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This decision was something that I had struggled with for a long time. I was in Krakow during the holiday season in 2011. Its December. There is snow. Its really really cold. And I got sick.
I had the option to push on and go on that day trip to Auschwitz and I probably could have gone. But I didn’t.
I blamed it on the sickness, but in reality, I knew that I could have gone if I wanted. But that was the difference. I didn’t want to go.
And that decision was something that I had struggled with for a long time. I didn’t want to be perceived as a coward. Of not being able to face the horrors of the past. Seeing the different sites and museums in Berlin was hard and difficult enough for me. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to go to Auschwitz.
It wasn’t until recently, when I read a post about someone’s visit to the Killing Fields in Cambodia, that something cleared for me. That one piece of writing brought me back to when I was a teen, barely 17, and off to face the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime under the rule of Pol Pot. It brought me back to the school project that I had to do on a prison, Tuol Sleng (housed in the former school – S21), where of the hundred of thousands who entered, only 7 people came out of it alive. I left I comment on the post and the author got back to me. This is what he said:
It would be really tough to see somewhere like this as a teenager, I imagine. But perhaps it has more of an effect on the way you choose to lead your life. If more people understood the horrors of the past, perhaps the world would be a better place. – Michael Turtle
I never thought of it that way – that it would be tough to face this sort of thing as a teen. But the more I think about it, the more that it is true. The experience of visiting Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields in Cambodia has had an impact on me and the way I see and approach certain things. It almost, as if it has, scarred me. I know all these terrible things happened and there are many memorials and places that stand as a reminder that we should not let these crimes happen again. But does it mean that I have to go look at them?
I’m not turning into an ostrich and sticking my head into a pile of sand. Just because I choose not to visit these types of sites doesn’t mean that I don’t know what has happened and what is happening in our world. Then there is the question of genocide tourism, but that is a topic for another day.
Those images I saw and sites I visited in Cambodia are forever ingrained in my head. Everything that I learned about that period of time is still fresh as the day I learned them. I don’t think I will ever be able to shake them from my memory.
For the longest time I’ve struggled with my decision. People always ask, upon hearing that I’ve been to Krakow, if I had gone to Auschwitz and are usually surprised when I say no. But, today, I feel a lot better about it. I shouldn’t be ashamed of not going.