I can’t adequately describe what a shattering experience it is to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camp about 90 minutes outside of Kraków, Poland. It was physically and emotionally the most difficult place I’ve been as a power chair/scooter user, and the experience was well worth the challenge. First, here are some things you should know about the history of Auschwitz.
- Auschwitz was actually three camps in one: a prison camp, an extermination camp, and a slave labor camp.
- In all, 1.1 million people died during the four and a half years of Auschwitz’s existence; one million of them were Jewish men, women and children.
- Other groups of people who died included Polish political prisoners, Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsy families, homosexuals, people with disabilities (we were among the first to get gassed), and prisoners of conscience or religious faith.
- More people died in Auschwitz than the British and American losses of World War Two combined.
- Subject to harsh conditions—including inadequate shelter and sanitation—given minimal food, and worked to exhaustion, those who could no longer work faced transport back to Birkenau for gassing.
For an able-bodied person, visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is daunting. For a wheelchair user, it is extremely difficult, but doable for many who have determination, patience, and the right equipment. Having just visited the camp, here are my tips for wheelchair users who are interested in visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau.
1. Auschwitz-Birkenau is not wheelchair friendly. Go anyway. Here is what I mean by that. The paths to and between the block buildings are very difficult at best. You will find packed and loose gravel, big rocks, broken cobblestones, and if it rains like it did for me today, mud patches. It will take a lot of concentration to navigate, but it doesn’t matter. You will get the feeling (as awful as it is) for what happened there.
2. Do NOT visit alone. I had planned to go with one of the assigned tour groups through the camp by myself after getting dropped off by my driver. Luckily, he stayed with me long enough for both of us to realize there was no way I was going to make it over that terrain in my scooter without a few pushes and pulls. A power wheelchair user with BIG wheels might have better luck over the rocks and broken cobblestones, but the weight of your chair will get you stuck in the loose gravel (or mud). The best way to get around the camp, in my opinion, is to get pushed in a manual chair. In any case, PLEASE have someone accompany you through the camp.
3. Accept that there is a lot you won’t see. The camp website clearly states that they have intentionally not modified anything for accessibility to maintain the historical authenticity of the site. This didn’t prevent them from installing modern lighted signs and a small theater inside some of the block houses, but whatever. There are several steep steps to get inside the block buildings, and the passageways are narrow. If you are confined to a chair, you will have to wait outside while your group is inside. The good news is that with your included headset unit, you can hear your guide narrating from inside the block, so at least you’ll hear the information. There are also several signs in English in front of the significant buildings.
4. Be prepared for the day’s weather. If there’s even the slightest possibility it might rain that day, have an umbrella or poncho handy because there is no shelter in the camp that you can use. Along the same lines, on a hot and sunny day, wear sunblock and have something to keep you cool because there is no real shade in the camp either.
5. Show respect for the site. There were many people at the camp when I visited, and it was pretty quiet. Fortunately almost everyone was following the rule of keeping their voices down, and I didn’t see anyone taking happy or silly selfies in this solemn place.
6. Take a few moments to emotionally prepare yourself for the experience, and longer to decompress. I’m not Jewish (I’m Catholic, if that makes any difference), I don’t have any relatives who are (although I have many Jewish friends), and no close ties to European groups victimized by the Nazis. I’m not a particularly emotional person, so I wasn’t sure what to expect of myself, especially since I had seen photos of Holocaust victims in the past. I was basically in a state of shock and disbelief during the entire visit, and some of the things I heard my tour guide explaining made me feel physically ill. If you do have a personal connection to what happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau, this reaction might be more intense. I went straight back to my hotel afterwards despite it only being 3:30pm because I knew I couldn’t handle anything else that day.
7. Use the experience to remind yourself (and others) of your value. As I mentioned earlier, people with disabilities were among the first to get gassed at Auschwitz-Birkenau because the Nazis believed we had no value. This was purely due to the fact we couldn’t work as laborers. Sadly, many people in modern society still believe we have little to no value because they don’t understand the many ways we contribute to our communities and to the world. When you find yourself in situations where you are being devalued because of your disability, remind yourself of who you are and how far we’ve come. And don’t be afraid to let the offender know they need to move past that Nazi mentality as well.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my visit to beautiful Poland this past week, and I really believe it’s one of the best-kept secrets in Europe. If you find yourself in Kraków, please seriously consider an escorted tour to Auschwitz-Birkenau (I went with the FANTASTIC Taxi Bus Kraków) for an absolutely unforgettable experience.