Declaring the long overdue monument to be a place where the story of the Holocaust and its survivors is brought to life, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau inaugurated the National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa on September 27.
“We now have a place here in the nation’s capital where families can come together to learn, to ask tough questions, to grieve and to remember,” said the prime minister, who began his address by wishing the gathering a “Shana Tova.”
Ironically, a streak of record-setting hot and sunny weather was brought to an abrupt end less than an hour before the scheduled 4 pm start of the ceremony when a brief but vicious storm tore through Ottawa causing the ceremony to be moved indoors to the Canadian War Museum across the street.
The mood was sombre, yet also inspiring, at the invitation-only event. Surrounded by tanks and fighter planes, the horrors of the Holocaust were brought to life by the stories of survivors Eva Kuper and Georgette Brinberg, and the robust voice of Holocaust survivor Philip Goldig, singing a cappella the haunting Yiddish/English song “Ghetto.”
“We must confront the ugly truth that anti-Semitism is not just a thing of the past in Canada,” said the prime minister. “We need to stand up every day against the cruelty, hatred and the indifference that made the Holocaust possible.”
As he has in the past, Trudeau noted Canada’s lamentable decision in 1939 to turn away Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis.
“May this monument remind us to always open our arms and our hearts to those in need and may it continue to reflect the true resilience of the human spirit as we pledge today to stay hopeful and to never, ever forget,” he said.
Heritage Minister Melanie Joly described the monument as “not just a symbol of the past but a reminder of our collective responsibility.”
Reminding the crowd that, “it is incumbent on each and every one of us to never forget that our diversity is our strength,” Joly concluded her remarks saying, “L’chaim, à la vie, to life.”
In 2007, when then-University of Ottawa student Laura Grossman learned that Canada was the only Allied nation without a national Holocaust monument, she began lobbying politicians to pass a private members bill to create one. The bill became law in March 2011 and the process of finding a site, selecting a design and raising funds began.
The monument, located across from the Canadian War Museum at the corner of the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway and Booth Street, features large soaring concrete walls that rise up to form a Star of David. Entitled Landscape of Loss, Memory and Survival, the monument is intended to not only commemorate victims and honour Canadian survivors but also to convey a sense of hope.
It includes a large gathering space for ceremonies, as well as plaques that tell the story of the Holocaust. Embedded in the concrete walls are towering monochromatic photographs of Holocaust scenes – barbed wire, train tracks, a synagogue. An eternal flame sits high up in the wall of a small area intended for quiet reflection. The Stairs of Hope lead up to a terrace with views of Parliament Hill and beyond.
Rabbi Daniel Friedman, chair of the National Holocaust Monument Development Council, which raised $4.5 for the monument project, described the day as bittersweet.
“We are proud of the most incredible Holocaust monument in the world but devastated at the memory that has brought us to this point,” Rabbi Friedman said.
Friedman applauded Canadians for being at the forefront of rooting out evil.
“The mission of the monument is to … be an everlasting reminder that evil exists in the world and that we as Canadians are committed to protecting every human being from the monsters that walk amongst us,” he said.
Hosted by Eliot Lifson, a member of the National Holocaust Monument Development Council, the afternoon’s events began with Algonquin elder Claudette Commanda giving an Indigenous blessing, and concluded with a moving rendition of “Kel Maleh Rachamim” and “Kaddish” sung by Holocaust survivor Philip Goldig.
The brief storm that forced the event indoors, and knocked down many trees and power lines in the city, was over by the time the inauguration ceremony ended, allowing guests to walk through the monument.