I am not a stranger to Holocaust memorials. Every year I accompany young Catholics on a visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, and about every other year I accompany Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel’s national museum and memorial for the Shoah.
Even after the novelty of such visits fades, such experiences remain powerful moments. In the face of the Holocaust we are forced to contemplate the mystery of evil in our time; we bow our heads before the resilience of those who suffered; we are moved to intense prayer. For a Christian in particular, it is not possible to recall the Shoah – and the subsequent return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel – without profound reflection upon the meaning of divine election. To the Jewish people, writes Saint Paul, belong the “sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.”
It was therefore a blessing – in the strict sense of the word, as not all blessings are superficially pleasant – to visit Ottawa’s National Holocaust Monument last Wednesday at its inauguration. The decision to build the monument was taken by a unanimous vote of Parliament in 2011, correcting the anomaly that Canada was the only allied power from World War II that did not have a national Holocaust monument.
The new monument is a striking set of massive concrete triangles, intended to echo the triangular patches that the Nazis made various groups wear, including “homosexuals, Roma Sinti, Jehovah’s Witnesses and political and religious prisoners that marked them for death.”
The six triangles in turn are laid out to “create the outline of a star — the star that millions of Jews were forced to wear… to exclude them from humanity and mark them for extermination.”
The angles and planes of the monument echo the Canadian War Museum across the street. At the inauguration, more than a few people remarked that the juxtaposition of the two was a reminder that sometimes evil must be fought by recourse to arms.
To my mind, the triangles of the monument call to mind Yad Vashem itself, where the main museum gallery is housed in a massive concrete triangle cut into the hills. I don’t know if the architect, Daniel Libeskind, had that in mind, but it is suggestive nonetheless.
The monument tells the story of the Holocaust in relatively few words; the emphasis is on the architecture and monumental reproductions of photographs by Edward Burtynsky. The historical account is measured and inclusive; it acknowledges that while Jews became the principal targets of the Nazi killing machine, they were neither the first nor the only ones sent to the death camps. The closure of Canada’s borders to Jewish refugees is treated honestly but without theatrics. The truth is dramatic and shameful enough.
Whenever I visit such a site, I think of the words of Pope Benedict XVI upon his visit to Auschwitz in 2006, who framed the cosmic dimension of the Shoah.
“The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth,” said Benedict. “Thus the words of the Psalm: ‘We are being killed, accounted as sheep for the slaughter’ were fulfilled in a terrifying way. Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid. If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself, then that God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone — to those men, who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world.”
The Nazis did appear for a short time to be masters of the world. But only the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the Lord of history. And on Wednesday, some of those who survived the plot for the extermination of European Jewry were present, witnesses — like so many of their ancestors in history — to the endurance of God’s covenant in the face of manifest evil.
One such woman had been a little girl during the Second World War. When she saw me she told me that she had been hidden by a Catholic priest in Poland, and when things became more dangerous, sheltered by his family in what was then the most eastern part of Poland. To hear such a testimony in such a place is a grace.
The monument includes large open spaces, designed for larger gatherings. But meetings such as the one I had with that survivor are also part of the purpose of the monument, to make history personal. The real monument of the Shoah is to remember. Ottawa’s newest monument admirably helps us to do that.