeal, if it does not affect actions or policy, it will be little more than, as Freedman suggests, an empty symbol.
Given its location, will the National Holocaust Monument simply become another landmark in a city full of landmarks? Will it be urinated upon by inebriated sports fans? Will the monument eventually fail to spark interest in those streaming by?