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Auschwitz Trip: Pride in the Homeland

It's our final day in Poland and I'm glad I'll end the trip here with one of the most overwhelming senses of pride I've ever felt.

This morning, the group visited Wawel Cathedral, burial place of many famous Poles.  Sadly, you won't find any photos on this page of the inside of the cathedral, as taking them is forbidden.  But inside are some wonders which made me proud to have been born with Polish heritage.

The oldest parts of the cathedral date as far back as a millennium.  It has, however, been redecorated to match the times as history has marched on (hence some altars, crypts and sculpture show signs of the baroque or Gothic periods).  The cathedral is home to the final resting place of St. Stanislaw -- an ornate silver casket raised about six feet off the ground on a golden altar several stories tall.

Our tour guide explained that the cathedral also hosts the remains of two Polish generals which American students may have come across in their study of the Revolutionary War -- Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski.  Growing up in Chicagoland we used to get Pulaski Day off from school, but alas this tradition has also gone to its grave.

But as our guide was speaking and I was looking around the thousand-year-old sanctuary, I felt the same feeling of pride for my Polish roots as our guide must have when telling the story of these heroic generals and the saint with whom I share my name (who was killed, we learned, after arguing strenuously with the king).  All I could do was sit and grin, thinking that my ancestors were a people whose nobility and devotion to country are certainly worth noting in the annals of history.

Tomorrow it's back to Indiana and real life.  To say this trip has been surreal couldn't begin to convey the emotions I've felt:  Sorrow for the millions who lost their lives (and those who have felt the effects much more closely than I ever will); hope that knowledge can breed understanding; joy in the company of friends; pride in a country which has come to feel like an adoptive home in a very short time.  That's the short list.

Lately I've been downtrodden about the state of politics in America -- the increasing tide of partisanship (no matter where on the spectrum you fall) should be worrisome to all Americans.  It's something like marriage: when there are fights, no one wins.  And so I wish members of Congress could have spent Monday through Wednesday like I spent them -- here, visiting concentration camps and seeing the effects of an ideological split -- before listening to President Obama's State of the Union address.

What I'm getting at is removing a barrier of isolation from around most Americans I know.  I think too often we're self-absorbed, self-important and not considerate enough of those who are different from ourselves.  And it's experiences like the ones I've had this week which make seeing the flaws possible.

I'm proud to say the travelers with whom I've shared this trip are some of the most altruistic I've met -- truly giving people who ache when someone is wronged or in need of help.  They're the kind of people I want to be, and I'm proud to know them.

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