‘Vessel of Souls’ stands tall at Alberta Legislature Grounds

'Vessel of Souls' - Edmonton's Monument to remember the atrocities of the Holocaust - by sculptor Susan Owen Kagan stands tall at the Alberta Legislature Grounds. (Photo supplied)

(AJNews) – By Regan Treewater-Lipes

Located on the Alberta Legislature grounds, slightly removed from the concentration of other monuments and statues, stands a solitary metal challis. Upon closer inspection one sees that it is a kiddish cup, a ‘Vessel of Souls’ – surrounded by barbed wire, with a series of prominent cracks. This formidable, yet contemplative structure, stands as Alberta’s commitment to remembering those lost during the Holocaust.

The understated grandeur of the memorial is enough to stop passersby in their tracks, and the haunting inscription on one panel is enough to ignite deeper reflection as viewers emotionally engage with the captivating image: “They were poets who never wrote; artists who never dreamed; teachers who never taught, students who never learned; sons and daughters who never became fathers and mothers.”

Artist Susan Owen Kagan, well known within the Edmonton Jewish community, and an established presence in the Alberta art world, is the visionary behind the monument which was completed in 2003. Most of the creative process took place in Kagan’s studio, although it is difficult to imagine the memorial occupying a space other than the Alberta Legislature.

“In 2002 I was commissioned by the Edmonton Jewish Federation to design and build a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. It was a challenging task, as I was asked to create a meaningful and lasting work of art which also conformed physically and aesthetically to the strict building codes of the Alberta Legislature, the memorial’s permanent site.”

In the almost twenty years since it was unveiled, Kagan’s contribution to local Holocaust awareness and memory preservation has become an integral part of the Edmonton Jewish community, and Alberta Legislature skyline. In a recent phone interview with Susan Owen Kagan, the artist explained that the intent of the memorial is to emphasize community.

“On the occasions that I am at the site and talking about the work, sometimes people will stop to ask questions,” she explained.  “The piece is meant to elicit an emotional response rather than an intellectual one initially.”

Kagan lives a life immersed in art and its creation. She attended the Banff School of Fine Arts, earned a BFA with honours from the University of Alberta where she focused her talent on exploring sculpture as her medium of expression. Kagan quite personally understands the depths and nuances of facilitating increased Holocaust awareness and historical literacy. Her own father came to Canada as a young Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany.

When she was first approached for the project, Kagan had been exploring the theme of a communal vessel. This would ultimately serve as a catalyst to inspire what now stands as a local guardian of memory.

“It depicts a prayer cup, icon of spiritual unity and ancient traditions, bearing the weight of a massive genocide. Through this communal vessel, I had endeavored to symbolize the importance of social responsibility. The cup is fractured, entwined with steel strands and elements reminiscent of barbed wire, chain and railroad ties. Beneath this onslaught, it stands strong, supported by a granite base engraved with poems and quotes of hope, faith and community.”

Recently, Beth Shalom Synagogue hosted a tour of the memorial in conversation with Susan Owen Kagan on October 2. It was a valuable opportunity for community members to gain greater insight into a piece of local Jewish identity. In Kagan’s words: “Ideally, people feel connected by the image of the vessel.”

Kagan’s original designs included three curved walls to display the names of local survivors, and those they lost, along with three benches to complete a circle around the central kiddush cup.

“There were reasons at the time that these components were kiboshed,” Kagan explained. “But the site was specifically chosen with the entire installation in mind.”

Knowing this certainly gives patrons a sense of Kagan’s larger vision, and an idea for potential future development.

The monument facilitates quiet consideration. One inscription reads: “When you stand here be silent, when you leave, be not silent.” Kagan’s piece is a valuable part of Jewish Edmonton. It is a permanent reminder of all who were lost, the devastation suffered, and a traumatic legacy that endures.  It provides visitors a place to contemplate and reflect, but moves them so that they can never again be silent.

Regan Treewater-Lipes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter 

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