Canada Opens First National Memorial to Holocaust Victims

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Visitors in Canada's recently opened Holocaust memorial on October 7, 2017.
Visitors in Canada's recently opened Holocaust memorial on October 7, 2017.Credit: Michael Muraz

Last week the first Canadian national memorial to victims of the Holocaust was dedicated in Ottawa, the capital. The modest site, on an area of three dunams (three-quarters of an acre), is located opposite the Candaian War Museum, and was designed by American Jewish architect Daniel Libeskind, who was chosen in 2014 along with a team that included a historian, a landscape architect and an artist. They beat out five other teams, including that of Israeli designer Ron Arad and British architect David Adjaye, who are also competing with him for the design of the Holocaust memorial in London.

From above, the Canadian memorial looks like a Star of David, and it is divided into three triangles of different sizes. Libeskind chose the Star of David because of the immediate interpretation of the shape. As usual in his works, the site is full of symbols and includes a stairwell leading to a view of the city that symbolizes the future, areas for private meditation, areas for meeting and more.

Libeskind says the memorial not only creates an important public space in memory of those murdered in the Holocaust, but also serves as a reminder that the world is threatened by anti-Semitism, racism and fanaticism. He adds that the monument attests to Canada’s adoption of democratic principles. On the walls of the memorial are contemporary photos of the concentration and extermination camps in Europe by Ukrainian-Canadian photographer Edward Byrtynsky. Libeskind told the Toronto Star: “It’s not a building. It’s not sculpture. It falls between these things. There’s no didactic way to go through it. You have to create spaces for individuals as well as room for 1,000 people. It’s about your experience. It’s about you.”

The question is why Canada needs a memorial to the Holocaust, which had yet to exist on its territory. The local media mentioned the Canadians’ refusal to allow the German ship “St. Louis” to anchor in the city of Halifax on the Atlantic coast, after the more than 900 Jewish refugees had been turned away by Cuba and the United States. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who spoke at the inauguration, said he hoped that “the memorial will remind us to open our arms and our hearts to those in need.” According to the Toronto Star, there are 17,000 Holocaust survivors living today in Canada, about a quarter of them below the poverty line.

The newly opened Holocaust memorial in Canada pictured on October 7, 2017.Credit: Michael Muraz

The dedication ceremony was accompanied by an embarrassment to the Canadian government, after the main memorial plaque neglected to specifically mention that the site is in memory of the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The world's earlier Holocaust memorials, such as that in Warsaw, Poland in memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was dedicated a few years after the uprising and featured at Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, are very verbal memorials presenting the narrative and events of the Holocaust unambiguously.

The memorials built since then have become abstract, and their design is meant to arouse contemplation. One example is the Holocaust memorial in Boston, which was dedicated in the mid-1990s, and is composed of six tall glass columns, and particularly the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, which was designed by Jewish architect Peter Eisenman and was dedicated in 2005. The memorial in Berlin, which is composed of thousands of stone slabs in a central location in the city, constitutes a milestone in the planning of memorials. On the one hand it is minimalistic, without photographs or items such as parts of train cars or Stars of David, and on the other hand it’s very large and grandiose. The image of the site is one of the most familiar in the world, and no visitor needs a sign to explain to him where he is.

Libeskind, the son of Polish Holocaust survivors, who was born in Lodz in 1946, has for years been attracted to designing memorial sites. The first, which brought him to the world’s attention, is the Jewish Museum in Berlin designed with dramatic angular lines. Later he designed the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, England, which is also composed of dramatic broken shapes. In 2014 a Holocaust memorial that he designed in Columbus, Ohio was dedicated. It is composed of two bronze planes that meet in the center, the jagged edges forming a cutout in the shape of a Star of David. Libeskind was also chosen to design a Holocaust memorial in Amsterdam, which from above is arranged into the Hebrew word “lizkor” – “to remember.”

Apparently, Libeskind designs for memorials have long since become clichéd and predictable – the use of Hebrew, Stars of David and elements of hope and light no longer relevant after the Berlin Holocaust memorial. Those who commission the memorials know that the site will become another point on the tourist route in the city.

Libeskind’s buildings are controversial, and only a week ago there was a debate in Israel over another one of his buildings, a hotel planned for Eilat in the water. Aside from the environmental aspect that angered the environmental organizations, the design of the hotel is not particularly minimalistic either. Like clients who commission a memorial from Libeskind, the developer of the hotel chose him because he wants a building that stands out. The means used by Libeskind to make a building stand out are immediate and are repeated in most of his works. He tends to tell journalists who interview him about that tendency that every artist, like composers or those who engage in the plastic arts, has a trademark, and therefore his repetitiveness is legitimate.

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