Six designs have been unveiled for a Canadian National Holocaust Monument to be constructed in Ottawa. The designs vary wildly, including a proposal by the renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, who designed Berlin’s Jewish Museum. Libeskind and his colleague Gail Lord propose a structure in the form of an elongated Star of David. Five other shortlisted design concepts are also under review by Heritage Canada.
These are powerfully moving proposals, each with a unique interpretation of memory and loss. Construction on the final design is anticipated to begin this year, with inauguration of the memorial in 2015. It will sit near the centre of the nation’s capital, opposite the Canadian War Museum.
A reasonable question might be why Canada is inaugurating a memorial to a tragic event on another continent. As a country, we continue to struggle with aspects of our own difficult history of conquest, violence, repression and victimization. Why a Holocaust memorial in our capital?
Here’s why: as a member of the Allied nations confronting Hitler’s Germany, Canada played a role in bringing the Nazi regime and the Holocaust to an end, albeit regrettably late. We also have some penance to do, having been one of the countries – including all Western countries except the Dominican Republic – that bears some responsibility for the Holocaust, having closed our doors to the desperate Jews of Europe.
But there is another, more important reason for a Canadian Holocaust memorial. We must remind ourselves that, while the Holocaust was unique in its intent and scope, it carries universal messages and lessons for future generations about the dangers of totalitarianism, intolerance, extreme nationalism and racialism, the perversion of science and myriad other lessons still inadequately assimilated. Above all, while the Holocaust was particular in its genocidal intent toward Jews, it was not as particular in its Germanness. While the instigators of the atrocities were German, they found enthusiastic supporters, to varying degrees, in every country they invaded – and even in places they didn’t, including Canada. And some Germans were among the bravest enemies of Nazism.
There are so many lessons to be learned from every aspect of the Holocaust that we may never do more than scratch the surface of how it happened, why people behaved as they did, what it means and how future such atrocities can be prevented. But we hasten understanding and the potential for learning vital lessons if we acknowledge that the Holocaust was perpetrated, above all, by human beings against other human beings. If we isolate the Holocaust as something that is uniquely German – or European – we lose the opportunity to understand that, at root, it was perpetrated by human beings with motivations not at all exclusive to a single nationality, time or place. This is what makes Ottawa an ideal location for a Holocaust memorial.