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Leading Jewish academics speak out against ‘flawed’ Holocaust Memorial

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Leading Jewish academics question location, expenditure and thinking behind the proposed Holocaust Memorial at Westminster

Prominent Jewish educationalists have criticised the proposal to erect a UK Holocaust Memorial outside the Palace of Westminster, saying it is on the wrong site, that the £40 million budget would be better spent in other ways, and that, through it, the UK government is attempting to ‘re-tell’ its wartime response to Jewish refugees.

Some of architecture’s biggest names, including David Adjaye, Zaha Hadid Architects and Norman Foster, are vying for the £40 million project to honour those who suffered under Nazi persecution.

But Kay Andrews, a trustee of the National Holocaust Centre and former head of education at the Holocaust Educational Trust, described the proposed site for the £40 million memorial and 2,650m2 subterranean learning centre as ‘flawed’. She said: ‘If this is claiming to be a national memorial, situating it right next to Westminster does not seem very national. Does it represent a national viewpoint? Does it represent the devolved regions?

‘So much understanding and learning of the Holocaust becomes political rhetoric,’ she added. ‘[The proposal] doesn’t reflect the 70 years of post-Holocaust British historiography of how we dealt with the events of the Second World War, of how we treated those survivors who came to the UK […] I don’t think we did that very well at the beginning.’

Andrews said there were ‘more innovative ways’ to create a Holocaust Memorial that would be ‘nationally accessible and truly reflect the diverse lives of those women and men who came to Britain as refugees’. She praised the Stolpersteine project, a memorial consisting of brass-plated cobblestones inscribed with the names and dates of victims of Nazi persecution installed in streets across Europe.

She also raised a practical concern, saying the Victoria Tower Gardens site might be required for building work during the planned refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster.

Meanwhile Richard Goldstein, director of operations at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and lecturer at the London School of Jewish Studies, said it would be ‘far more effective’ to spend the money on teacher training – ‘especially since there’s only going to be a limited amount of schools that are ever going to come and see this memorial on a visit’.

And Jessica Rapson, a lecturer at King’s College London, who has published a monograph on Holocaust memorial landscapes in different countries, and was on a committee of academics asked to advise on the UK Holocaust Memorial, said it seemed that organisers were looking to create a memorial that was architecturally ‘spectacular’ .

Rapson, who is not Jewish, also noted the 9/11 Memorial in New York was being looked at by organisers as the ‘desirable aesthetic’. In the 2015 Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission report, it states that the commission was ’impressed by the outstanding use of space and technology’ of the 9/11 Memorial, which it studied as an example of ‘best practice’. 

She said: ‘Thinking about the various memorials I’ve seen to the Holocaust around the world, everything from particularly problematic examples such as the Boston [New England Holocaust] Memorial – which includes a kind of mock gas chamber effect – to things that are more streamlined and abstract like Rachel Whiteread’s work [the Nameless Library in Austria].

‘I don’t know which way this is going to go. From my point of view, taking inspiration from the 9/11 Memorial, which is such a different kind of event, is not perhaps what I would think is appropriate.’

The Holocaust Commission report said the commission was also ‘impressed’ with the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, which includes six glass towers, each representing one of the six extermination camps – this display was ’interactive and informative’ in the report. 

Rapson added that it could be a difficult division if organisers ‘want it to be a tourist attraction as much as can educational centre’, and ‘often in these cases we end up with projects that perhaps don’t fully serve both ends’.

In addition, Jacqueline Nicholls, an artist and educator who co-ordinates arts and culture at Jewish cultural centre JW3, said the Holocaust Memorial was an attempt to whitewash the government’s treatment of Jewish refugees during the Second World War.

She said: ‘[It’s] retelling history,’ she said. ‘The Kindertransport was done by private charities; it wasn’t a government sponsored thing.’

She described it as ‘audacious’ to plan the memorial on a site next to the Houses of Parliament, given the government’s knowledge of the persecution of Jews in Europe during the Second World War.

Nicholls was also critical of the government’s treatment of contemporary refugees, noting the cancellation of the so-called Dubs amendment to settle 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees in the UK.

She said: ‘What are we going to look forward to in 100 years’ time – a memorial to the people we could have helped now?’

In February, Tory MP Edward Leigh hit out over the proposed site of the new UK Holocaust Memorial, saying the plot in Victoria Gardens is too small, prone to flooding, and that the scheme would set a ’dangerous precedent’ for parks in London.

And architecture critic Joseph Rykwert, who was born in Warsaw and moved to England in 1939 to escape Nazi persecution, also said the site was unsuitable for the Holocaust Memorial. 

However, other Jewish groups have welcomed the Holocaust Memorial and its site next to Westminster.

Simon Johnson, CEO of the Jewish Leadership Council, said it was ‘important’ for there to be a national Holocaust Memorial. He said: ‘This is a reminder for everyone, no matter their background, of the tragedies of the Holocaust. The lessons are as relevant today as they have ever been and a memorial at the centre of British democracy will serve as a fitting reminder.’

In addition, a spokersperson from the cabinet office said: ’The UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation was tasked with finding the most iconic location for a national Memorial to the Holocaust and an accompanying education centre. There is no question that Victoria Tower Gardens, next to Parliament, fulfils that aim better than any of the almost 50 sites we examined.

’The Holocaust Commission report makes clear the importance of exploring Britain’s complex relationship with the darkest period of European history, from the Kindertransport and events such as the liberation of Bergen Belsen which we can rightly be proud of, to harder questions of what more we could have done to disrupt Nazi plans for mass extermination. There has never been any suggestion that the world class education centre will shy away from these important themes.’

The 10 shortlisted designs for the memorial will be judged by a jury chaired by Peter Bazalgette, including communities secretary Sajid Javid, mayor of London Sadiq Khan, the chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and broadcaster Natasha Kaplinsky.

To submit feedback on the designs, email ukhmf@cabinetoffice.gov.uk.

The government has pledged £50 million as its contribution to the total project costs of the ‘National Memorial, the creation and running of a co-located learning centre and additional wider educational work on the Holocaust’.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • It's surely time for 'some of architecture's biggest names' to wake up and smell the coffee - siting this project at Victoria Tower Gardens is looking more like populist gesture politics every day, about as sensible as the announcement that Channel 4 should be banished from London.

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