11th April
written by Randy

I’m starting to see a pattern developing. Travel is really affecting me. But when I travel to the sites of tragedies, I really grow. A lot.

Last winter, I traveled to several landmarks of American tragedies, all within a few days of each other, and I noticed that doing so had a profound effect on me. And I felt a strong connection in the Colosseum when I saw it in Rome, in February.

Well, I don’t think I can raise the stakes any higher. Today, I visited the site of history’s worst tragedy ever: Auschwitz. After this, it’s all downhill.

Walking around in Auschwitz feels like walking around in a summer camp. You’ve got the plain buildings, the dirt and gravel walkways, the barbed wire and watchtowers. Okay, so it’s a summer camp that doesn’t want you to leave…

For me, the profound moment was when I saw the hair. An entire room, filled with human hair. Everything else was a fact – a piece of history being recited. But seeing all that hair, suddenly I had a very tangible appreciation for the scale of the horrible thing that happened in that place.

The last thing you see on your tour at Auschwitz is a crematorium: the smallest one – a death-factory the Nazis thought was so insignificant that it wasn’t worth destroying. Then, you go to Birkenau, where all the style points disappear, and you learn about scales of quantity. Here are the ones they did destroy, but you can see their size, even in the rubble.

This entire experience was probably amplified by my visit to the museum in the old factory of Oskar Schindler yesterday. And even moreso by the memorials and reconstruction and monuments I saw in Warsaw last week.

Poland has been through hell. This country and its people know more about suffering than most of us in the US can ever imagine. And yet the people here are amazingly proud and upbeat. Jews or not, oppressed or not, these people are Poles and they’re proud of it.

Whether it’s the people I’ve met, who live in simple apartments with barely enough possessions to fill two suitcases, or the people I saw in photos in Auschwitz who packed everything they cared about into one suitcase… the theme has resonated with my own minimalism project this year.

Poles don’t derive their identity from their possessions. They don’t measure themselves by their jobs or their cars or their clothes. From the guy in the suit behind the hotel desk to the girl in the embarrassing uniform at the pierogi restaurant, everyone here walks proud. They love their family, they love their friends, and they love their land, their home, Poland.

After these two weeks, I’m finding myself surprisingly content with the simple fact that I’m alive. For 35 years, I’ve passionately chased hobbies, I’ve fed controversy, I’ve chased adventure, and I’ve done it all with a chip on my shoulder and an appetite for destruction. But today, at this moment, I don’t care.

Today, I’m just content – happy to be alive, and to have people I care about. Happy with my possessions that fit into two suitcases, and my right to travel to places like Auschwitz with a tour-guide rather than a gun in my back. And I’m happy that tomorrow I can go home, because I have something the millions of people in Auschwitz never got: a return ticket.

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