‘The idea of having a memorial to this catastrophe next to the mother of parliaments,” says Dr Martin Stern, “is brilliant.” He speaks of the Holocaust memorial proposed for Victoria Tower Gardens, next to the Palace of Westminster. He does not, though, feel the same way about a learning centre that is proposed to go with the memorial. He feels that this would be a “calamitous mistake”, both “ridiculously large” for the small park in which it would be located and “ridiculously small” for its intended purpose.
Stern’s views should carry some weight. He is a survivor of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he was sent at the age of five. In 2018, he was awarded an MBE for his services to Holocaust education. He was an early backer of the memorial idea and was “induced to record a video” in its support before he saw the full extent of the plans. He tells me that “it distresses me greatly to upset people that I respect and like” who support the project. But he feels it is too important an issue to remain silent.
The UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre has been contentious ever since David Cameron announced it in 2016. Objectors have questioned whether it is the most effective way of ensuring that the Holocaust is fully remembered in the future. They have also opposed its unquestionable impact on Victoria Tower Gardens and the threat its excavation poses to magnificent mature plane trees. The security aspect of putting it in the middle of Westminster is, as Stern puts it, “a nightmare. It’s an obvious target for nutcases.” The learning centre magnifies these issues. It has to be buried underground because there is nowhere else for it to go. It requires bag checks and security screenings. It bloats the project into something unwieldy and cumbersome and drives the cost up to a figure that is now more than £100m.
Stern points out, as have others, that there is a much better place for such a centre, in the Imperial War Museum, which already has powerful and informative Holocaust galleries about a mile from the memorial site. There is more room there for a learning centre, he says, and it “could integrate with other organisations… it would have more space for expansion”. He would like to see a less grandiose but still eloquent memorial built next to parliament.
Last year, the then planning minister Chris Pincher gave the project the go-ahead, after a public inquiry recommended approval, but the question is still not settled. Later this month, the high court will hear an appeal against the government’s decision, brought by the London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust.
Stern does not make any claim to speak for all survivors, although he knows many others who feel as he does, but don’t want to speak out. Surely such an endeavour should respect voices such as his wherever possible. The best way to do that would be to place the learning centre in a location where it would flourish. It wouldn’t weaken the project’s ideals and objectives, but would strengthen them.
• Rowan Moore is the Observer’s architecture correspondent