When the National Holocaust Monument opens to the public later this month, Laura Grosman will be there to mark the end of her long and unlikely campaign to see it built.
The star-shaped monument to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust will be officially inaugurated at a Sept. 27 ceremony led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The $8.9-million memorial, which stands at Booth and Wellington streets opposite the Canadian War Museum, is the largest new monument to be built in the capital in more than 70 years.
“It’s very emotional,” said Grosman, a driving force behind a project 10 years in the making.
Hers is a story of unusual determination.
In 2007, Grosman was an 18-year-old public administration student at the University of Ottawa. She was also the granddaughter of a Polish-born Holocaust survivor, and as part of her attempt to understand that past, she enrolled in a Canadian Jewish Studies class taught by Prof. Rebecca Margolis.
During a project that examined international reaction to the wartime genocide that killed almost two out of every three European Jews, Grosman discovered that Canada was the only Allied power not to have a Holocaust memorial in its capital. She was outraged, especially considering that only Israel and the United States were home to more Holocaust survivors.
“This is absurd. How is that even possible?” Grosman asked her professor.
“I don’t have an answer for you,” Margolis said.
Grosman pursued answers. The second-year university student met with members of the Jewish community and reached out to federal politicians. She learned that previous attempts had been made to establish a monument without success. “All of the answers about why we didn’t have a monument, none of them were good enough,” she said. “So I said, ‘Alright, I’ve got to get to work. I felt very strongly that this needed to happen.’”
Grosman had studied government. She decided that her best chance rested with a private member’s bill — legislation introduced by an individual member of Parliament. Only a small fraction of such bills ever get passed into law.
Grosman approached her local MP, Liberal Susan Kadis. The then Thornhill MP agreed to draft the bill, but told Grosman she would have to “do all the work” to get it passed.
Still a teenager, Grosman lobbied political staffers and MPs to build support. “I had a lot of people telling me, ‘No,’ saying there were more important things or other things on their agendas. But I didn’t stop.”
The first bill died on the order paper when Parliament was dissolved in September 2008 for a federal election that returned Prime Minister Stephen Harper to power. In Thornhill, Kadis lost her seat to Conservative Peter Kent.
Grosman met Kent, and the former journalist and news anchor agreed to champion the project. But Kent was immediately appointed to cabinet, which precluded him from introducing a private member’s bill, so he approached newly elected Tory MP Tim Uppal, who held a favourable number on the order paper. (It meant that his proposed legislation would be among the first to be considered by the House of Commons.)
Uppal, a Sikh from Edmonton, agreed to sponsor what would become known as Bill-442. “I look on it as something I did as a Canadian: Canada needed this,” said Uppal, who worked with Grosman to build all-party support.
“I found her to be so determined,” Uppal said.
They met with Liberal, NDP and Bloc Quebecois MPs. “I didn’t want this to be a political issue,” said Grosman. “I wanted everyone to stand up and support it. It was very important to me that that happened.”
The bill went through the transport committee because then transport minister John Baird was responsible for the National Capital Commission, which was donating land for the project. The bill was delayed as MPs debated who should pay for it.
Opposition MPs felt the government should finance all of the monument, but Canadian Jewish groups wanted to pay half. Ultimately, that’s the plan that was accepted.
Peter Kent also enlisted Harper’s support for the project, and in March 2010, the Speech from the Throne included a government commitment to establish a national Holocaust memorial. The bill passed the Commons with all-party support, but still needed to clear the Senate at a time when Harper’s government was in crisis.
It raced through two final readings in a week, and was given Royal Assent hours before the government fell in a non-confidence vote on March 25, 2011.
“I was a wreck,” Grosman remembered. “I was terrified that after all of the work, and all of the hours and hours that went into it, that it was just going to die again. It was a race to the end.”
How did she celebrate the victory? “I turned my phone off and slept,” said Grosman, who was by then a parliamentary assistant to Conservative MP Ed Fast. She’s now working in Toronto as a communications consultant.
Rebecca Margolis said Grosman should be an inspiration for other young people: “It’s phenomenal that an undergraduate student could bring together that much enthusiasm and political support to create this incredible project.”
Margi Oksner, executive director of the National Holocaust Monument Development Council, called Grosman’s accomplishment “quite incredible.”
“She was tenacious,” said Oksner. “She got it done.”
The council has raised $4.8 million from private donors for the monument, which features six concrete triangles that form the Star of David.
For her part, Grosman said she’ll be thinking about her grandfather as the monument is officially inaugurated. David Grosman lost his entire family to the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile Nazi death squads that carried out mass murder of Jews, Roma and Communist Party officials in villages across Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. He spent the war on the run from the Nazis and later immigrated to Canada.
Said Grosman: “It’s an unbelievable experience to see that the struggles that my grandfather and my community went through are being acknowledged by our government.”
Click here for information about From Vision to Reality, an event to honor the inauguration of the National Holocaust Monument.