It’s the end of August and I’m staring at a ravine. My sister is complaining about the heat; the walk from the metro to the park didn’t help. In Ottawa, then, unlike any of the former allied countries, there is not yet a National Holocaust Monument, but we are far away from home. She says in our mother tongue that the flowers around the ditch are either dead or dying.
I notice the smell. Had they bloomed, we would have been more patient – but this site is what remains of Babi Yar. At Babi Yar, nearly 34,000 Ukrainian Jews were murdered, waiting in line for a train that never materialized.
I’m not wearing my kippah. My sister stays at the base of the ravine, while my mother and I climb up. We see into what the late poet and dissident Yevgeny Yevtushenko called “a steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.” I think it is a Friday morning.
Here too, even from the top, it’s not easy to spot this as the site of one of the largest massacres of Jews during the Shoah. There is one menorah, but many crosses: one for the two priests martyred; another for the murdered Ukrainian nationalists. Nearby, after a fatal attempt by the Soviet government to erase the ravine with its Jewish cemeteries, a memorial stone for victims of a mudslide lies undisturbed.
Ottawa is a far cry from the horrors of Kiev and the rest of Europe, of course. In Auschwitz, inmates named the storehouse, where their belongings laid far away, “Canada.” Since the Shoah, roughly the same number of Jewish survivors left for Canada as those that were murdered overnight, between September 29 and September 30, 1941, at Babi Yar.
Silence, however, is the common thread between the old country and the new. Since monuments inscribe the stories that nations tell, to not tell a story is a deliberate act. Soviet policy refused to recognize the Shoah’s victims because Jews were accessories to the state, and the state was the one that perished during the long years of the “Great Patriotic War.” Meanwhile, Canadian policy on Jewish immigration during the 1930s and 1940s, as described by an unnamed official, and the title of Irving Abella and Harold Troper’s definitive book on Jewish immigration to Canada at the time, was that “none is too many.” In the Soviet Union, Jews were killed; Canadian apathy enabled their killers.
But now, things have changed.
Here, in Ottawa, the National Holocaust Monument opened on September 27 – two days before the 76th anniversary of Babi Yar. There, in Kiev, a new museum broke ground. Both are positive steps, not necessarily because they represent the interests of the Jewish people, but rather because they do what monuments set out to do: symbolically right past wrongs.
Monuments cannot bring back the Jewish communities of Ukraine. They cannot plot a way forward, despite what the promotional materials say. They barely remember the past, if judged by the standard of facts or information (this would require books, and reading). For students, they barely impact the four cubits of their lives.
Instead, monuments signal the lasting interests of the state. It is a public apology, directed at those the state wronged. The Menorah at Babi Yar is beautiful, built and financed by the Ukrainian government the same year that the Soviet Union collapsed. The National Holocaust Monument accomplishes the same.
Monuments, explaining the crux of their power, stand the test of time. Napoleon built Arcs, Augustus left Rome in marble, and Washington grew out of every downtown hub across the United States. Holocaust monuments are permanent apologies.
Or, at least, monuments attempt to endure. The last lines of “Ozymandias,” by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, mocks the ancient hubris of the “king of kings” who calls out to “look on my works, ye Mighty and despair.” Yet, “nothing beside remains,” save that “the lone and level sands stretch far away.” Next October, standing under the sun, would it matter where our monuments stand – and for how long?
Then again, maybe the question is irrelevant. Two states decided now to recant their sins. With Yom Kippur recently passed, this could be a timely lesson.