The long wait for a national Holocaust memorial ended Wednesday with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau inaugurating the city’s newest monument in downtown Ottawa.
For many in the invitation-only crowd that gathered inside the National War Museum — a heavy downpour forced the event to be relocated across the street from the monument — it was an emotional moment.
Eva Kuper, 76, of Montreal was two years old when she was ordered with her mother from the Warsaw Ghetto to a train station where they were to board a cattle car for Treblinka. At the last moment, however, a relative intervened — she said Eva was her child — and Eva was passed out of the packed car hand-over-hand. She was returned to her father, Antek, in the Warsaw Ghetto and they later escaped through the sewer system.
Her mother, Fela, was killed by the Nazis within an hour of arriving at the Treblinka extermination camp.
“I am gratified to be a witness today to this momentous occasion when Canada unveils a striking and evocative monument to the Holocaust,” Kuper, now 76, told the audience. “It is a fitting tribute to the victims, the survivors, and to the Canadians who took part in defeating the Nazis.”
Rabbi Rueven Bulka said the inauguration of the event concludes a decades-long campaign to see a Holocaust memorial built in Ottawa.
“It has been an exercise in patience, which is something we’ve learned over the course of the centuries,” he said in an interview. He called the monument the fulfilment of a promise that finally puts Canada on par with other Western democracies.
“It has always hurt me as a Canadian when I would go somewhere and be asked why we don’t have a Holocaust memorial in the capital. I no longer have to apologize and say, ‘It’s a lamentable thing.’”
Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly said the monument honours those lost to the Holocaust while also speaking to “the strength and courage of the survivors who made it to Canada.” An estimated 40,000 survivors immigrated to Canada.
“It is the courage of these survivors, the willingness of these survivors to share their experiences that ensures this will never happen again,” she said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed the city’s newest monument, saying: “We now have a place here in our nation’s capital where families can come together to learn, to ask those tough questions, to grieve and to remember.”
He told the audience it’s also important to acknowledge that Canada, in June 1939, refused to provide sanctuary to the European Jews aboard the MS St. Louis, some 254 of whom would later die in the Holocaust.
“May this monument remind us to always open our arms and hearts to those in need,” Trudeau said.
The star-shaped monument stands at the
northeast corner of Booth and Wellington Streets, across from the Canadian War Museum, and is the largest one built in the capital in more than 70 years.
Rabbi Daniel Friedman, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, chaired the National Holocaust Monument Development Council, which raised $4.5 million for the design and construction of the monument. He said the monument should be a required stop for every visiting foreign dignitary and every schoolchild.
“It has been a very long work in progress, but we have reached the goal: It’s something I’m very proud of,” he said in an interview. “It really symbolizes who we are as Canadians.”
Mina Cohn, director of the Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship at Carleton University’s Max and Tessie Zelikovitz Centre for Jewish Studies, carried her grandmother’s brooch to the ceremony as an act of remembrance. Cohn said the brooch was the only family possessions to survive the war.
“Having this place to go to is so important,” said Cohn, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors. “I think about all of the survivors who still now carry the burden or remembering and telling the story. Now, finally, there’s this monument that will talk for them when they’re not here.”
The drive to build a national Holocaust monument was spearheaded in 2007 by Laura Grosman, then an 18-year-old public administration student at the University of Ottawa. She was appalled by Canada’s lack of recognition for Holocaust victims, and lobbied federal politicians to enact legislation to build one.
A private member’s bill launched by Conservative Tim Uppal, a Sikh from Edmonton, became law in March 2011.
In May 2014, a selection jury awarded design of the monument to a team, led by Lord Cultural Resources of Toronto, that included architect Daniel Libeskind, landscape architect Claude Cormier, photographer Edward Burtynsky and University of Toronto historian Doris Bergen. Their winning design was titled Landscape of Loss, Memory and Survival. It features six triangular concrete structures that create the points of a star, along with Burtynsky’s large, monochromatic photos of Holocaust sites.
The monument opens to the public Thursday.
The Holocaust involved the systematic, state-sponsored murder of six million Jews by the Nazis, who believed Jews were inferior to Germans and represented a threat to Aryan racial purity. Other victims of the Holocaust included Poles Roma, homosexuals and the physically and mentally disabled.