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Auschwitz was liberated 70 years ago today.
Any human with the means should visit Auschwitz in their lifetime. Honoring the dead and contemplating the evil enacted on those grounds is a life-defining experience. With barbarism so close to the surface in humanity, we have a duty to face it with vigilance. In the 70 years since the killing stopped on this spot, our human record elsehwere has much to be ashamed.
It is emotionally traumatic to visit Auschwitz. When I visited in late 2013 I was dutifully following my car GPS. When I rounded the corner and saw the barbed wire fences of Birkenau stretching to the horizon, I nearly drove off the road.
I spent the next hours in quiet contemplation. First among the brick buildings and fall leaves of Auschwitz, an idyllic setting that should have been for a posh boarding school. Then to the stark, sprawling grounds of Birkenau, designed to industrialize murder. I took one picture at each of out of the way corners and felt any more than that was not tasteful.
Every visitor is jarred from equilibrium. You have the very elderly who lived that era, faces creased in memory with bodies no longer steady. There are young students from Israel with their nation’s flag donned as capes, weeping at the name rolls. There are people who, inexplicably, yet perhaps because the horror is incomprehensible, take smiling pictures of themselves in front of the sinister lie of the gate ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (‘Work sets you free’).
Auschwitz has the exhibits among its brick buildings so is the best starting place. Building to building proceeds through history, followed by country of origin-specific exhibits. Throughout the day there are free tours in several languages.
Over to sprawling Birkenau, scale speaks. Wood huts remain on part of the grounds. The barbed wire fence marks the scope.
Logistically, Auschwitz is a simple day trip from Poland’s Krakow, one of the best, and increasingly popular, old towns in Europe. There are many companies to provide transport or tours for those without a car.
Ben at One Mile a Time kicked off a debate in The Hypocrisy Of The “I’m Cultured And You’re Not” Crowd. His argument to not judge others is grounded in the awareness of different cultures and lifestyles that comes from travel. Ben takes frequent heat for focusing in his blog and business on luxury flights and hotels. Readers assume the blog speaks for the whole person, which I know in Ben’s case to be far from the full picture of his pursuits.
Yet I get deeply frustrated by the messages put out in the travel miles and points community on so-called aspirational travel that is purely masturbatory indulgence. To have such great means at one’s disposal and consistently do nothing with it beyond the most excessive self-pleasure is a waste. Most anyone actively in this hobby can be at Auschwitz by this weekend and not even miss the points. Instead, so many embrace Vendoming, to the exclusion of personal growth or societal gain.
My own travels fall short of what I believe I should do. I go to places seldom visited by tourists and make efforts to have positive exchanges with people. To inform my life, I seek to learn and experience as much as I can in the little time I have available. But, I don’t volunteer or do direct social works, and there is a large environmental cost to my travel.
I have meant to get involved in programs like Pack With a Purpose, though have not gotten around to it. When arriving in Uganda last month, the plane was filled with NGO workers with huge suitcases of supplies. I had my little backpack, not using my elite status extra luggage allowance to bring items that could have been put to good use. Mile Donor allows us to use our miles and points to book travel needed by those who do not share our bounty. I have never contributed a trip beyond immediate friends and family.
So here’s my twin challenge to you (and me) in 2015:
- Next time you are Vendoming, add in a socially useful component.
- Auschwitz has waited 70 years for your visit, how many more will it be?