By Adam Edgerley

This year, Holocaust Remembrance Day takes place on April 15. Seventy years after the end of the Second World War, the memory, consequences and lessons of the Holocaust remain powerful and distinct.

Commemorating the Holocaust has particular significance this year. In Canada, Ottawa unveiled its plans for the nation’s official Holocaust monument last May, ending Canada’s status as the only Allied country without such a memorial.[1]

Towards a National Monument

Parliament unanimously passed the National Holocaust Monument Act in 2011,[2] which established a council to create a national Holocaust monument by the end of 2015. The monument was to be placed in the heart of the government district in Ottawa, adjacent to the Canadian War Museum, a short walk from Parliament Hill.[3]

After narrowing the proposals to a shortlist of six designs, the council announced the selected bid on May 12 of last year.[4] The winning design was produced by a team led by museum planner Gail Dexter Lord, consultant to both Winnipeg’s Museum for Human Rights and New York’s 9/11 Memorial, as well as Canadian architect Daniel Libeskind, designer of the Jewish Museum of Berlin and the Royal Ontario Museum’s Crystal in Toronto. The final plan, evocative of the Crystal, is designed as a “journey through a star” comprised of many large, angled and overlapping concrete triangles that, from the air, resemble an elongated Star of David. Its shadowy interior suggests the darkness and confusion of the Holocaust, with a symbolic, ascending exit towards Parliament’s Peace Tower.

Tim Uppal, the MP who introduced the memorial private-members bill, described the monument as aiming “to promote a better understanding of the historical events of the Holocaust and how these events affected Canadian history.”  Canada’s memorial will join other well-known sites including the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the sprawling and recently-unveiled Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

In Canada, political support from all parties has been strong since the bill was tabled in 2010, backed by the Conservative government, and mirroring a contemporaneous Liberal private-member bill. “The idea is so simple that we have to ask why no one thought of it before?” said then-deputy NDP-leader Thomas Mulclair in 2010. “It is never too late to do something good.”[5]

Canada and the Holocaust

The Holocaust touches Canada in a number of ways. A tenth of the population enlisted in the nation’s armed forced during the Second World War, totaling over one million Canadians. They formed part of the Allied invasion of Europe that ended the War in 1945. My own grandfather witnessed the carnage of recently-liberated concentration camps in Germany as a Canadian paratrooper, while more distant relatives were deported from the Baltics and murdered.

After the War, 40,000 Holocaust survivors settled in Canada, and they and their descendants form a significant share of Canada’s Jewish population today.[6] Yet any appraisal of Canada’s response to the crises faced by the Jews in Nazi Germany and German-occupied Europe is blackened by years of callously anti-Semitic immigration policies that barred thousands of desperate Jewish refugees from Canada’s shores. Immigration officials and cabinet ministers right up to Prime Minister Mackenzie King rejected all but a tiny fraction of Jewish refugees fleeing the Third Reich, a response far short of even the apathetic policies of many other Allied nations.[7] Most infamously, in 1939, the federal cabinet refused entry to the 937 German-Jewish refugees aboard the ship MS St. Louis after the ship had similarly been blocked from Cuba and the United States.[8] Upon the ship’s return to Europe, some passengers were able to find refuge but one in four were ultimately murdered in the Holocaust.[9]

The Holocaust and Our World

The Holocaust was a period of unprecedented oppression and violence spanning Nazi Germany and German-occupied Europe. Six million Jews were murdered, alongside — depending on what wartime murders are included — another six million Slavic, Roma, gay, and political victims. The world is still learning about the Holocaust. A landmark report released in 2013 identified over 42,000 Nazi ghettos and camps across Europe, more than five times what was previously thought.[10]

While Canada’s steps towards a national monument signify a resolve to learn from and remember the Holocaust, the past year of political economic and even military instability has shown that this commitment is not universal. Greece’s overtly neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party receives rising support; France’s far-right National Front has won the country’s European Parliament elections; and Russia couches violent infiltrations into southeastern Ukraine in propaganda misappropriating the legacy of Nazism and anti-Semitism. Deadly terrorist attacks at the Jewish Museum of Brussels and the Hypercachet kosher market in Paris have left some European Jews questioning their physical safety on the continent.

Nor was the Holocaust an end to industrialized mass murder. In the Syrian civil war, over 100,000 civilians have been killed and five million forced from their homes. The Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons prompted an Israeli cabinet minister to chillingly note “it cannot be that less than 100 kilometers from Israel, children are being gassed to death and we let the world remain silent and ignore it.”[11]

Holocaust Remembrance Day is an important time to reflect upon a tragedy that is at once entirely singular, and yet also indicative of mankind’s lasting capacity for extreme cruelty. Preventing racism, hatred, war, and genocide are ongoing projects for the world. Remembering the Holocaust is essential in 2015, as we in Canada and around the world work to build societies that are more tolerant, more peaceful, and free.

[1] National Holocaust Monument. The National Holocaust Monument Development Council. 3 Apr 2015.

[2] Department of Justice Canada. National Holocaust Monument Act. 25 Mar 2011.

[3] Mills, Carys. “National Holocaust Monument finalists unveiled.” Ottawa Citizen 21 Feb 2014.

[4] Bozikovic, Alex. “National Holocaust Monument design unveiled.” Globe and Mail 12 May 2014.

[5] Open Parliament. Thomas Mulcair on National Holocaust Monument Act. 8 Dec 2010.

[6] Citizenship and Immigration Canada. News Release — Canadian Chair Year of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Ends: Holocaust Awareness and the Fight Against Anti-Semitism Continue. 25 Feb 2014.

[7] None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948. Abella, Irving and Harold Troper. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.

[8] Ontario Human Rights Commission. S.S. St. Louis and human rights. 10 Mar 2014.

[9] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Voyage of the St. Louis. 20 Jun 2014.

[10] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945. 20 Jun 2014.

[11] “Israeli intelligence seen as central to US case against Syria.” The Times of Israel 27 Aug 2013.