It doesn’t seem to matter where you end up in Europe, or anywhere for that matter – you will inevitably find yourself confronted with the past. Unfortunately this isn’t limited to the positive and for every piece of magnificent art or architecture there is a corresponding evil lurking in the shadows. When you think about it, this might even say something about our wider nature.
Despite what they say about history being the story of the victors, across time there have always been losers and now, more than ever, we hear their side. History mightn’t be an objective discipline, but some horrors escape obliteration and rest in our collective memory as reminders of darker times. Or so we tell ourselves.
There is perhaps no place where this is more apparent than an hour’s drive from Karakow, in a quiet town on the edge of the Polish countryside. Once a small unremarkable village, Auschwitz is now scorched into the collective consciousness as the epitomy of human evil. The horrors perpetrated against Jewish victims in the gas chambers designed as the “final solution” are almost unspeakable, and even more so for the pre-determined and dissociated fashion in which they were done.
It seemed like the easiest choice in a year that had been anything but: the chance for some new scenery, and a reprieve from the demands of reality. So I applied for an exchange, determined to get away from the grind that I felt my life in New Zealand had become.
It had been four years since I moved to Auckland, and for all the joys of being a student there was a bitter current undermining my happiness. Weighty tomes of law and self-imposed high standards strung me out, the late nights serving drinks to future employers adding to the dark rings silhouetting my eyes.
In hindsight it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was, but there was no denying the drag of routine. The general fatigue at the all-encompassing nature of university was heightened by a summer spent researching in the Psychology department – starting a new year yet feeling like I had never left. It was a daunting year too – the pressures of an honours research paper atop a heavy course load, with promises of a corporate internship to follow. It felt like my next few years were already written for me, and that my role was to dutifully complete the steps. I found the whole prospect of it somewhat stifling, and was deeply sceptical of my own motives for taking this path.
So I decided to opt out, to take some time to re-evaluate my commitment to the corporate future that awaited me. An exchange was the perfect pretence: “overseas study” an obvious euphemism for a government-funded holiday. The choice of destination was one that didn’t overly concern me – anywhere but here, screamed a part of me, and so distant Holland it was.