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Europe; the very word fills one with excitement. So, naturally, when I learned I had the opportunity to travel to Eastern Europe with a group of my classmates, I was ecstatic. The trip didn’t disappoint, as those two weeks were some of the best ever. The most memorable part of it all was a visit to a small town in Austria. Spending time at the concentration camp in Mauthausen was one of the greatest experiences of my life, significantly changing me and how I look at the world.
Before the trip, I was just your average 16-year-old guy. I woke up each morning, went to school, came home, and did it again the next day. And while I enjoyed high school and did extremely well, I still fell into many of the social traps as I attempted to find acceptance and to fit in. Surrounded by my peers, I would laugh at their often racist and offensive jokes. I even found myself joining in as some of my “friends” teased others simply for being different in some way from them. But then I went to Mauthausen.
My visit to the concentration camp in Mauthausen, Austria, was one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. Upon arriving, I felt a stillness in the air. It was as if nature itself had quieted, allowing the visitors to comprehend the gravity of what took place there just over 50 years earlier. Thousands of people had been killed, worked to death in the rock quarry, poisoned in the gas chambers, burned alive in the ovens. Hearing about these tragedies in school is one thing, but actually being in one of the camps was surreal. I can still hear the screams that I heard as I walked through the very place where those people lost their lives. As I sat outside the camp at the conclusion of our visit, I couldn’t but help but get choked up. Why? I asked myself. Why had these people had to die? Because of their culture? Their ideas? I still fumble with the question as I sit here and write this. But I have done my best to learn from their unjustified murders and from my visit to Mauthausen.
Following my experience at the concentration camp, I have adopted a much more accepting and open-minded attitude. Instead of laughing along as people are made fun of, I defend them. In fact, I met one of my best friends this way. Whenever I hear racist, sexist, or otherwise hurtful jokes or witness people judging others, I ask those talking if what they have said is really warranted, or if it is just them condemning others in order to glorify themselves. Yes, I have definitely been altered by that experience.
In conclusion, my trip to Mauthausen, Austria, was a life-changing event. Before the trip, I often found myself around people that enjoyed making fun of others on the basis of appearance, ideas, and beliefs. Then I went to a place where thousands had been killed on that same basis. This experience really affected me, and since I have made a conscious effort to be as tolerant as possible. When it all comes down to it, all of us are the same: human beings in search of security and acceptance. Whenever I come across a confused, close-minded person, I welcome the challenge to help that person understand what I now do, in the hopes that someday tolerance will not be an anomaly, but rather a societal standard.