Seth Cohen
Applying Optimistic Thinking to Complex Community Challenges

Memories of the Future Past: A Reflection on International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Several times a year I visit Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Memorial Center in Jerusalem. Each time I walk through the foremost museum for the remembrance of the Holocaust (referenced as the Shoah in Hebrew), I am struck by something new, something I didn’t see or understand before. Like enduring texts and compendiums of knowledge, museums are ever-revealing resources of insight; not just for looking backwards but for looking forward too. In the narrative of global history, Yad Vashem memorializes a singularly sickening chapter in human history that is timeless and, far too frequently, timely.

Yad Vashem has been on my mind because it was just a little over week ago that we memorialized the 75th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference (January 20, 1942), the meeting of high-level Nazis on the topic of “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” It was at this meeting that protocol was created to deport and exterminate 11 million Jews within the German sphere of control and influence. This past Friday, one week later, people around the world observed International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, a date that marked the beginning of the end of that period of horrific history that resulted in the extermination of six million Jews and millions of individuals also murdered by the Nazis (individuals of Romani descent, disabled individuals, and gay men and women).

Yet as I have reflected on the meaning of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and as I think about so many of my visits to Yad Vashem, I am thinking about how the Holocaust started, not how it ended.

I am thinking about the demagoguery of a leader who tapped into the nationalist anger of a nation still reeling from the whipsawing of historical forces that it both created and to which it fell prey. I am thinking of a society that was surprisingly susceptible to the use of fear-mongering propaganda by its leaders and its campaigns that demonized groups of citizens as “others”, spreading lies about those groups to increase their ostracization. I am thinking about the subjection of scientific inquiry to narcissistic imaginations of simultaneously fearful and frightening men. I am thinking about the staccato slogans about carnage and showering claims of greatness that, over time, transformed into staccato bursts of gunfire and showers of gas.

But that’s not all. I am thinking of those first few steps into Yad Vashem, where the walkway is narrowing and it is intersected by barriers that divert you into the halls of explanation—explanation of a society gripped by a seemingly sudden madness and a world suddenly far too callous to challenge it. I am thinking of the early warning signs of how people were dehumanized because of their faith, and many groups of people that were similarly dehumanized because of who they were or what they believed. I am thinking of families ripped apart, children denied a future and the elderly denied respite. I am thinking of how the press was attacked, suppressed and told to stay quiet, and how people began questioning whether facts really mattered at all. I am thinking of a light at the end of the hallway that is too distant to see clearly but nonetheless beckons to be reached.

And lastly, I am thinking of the emotions that I feel when I remember the Holocaust and all that was done and all that was lost. I think about the fear and the anger at the evil men can do (whether fierce or banal) and the disappointing ignorance and apathy that let it all happen. The far-too-comfortable intelligentsia that denied reality and the far too empty streets that, if filled, perhaps could have stemmed the march of national and moral destruction. I think about the sadness of all the pain that was created and the sense of loss that we still feel today.

But then … then I think: that pain and loss, is it only a memory of the past, the phantom pain of something we no longer posses? Or is it the pain that serves as a warning of some fast-developing malady spreading like a cancer across our bodies and souls?

Perhaps all of these thoughts and memories aren’t to serve as understanding but to stir us to action? Perhaps the memories of the steel barbed wire and furnaces of hell are meant to help us steel our resolve and enflame our sense of resistance? Perhaps we are being called by our past to become ambassadors of our future—to fight for a world in which love trumps hate, inclusiveness overtakes divisiveness and justice is pursued everywhere and for everyone.

Yes, the date of International Holocaust Remembrance Day might be on the date of the beginning of the end of the Holocaust, but what about the date it began, whenever that date was? What do we do on that day? Do we remember? Or do we act?

And what if that day was now? What would we do then?

About the Author
Seth Cohen is the founder of Applied Optimism, a consulting and community design lab that helps organizations and leaders design and apply optimistic solutions to complex organizational, communal and individual challenges. You can reach him at
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