Canada unveiled its first National Holocaust Monument less than a week ago with much fanfare. But the moment soon became an embarrassment for the government because of a glaring omission.
The monument’s dedication plaque made no mention of Jews.
No one seemed to notice the oversight until after the dedication of the striking $8.9 million memorial, which features six concrete triangles that form a diagonally-stretched Star of David. Ottawans proudly hail it as the largest new monument built in the capital for more than 70 years.
As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke at the monument’s unveiling before a crowd that included Holocaust survivors, the plaque said the site honored “the millions of men, women and children murdered during the Holocaust.”
But it didn’t mention Jews or anti-Semitism.
Trudeau’s political opposition seized on the lapse. On Tuesday, the Conservative Party’s David Sweet said publicly: “If we are going to stamp out hatred toward Jews, it is important to get history right,” the Guardian reported. He asked whether Trudeau would be rectifying the “profoundly obvious omission.”
A slew of embarrassing headlines followed. “Canada forgets Jews at Holocaust monument,” blared the Twitter feed of BBC News.
Although Trudeau wasn’t responsible for the plaque, it’s the second time he’s been caught up in a Holocaust commemoration gaffe. Last year, critics blasted him for speaking generically about hate and failing to mention Jews on International Holocaust Memorial Day.
“The Holocaust is a stark reminder of the dangers and risks of allowing hate, prejudice, and discrimination to spread unchallenged,” he said in a statement on that day in 2016.
The push for the National Holocaust Monument first came in 2007 from a University of Ottawa student who realized Canada was the only Allied power without a national memorial. There were smaller memorials, but “there was nothing that spoke nationally about the Holocaust,” Dov Goldstein of Lord Cultural Resources told Canadian Art.
Its enclosed spaces, precariously angled walls and raw concrete surfaces speak the language of pain, fear and isolation. There is nothing heroic here — how could there be? — only the offer of an experience not easily forgotten. . . . Falling somewhere between art and architecture, this is the first memorial of its kind in the country. Devoid of rhetoric and (mostly) of figurative imagery, it’s an abstract structure that would rather evoke a response than make its point overtly.
During last week’s dedication, Trudeau spoke of the monument as a place where “families can come together to learn, to ask those tough questions, to grieve.” He noted that Canada was among the first countries to officially recognize Israel. He also made a passing reference to Canada’s decision in 1939 to turn away a boat of German Jews seeking asylum, short of the full apology that many people had wanted.
“We need to stand up every day to the cruelty, hatred and the indifference that made the Holocaust possible,” he said. “May this monument remind us to always open our arms and our hearts to those in need.”
In attendance was Eva Kuper, 76, a Holocaust survivor whose mother was killed in Treblinka, the Nazi death camp 50 miles northeast of Warsaw. She told the Ottawa Citizen: “It is a fitting tribute to the victims, the survivors, and to the Canadians who took part in defeating the Nazis.”
Trudeau called the dedication “one of those all too rare moments when all parties come together.” That moment didn’t last long, and the plaque’s omission of Jews soon became a political issue.
A new plaque is in the works. Mélanie Joly, Canada’s heritage minister, said it will be one “with language that reflects the horrors experienced by the Jewish people.”
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