Remembering Shoah

Text Alessandra Mariani

Next fall, a National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa designed by a team including Daniel Libeskind is anticipated to open. Located across from the Canadian War Museum, the sculptural design is marked by six triangular volumes, aggregated in an elongated Star of David. The concrete volumes mark the ground the way badges marked victims of Shoah.

The monument is a rare case of a Holocaust monument without a Holocaust museum. While the monument frames views of Parliament Hill and is visually linked to the Canadian War Museum, the educational content usually provided by companion institutions is limited. To compensate, the team opted to integrate an interpretive process in the structure. As team leader Gail Lord of Lord Cultural Resources explains, the sculpture invites visitors to journey through an experiential environment depicting the darkest chapter of human history. Visitors travelling along the memorial’s paths will view large-scale photographs of Holocaust death camps and killing fields embedded in its concrete walls, captured by Edward Burtynsky. They will also access a surrounding coniferous rocky landscape, designed by Claude Cormier, to symbolize the resilience of Holocaust survivors and their descendants.

As Paul Ricoeur put it, “monuments risk becoming statements of forgetting, rather than prompts for remembering.” In this light, one has to ask, would a proposal with a higher sensory impact have been a better prompt for remembering the Holocaust?

Among the finalists, David Adjaye, Ron Arad and Irene Szylinger’s proposal stands out in terms of the visceral experience it promised. The design features an array of steel-reinforced concrete walls, each measuring an imposing 14 metres high and 20 metres wide, spaced a little more than a metre from each other. Twenty-two passages were proposed, representing each country where the Holocaust took lives. One visitor at a time would have transited through each narrow passage, confronting a variety of emotions—not least an oppressive feeling generated by the visual upward pull of the massively scaled walls. If the experience speaks metaphorically of the unnameable voyage of millions of Jews, the foils framing it resemble the warped pages of a book, referring to a biblical passage in which God promises Abraham and his descendants deliverance following long-endured hardship.

It is easy to imagine how this proposal could have delivered an experience as vivid as the ones offered by Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses and Passage of Time. As a presence in the landscape, the memorial would have been immediately impactful, and offered a stronger contrast with the adjoining Canadian War Museum. However, its autonomy was perhaps a disadvantage in the competition—by its formal daring, it risked becoming too much of a strange presence for the conservative tastes of Ottawa’s cultural scene.

To their credit, both Libeskind’s and Adjaye’s projects go far beyond the standard words-on-a-plaque monument. Both possess a sculptural dimension that creates an instant dialogue with space and invites visitor interaction. And both address a subject left largely unaddressed in the Canadian War Museum, filling an important place in the Capital Region’s memorial landscape.

Alessandra Mariani is a researcher at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and the editor of Muséologies journal.