The UK agonizes over its new Holocaust memorial

To put the present situation into context, the UK already has five significant Holocaust centers serving the public.

The proposed design by Adjaye Associates for Britain’s new National Holocaust Memorial and Learning Center sited in Victoria Tower Gardens adjacent to the Houses of Parliament. (photo credit: Courtesy)
The proposed design by Adjaye Associates for Britain’s new National Holocaust Memorial and Learning Center sited in Victoria Tower Gardens adjacent to the Houses of Parliament.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In 2014, the UK government proposed, and in 2015 its parliament as a whole approved, the idea of a new National Holocaust Memorial and Learning Center. From early on the project faced a veritable storm of dissent, rarely about the concept itself, but about the selected location and later about the approved design. Despite these widespread objections the government submitted its planning application to the City of Westminster, the local authority responsible for the chosen site. But complaints grew to such proportions that in November 2019 the application was “called in” by then housing minister, Esther McVey – in other words the government, as it was entitled to do under planning legislation, took over responsibility for the project.
In order to provide a forum where all objections could be aired, considered and evaluated, McVey’s boss, UK Secretary of State Robert Jenrick, set up a public inquiry under the chairmanship of an independent planning inspector, David Morgan.
Before the inquiry commenced on October 6, 2020, the odor of antisemitism had begun to pervade the scene. Jenrick is married to Michal, the Israeli daughter of Holocaust survivors, and their children are being brought up as Jewish. The London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust, claiming there had been a conflict of interest in the government’s handling of the planning application for the memorial, legally challenged Jenrick. However he had already recused himself from any decisions relating to the memorial. The final ruling on its location and design, following the report of the Inquiry chairman, will be taken by McVey’s successor as housing minister, Christopher Pincher. On October 5, the High Court ruled that Jenrick had acted properly in regard to the planning application.
Meanwhile, Jenrick revealed that he had been subjected to “antisemitic smears” over his role in the proposal, and was living under police protection following threats to “kill his family” and “burn his house down”.
“The fact that I have been subjected to these smears,” he said, “and my family to antisemitic abuse and death threats, only shows the paramount importance of the memorial.”
To put the present situation into context, the UK already has five significant Holocaust centers serving the public. Three are sited in London.
The first public memorial in Britain dedicated to victims of the Holocaust was opened in Hyde Park, in the heart of London’s West End, in 1983. Conceived as a garden of boulders surrounded by white-stemmed birch trees, the largest boulder is inscribed with text from the Book of Lamentations: “For these I weep. Streams of tears flow from my eyes because of the destruction of my people.” A service of remembrance is held at the site every year.
The long-established Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide, situated close to the University of London, is essentially a literary and academic resource. The most recent memorial is a brand new and impressive Holocaust Learning Center opened in 2020 within the Imperial War Museum.
In addition to these London-based hubs, the county of Nottinghamshire, in the heart of England, houses the Beth Shalom National Holocaust Center and Museum, while further north the town of Huddersfield boasts its very own Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Center.
It was back in 2014 that David Cameron, then Britain’s prime minister, set up a cross-party Holocaust Commission tasked with deciding what more Britain needed to do to ensure that the memory of the Holocaust was preserved, and that the lessons it teaches are never forgotten.
The commission sent out a national call for evidence and, in light of the opinions it had received, issued its report and recommendations on January 27, 2015. They were instantly accepted in full by the government and endorsed by the opposition.
The commission proposed that a striking and prominent new national memorial should be built in central London in order to make a bold statement about the importance Britain places on preserving the memory of the Holocaust, and stand as a permanent affirmation of the values of British society. Moreover, a world-class learning center should be placed alongside the memorial ‒ a must-see destination using the latest technology to engage and inspire vast numbers of visitors.
In addition to conveying the enormity of the Holocaust and its impact, reflecting the centrality to Nazi objectives of the destruction of European Jewry, the memorial and learning center should also represent the fate of all other victims of Nazi persecutions ‒ Roma, disabled people, Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and all the political opponents of the Nazi regime.
In accepting the commission’s proposals, Cameron said: “Today we stand together... in remembrance of those who were murdered in the darkest hour of human history... united in our resolve to fight prejudice and discrimination in all its forms.”
To help the government carry the project forward, it set up a UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation composed of eminent establishment figures including Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. The foundation quickly embarked on a dual search – for a suitable location and a winning design.
As regards a site for the new memorial, the UKHMF committee based their search on the Commission’s recommendation that it should be in “central London.” It was for this reason that they rejected an offer from the Imperial War Museum to expand its own Holocaust learning center, then in the planning stage, into the National Memorial. The IWM, although only a mile from the Houses of Parliament, is situated south of the river Thames and is not generally perceived to be in central London. After considering more than fifty possible settings, the Foundation settled on Victoria Tower Gardens, a small public park to the south of the Palace of Westminster which houses Britain’s parliament.
It was a decision that immediately gave rise to a storm of protest based on a wide range of objections. Despite being assailed from all sides, the UKHMF stuck to its guns and invited architectural firms to submit designs sited in the gardens.
The international competition attracted 92 entries. The winning team, announced by the 13-panel jury in October 2017, was led by the British-Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye. Its design features 23 large bronze fin structures, the gaps between the fins representing the 22 countries where the Holocaust destroyed Jewish communities. Each acts as a separate path down to a hall leading into the learning center.
The public inquiry, held between October 6 and November 13, 2020, was designed to provide a platform for every organization, group or individual with an interest in the memorial. Residents in the area served by the Victoria Tower Gardens felt that the memorial would eat up too much of the limited green space – an objection echoed by the Royal Parks and by Westminster Council itself.
The gardens house three other memorials. Some felt that the one commemorating the victims of slavery would be “engulfed.” They also contain a children’s playground. This facility, too, it was claimed, would be downgraded and damaged. In a written submission, Lord Carlile, a former independent reviewer of terror laws, warned that a Holocaust memorial next to parliament would create a target for terrorists. He told the BBC that he had a strong interest in the issue. “Many of my close relatives were exterminated in the Holocaust. My half-sister’s mother was murdered in Auschwitz. I am absolutely determined that this should be remembered properly. I just feel that this isn’t the right place for it.”
In September 2018, the UKHMF hosted a public exhibition featuring the winning design in its agreed location. A further flood of comment followed. As a result alterations and modifications were made, and the revised design was submitted to the Westminster City Council on 29 April 2019. Westminster took the new design on board, and continued with the consultation it had opened with the public.
In August 2019, Westminster City Council wrote to the UKHMF warning that the memorial was “heading towards an unfavorable recommendation” by its planners. In response the foundation claimed that “excessive weight” was being given to the number of objections raised, an accusation robustly rejected by the council. Even so, in February 2020 Westminster City Council’s planning committee did vote unanimously to reject the government’s planning application, saying it contravened planning rules on size, design and location.
Now Westminster’s responsibility in the matter has been taken over by the government. On the inspector chosen to head its public inquiry, David Morgan, was placed the onerous task of hearing all points of view concerning the location and the design of the memorial, assessing their merits in the light of the criteria already laid down by the commission, and making recommendations to assist the government in its final decision. His report has to be presented to the secretary of state on or before April 30.
Since the criteria set out in the Holocaust Commission’s report of January 2015 were accepted in full and approved by parliament, there can be no doubt that Britain will eventually have a new National Holocaust Memorial. Equally set in stone is that it must be “striking” and “prominently located in Central London.” In addition, the Memorial must be co-located with a world-class learning center that is to be a “must-see destination using the latest technology to engage and inspire vast numbers of visitors.”
The big question still to be resolved is whether the Adjaye team’s design set in the Victoria Tower Gardens is to be given the go-ahead, or whether the whole project is to be shunted back to square one.■