A community celebration of the Be:longings art installation

July 2023
Wendy Schneider


A Friday morning in late June saw dozens of community members gather at Churchill Park for the community celebration of Be:longings, an art installation created by local artists, Gary Barwin, Simon Frank and Tor Lukasik-Foss that honours the memory of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat in Nazi-occupied Hungary who led an extensive and successful mission that saved the lives of nearly 100,000 Hungarian Jews. 

Comprised of 10 bronze-cast suitcases along a path adjacent to the Hamilton aviary, Be:longing, in the words of its creators, “considers what it means to escape, find refuge, seek safety or new opportunity, and to pursue freedom from oppression, persecution and privation.”

The ceremony began with artists Gary Barwin and Tor Lukasik-Foss sharing their artistic vision, followed by moving remarks by Dr. Steven Gerend, whose grandmother was saved by Wallenberg, and Ernie Mason, whose entire family was saved by the Swedish diplomat. Mason’s recollection of a harrowing encounter between his younger self and his father with Nazi officers on their way to their Swedish-protected apartment had the audience on the edge of their seats. The memory of that encounter was triggered, Mason explained, by his first glimpse of the Churchill Park suitcases. “Yes,” he said. “Suitcases were very much part of the Holocaust.”


Ernie Mason stands next to the Be:longings commemorative plaque that contains his quote about Raoul Wallenberg

Gary Barwin and Tor Lukasik-Foss share their vision for the Be:longings art installation


Dr. Steven Gerend shares his family's story of rescue by Raoul Wallenberg

Ernie Mason with students from the Hamilton Hebrew Academy

More than 70 community members came out for the commemorative ceremony


You walk along a path. A suitcase rests nearby. You take a closer look and discover it’s made of bronze. It looks like there’s a rip in the side. You keep walking. More suitcases are along the path ahead. What are they doing here? What’s inside them? Whose belongings are they? What did they carry? Where have these people come from? Where are they going? Where do they belong? Is this a path of travel, escape, of becoming?

In the central garden area there is a bench. On one side, someone has set down a briefcase. What’s inside? Where did the person go? Did they hide or disappear? In the centre of the garden, a living tree grows out of an open suitcase. It has sheltered and protected the tree, enabled it to take root, and grow free. On the other side of the garden, there are more suitcases along the path. Others have travelled, others will converge here. Others will take root, will grow free. 

Various sizes and styles of suitcase comprise be:longings. On each there is symbolic imagery and text. We hope these detailed elements on the suitcases will engage viewers in up-close and tactile interactions with the artwork, as they examine the individual pieces. The handles invite viewers to touch the cases, to attempt to lift them, to carry them away. Of course they’re heavy. What we carry is often heavy. And maybe we think of the weight or gravity of human history and experience and our connectedness to the circumstance of place. The suitcases are worn, full of cracks and tears. They’ve been through a lot. In time, maybe the handles will reveal the golden colour where people have touched them.

The suitcases ask questions about travel, escape, refugees, emigration, the writing, language and administration of laws and rights (for example, Raoul Wallenberg granting passports which enabled Jews to escape.)  Perhaps the tree suggests strength, hope, and overcoming obstacles, as it pushes through that which contains, obstructs, and controls its capacity to thrive.

We gathered the models for the suitcases from a variety of sources. We don’t know who used them except for one. The woman who sold us that suitcase told us that it was the suitcase her grandfather brought with him when he emigrated from Croatia before the First World War. The other suitcases have their own stories. We must imagine what they are. 

What do we carry?
What is it to leave a home? To find to a new home? To belong? This installation considers what it means to escape, find refuge, seek safety or new opportunity, and to pursue freedom from oppression, persecution and privation. 

What do we bring?
These forms of migration are complex, they require bravery and sacrifice. They require forging a relationship with the land and sharing space with those who have arrived before and with those who have been here from the beginning. Often it is difficult and fraught. Like any home.

What can we grow?
The tree is a universal symbol in nearly all human cultures, representing growth, resilience, hope, strength, regeneration, knowledge, family and ultimately, life itself. Despite the weight and gravity of history and experience - humanity and its ideals are ultimately hopeful, inextinguishable, and irrepressible.

Gary Barwin, Simon Frank, and Tor Lukasik-Foss