While I didn’t go to France (that will come soon!), I did get a taste of the European culture that is famed worldwide, and I even got to hear first-hand accounts of wartime struggle within Europe. This amazing trip gave me my first look at what the war was like for those living in Europe, and it really put the whole thing in perspective for me!
We spent the majority of the trip in Poland, where my dad’s side of the family originates from. For nine days we road tripped in a full circle around the country, stopping for a day or two in main cities, and visiting what felt like hundreds of different family members. My family was so hospitable! They made us piles of Polish food and talked to us for hours (with my dad loosely translating, as they spoke only a tiny amount of English). As lovely as it was to visit with them, the stories they told were often tinged with sadness, as they recounted memories from WW2. As they took us through the journey of Poland’s independence, happy memories on the Polish countryside, and Russia’s eventual invasion that changed their lives forever, I got a sense of what it was like to be behind the scenes during the war. This perspective really differed from what I knew previously, hearing all about the brave NZ soldiers on the front lines. For the first time, I could imagine what it was like to be a young person during the war; father away fighting, struggling to survive, the constant fear of being shipped off to a labour camp in another country.
One of the most humbling parts of the trips was visiting the Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camps just outside of Warszawa. It was equal parts terrifying and fascinating, and we left absolutely horrified that something so tragic could have occurred in this very country not too long ago. While visiting one of the barracks in the camp, dad pointed out a picture of one of the camp’s first political prisoners who had, unfortunately, died in Auschwitz. This prisoner actually shared the same last name as my family (one that is not too common, even in Poland) and was probably a distant relative! To think that one of my own family members may have been victim to the Holocaust is unimaginable, but in war torn Poland, this was very much a reality.
I came back to New Zealand exhausted, but with a much better understanding of the realities of war for those caught in the middle of it! As I found quoted inside one of the horrific barracks of Auschwitz/Birkenau; “the one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again”.