On Wednesday, Canada opened its first Holocaust memorial, making it the last Allied nation to erect a structure of remembrance for the victims of the genocide.
Designed by Studio Libeskind, the memorial was chosen in 2014 from a shortlist of proposals by other familiar names like David Adjaye and Ron Arad. The completed structure is located in Ottawa, and was supported by the National Holocaust Monument Development Council as well as the Canadian government. Landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky and museum planner Gail Dexter Lord served principal roles on the design team alongside Daniel Libeskind, and were joined by Claude Cormier as the landscape architect and the University of Toronto’s Doris Bergen as a content advisor.
Seen from above, the memorial clearly resembles a stretched Star of David – the same star Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust. It is also meant to honor the other groups persecuted – including Jehovah’s Witnesses, queer individuals, political prisoners, the mentally ill, and others – many of whom were forced to wear differently colored stars or patches to distinguish their identities to Nazi officers. Constructed of six concrete and metal walls, the monument forms chambers of reflection at varying sizes, including a tall triangular contemplation room nearly closed off to the rest. Huge in scale, some of Burtynsky’s photos are painted onto the walls by an artist’s team led by William Lazos. They depict concentration camps, the railways that led people to them, and other eerily vacant landscapes. Conifers are planted surrounding the memorial, giving an even heightened sense of stillness. According to the project’s Instagram, these plants were meant to typify Canada’s boreal forest, and represent “the struggle of immigrants — those who’ve come to Canada and survived and thrived in difficult conditions.”
The choice to focus on landscape was well-considered – particularly, as Lord outlined to The Art Newspaper, because of the importance of landscape imagery in Canadian history, identity, and popular imagination. “You can look at a landscape and just think it’s just beautiful, but in fact, some of the most terrible things that have ever happened to human beings happened there,” Lord said. Lord went on to say that she hoped the monument inspired visitors to reflect on the horrific deeds committed not just during the Holocaust, but by colonists to the indigenous peoples of Canada. Pastoral landscapes often have a disturbing habit of distracting from the violence of their history, and Canada’s green hills are not exempt.
This point also resonates with one of the central stories behind the monument: that Canada refused to offer asylum to many victims of the Holocaust. In one devastating instance, a German ship called the MS St. Louis containing 937 Jewish refugees was turned away from Cuba, the U.S., and finally Canada. After returning to Europe, 254 of its passengers perished in concentration camps. They are memorialized in many places, most recently by a Twitter account that went viral after the travel ban at the beginning of President Donald Trump’s term of office (which has similarly denied refugees seeking asylum from political unrest). Canada’s new monument is meant, in part, to honor their lives as well, and acknowledge the state’s role in their demise at a time of extraordinary need.
Another narrative highlighted by the memorial centers on the contributions of Holocaust survivors to Canadian society after the war – some 40,000 of whom moved to Canada upon release from concentration camps.