A Museum of Her Own: Women Artists Shine in Washington D.C.

 If you’re visiting Washington, D.C. for the Women’s March—or for any other reason—take time to bask in the vibrant National Museum of Women in the Arts, an entire building devoted to female-created paintings, sculpture, photography, book-art, multimedia art, and film through the centuries.

Closeup of Frida Kahlo's "Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky"

Closeup of Frida Kahlo’s “Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky.” See details below. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A few blocks off the National Mall, this museum is a gem—and it doesn’t attract the huge crowds that the Smithsonian Museums do, which makes it pleasant—though I wish this museum were better known. Every time I’m in Washington, I set aside time to visit and see some of my favorite permanent pieces as well as the unique temporary exhibitions.

I also support this museum by buying an annual membership, which gains me free access. The National Museum of Women in the Arts is, after all, the only museum in the world dedicated exclusively to recognizing the achievements of female artists.

With its collections, exhibitions, and programs, the museum advocates for better representation of women artists and addresses the gender imbalance in the presentation of art by bringing to light important women artists of the past—while promoting great women artists working today. Here are a few highlights from one of my recent trips:

Judith Leyster (1609–1633) 

Yes, you read the dates correctly! Judith Leyster was a Dutch woman who lived before Vermeer and was a contemporary of Rembrandt.

"The Concert" by Judith Leyster, was painted circa 1633.

“The Concert” by Judith Leyster, was painted circa 1633. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Leyster established her painting career independently and was the first woman admitted to Haarlem’s prestigious Guild of St. Luke. She was also the first woman to maintain a workshop with students and to actively sell art on the open market. In The Concert (pictured here), the sitter on the left has been identified as her husband, and the central figure may be the artist herself.

Frida Kahlo (1907–1954)

Like many Mexican artists working after the Revolutionary decade that began in 1910, Kahlo was influenced in her art and life by the nationalistic fervor known as Mexicanidad.

"Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky" by Frida Kahlo, 1937

“Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky” by Frida Kahlo, 1937. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The artists involved in this movement rejected European influences and favored a return to the country’s native roots and folk traditions.Kahlo often wore the distinctive clothing of the Tehuantepec women in southwest Mexico; she also looked to pre-Columbian art and Mexican folk art for forms and symbols in her paintings.

The compositional elements of the stage and curtains, for example, draw upon Mexican vernacular paintings called retablos, devotional images of the Virgin or Christian saints painted on tin, which Kahlo collected.

Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (1937, oil on Masonite) commemorates the brief affair Kahlo had with the exiled Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky shortly after his arrival in Mexico in 1937.

In this painting, she presents herself elegantly clothed in a long, embroidered skirt and fringed shawl. She holds a bouquet of flowers and a letter of dedication to Trotsky that states, “with all my love.” Although this isn’t one of Kahlo’s more visceral images, it’s still amazing to see the work of the great maestra.

"La Llamada" (The Call) by Remedios Varo, 1961

“La Llamada” (The Call) by Remedios Varo, 1961. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Remedios Varo (1908–1963)

One of my favorite painters of all time is the Spanish Surrealist, a woman named Remedios Varo, who fled to France to escape the Spanish Civil War and then left France for Mexico during WWII, when modern artists were persecuted.

This painting, La Llamada (The Call) hangs prominently in the National Museum of Women in the Arts and is my favorite of all her works. Because of this work, visiting the museum is always a bit of a pilgrimage for me—a chance to experience her vision firsthand. (In the early 2000s, the museum had a temporary exhibition of about 30 of her works, and I flew to Washington, D.C. specifically to view that show.)

Like many figures in Remedios Varo’s paintings, the subject of The Call (1961) is intensely and solemnly focused, as though she were in the middle of an adventure. Wearing flowing robes and carrying alchemical tools, including a mortar and pestle hanging like a necklace, she traverses a courtyard. Her hair forms a brilliant swirl of light, which seems to bring her energy from a celestial source.

Closeup of "The Call" by Remedios Varo. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Closeup of “The Call” by Remedios Varo. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I love how the woman in the painting is illuminated in fiery orange-gold tones and walks fearlessly and purposefully past the shadowy men entombed in tree bark. I feel like she has a creative spark—in fact, she is herself a creative spark connected to the heavens—and she seems determined to follow her own magical creative path, undaunted by the onlooking men.

Varo created this work near the end of her life, while living in Mexico where her artistic reputation was growing. It reflects her Surrealist influences and her interests—she dabbled in alchemical experiments—as well as her talent for evoking ambiguous narratives through art.

Faith Ringgold (b. 1930)

When I walked into the room with this seven-foot wide creation, I couldn’t help but smile. It’s the bold and lively creation of Faith Ringgold, who trained as a painter but originated the African-American story-quilt revival in the late 1970s.

"Jo Baker's Bananas" by Faith Ringgold, ©Laurel Kallenbach

“Jo Baker’s Bananas” by Faith Ringgold, ©Laurel Kallenbach

This piece, Jo Baker’s Bananas (1997), depicts Josephine Baker, the famous American entertainer who became a stage legend in France where she lived most of her life. Baker’s figure is represented five times across the top, implying movement across a stage. The so-called “Banana Dance” she performed in 1926 at Paris’s Folies Bergère music hall cemented her fame. Off stage, Baker used her fame to support the burgeoning Civil Rights movement in the United States.

Jo Baker’s Bananas is actually an acrylic painting on canvas, but the border is quilted. Don’t you love the color and movement in Ringgold’s creation?

Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923)

"After the Storm" by Sarah Bernhardt ©Laurel Kallenbach

“After the Storm” by Sarah Bernhardt ©Laurel Kallenbach

Internationally known as an actor in 19th-century Paris, Bernhardt was also an accomplished sculptor.

Bernhardt witnessed a Breton woman holding her dying grandson, who’d become entangled in his fishing net. She immortalized that scene in her sculpture After the Storm.

The artist chose a classical composition that recalls the Pietá by Michelangelo, in which the Virgin Mary cradles the crucified Christ. Done in marble, this piece was created circa 1876.

Maria Martinez (1887–1980)

Maria Martinez portrait taken in 1965 by Laura Gilpin. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Maria Martinez portrait taken in 1965 by Laura Gilpin. ©Laurel Kallenbach

For years I admired the shiny-black Native American pottery I saw when visiting New Mexico, but only a decade ago did I realize that most of it was created by a woman who lived in the San Ildefonso Pueblo, a community 20 miles northwest of Santa Fe.

Maria Martinez learned to make pottery from her mother and grandmother, and she became legendary in the Southwest, especially for her black-on-black pottery.

Although this ancient pottery style had been used by ancestors of the Pueblo people, knowledge of how to create it had been lost. Through study and experimentation, Maria and her husband, Julian, perfected their process for making it in 1921. Throughout her life, Martinez collaborated with a number of members of her family.

Polished blackware pottery with matte slip paint (circa 1939) by Maria and Julian Martinez. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Polished blackware pottery with matte slip paint (circa 1939) by Maria and Julian Martinez. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Because of her work, Puebloan traditions continue to thrive today, helping preserve the heritage of this often female-made art form in an era when clay pots have been replaced by modern cookware.

The photo of Maria Martinez (above) is by photographer Laura Gilpin (1891–1979), who created a female vision of the American Southwest, which was typically depicted as a masculine place of rugged conquest. She and Martinez were longtime friends, and much of her work highlighted the native people and art-making traditions of the American Southwest. She distinguished herself as a platinum-print photographer, and her work appears in museums around the world.

Lee Krasner (1908–1984)

I love how the curators at the National Museum of Women in the Arts juxtaposed the two pieces of art shown below. The painting on the wall that combines circles, ovals, and chevron shapes is by Abstract Expressionist painter Lee Krasner. Her canvas is titled The Springs (1964), which refers to the village near East Hampton, Long Island, where Krasner and her husband, artist Jackson Pollock, moved in 1945. After his death in 1956, Krasner began using the small barn on the couple’s property as her studio. The nature-based hues in The Springs, along with its arcing lines and interlaced forms, are reminiscent of a wind-blown landscape.

Lee Krasner's "The Springs" and Frida Baranak's" "Untitled" sculpture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Lee Krasner’s “The Springs” and Frida Baranak’s” “Untitled” sculpture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Frida Baranek (b. 1961)

The Brazilian artist’s Untitled sculpture (1991) looks as if it were flying in the wind. Though it appears to be light, Baranek’s sculpture is actually made of rusted iron wire and rods—and it weighs about 90 pounds. The museum notes that the interweaving of wire and rods gives the sculpture a linear quality, as if it were a “drawing in space.” Baranek is interested  in using her art to comment on environmental issues in her native Brazil and globally.

Polly Apfelbaum (b. 1955)

Inspired by Andy Warhol, Polly Apfelbaum often incorporates flower forms into her compositions. The custom-carved woodblocks made for her flower prints—this one is titled Love Alley 4—are based on her hand-drawn doodles and printed on handmade paper.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally published January 2019

"Love Alley 4" by Polly Apfelbaum, 2012. ©Laurel Kallenbach

“Love Alley 4” by Polly Apfelbaum, 2012. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

Wish I Were Here: Butchart Gardens, Vancouver Island, BC

It’s been 15 years since I last visited Vancouver Island off the coast of British Columbia, one of the most enchanting places I’ve ever been to. Among its many wonders is the 55-acre Butchart Gardens, located just 20 kilometers northwest of the glorious city of Victoria.

Butchart Gardens near Victoria, British Columbia, features 55 acres of fantastic flowers. Photo courtesy Butchart Gardens

During the 2020 COVID pandemic, Butchart Gardens is restricting the number of visitors allowed on the property at once, and it has canceled its famous fireworks shows and garden concerts. Check the COVID-19 guidelines  before you go.

In 1904, Robert and Jennie Butchart moved to Vancouver Island and over decades turned a former limestone quarry into a dazzling, landscaped gardens that has become popular with visitors and locals alike. Today, The Butchart Gardens is a National Historic Site of Canada. With millions of bedding plants in over 900 varieties, there’s more horticultural beauty than you could possibly explore in a single day.

Looking at photos of the various gardens are reminding me of the beauty of Butchart Gardens. I hope to visit them in person again whenever travel is safe again.

The Sunken Garden

The green-cloaked hills of the Sunken Gardens are actually remnants of an old limestone quarry used to make cement. Instead of slag piles there are beds of flowers, trees, and shrubs—as well as benches for relaxing on and enjoying the scenary.

Protruding from its center, a rock mound offers a lookout point of the Sunken Garden, while its walking path winds past the graceful Ross Fountain and peaceful Bog Garden.

The Sunken Garden at Butchart Gardens was created on an old quarry. Photo courtesy Butchart Gardens

The Rose Garden

I never can resist rose-covered arches, and the ones at Butchart Gardens entice you into the Rose Garden, a Shangri-La of vibrant blooms and luscious scents from summer to early autumn. Pure romance, this garden boasts a glorious collection of floribundas, ramblers, climbers, and Hybrid Tea Roses.

Aah…summer roses in an arch. Photo courtesy Butchart Gardens

The Japanese Garden

This is one of the first gardens the Butcharts created, and they commissioned a Japanese designer, Isaburo Kishida of Yokohama, to create this serene and sensual space that includes water features and stepping stones and a dragon fountain. A grand Torii gate marks the entrance, inviting visitors to step inside the Japanese Garden where maple and beech trees rustle and Himalayan Blue Poppies blossom in late spring.

Stepping stones in the Japanese Garden. Photo courtesy Butchart Gardens

The Italian Garden

In the 1920s, the Butchart family  converted their tennis court into a bustling, colorful courtyard. Today the Italian Garden is ornamented with a bronze-cast statue and a flower-studded pond. I still remember enjoying Italian gelato in this lovely garden on a sunny day.

Green Gardens: Butchart’s Environmental Practices

Tending the gardens includes stewardship of the land. Here are just some of Butchart’s eco-friendly efforts:

  • Use of reusable wood flats instead of plastic
  • Repurposing of wood waste, branches, and leaves into mulch and/or compost
  • Use of manual, mechanical, and nonchemical weed-control methods
  • Drip irrigation wherever practical
  • Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program to control insect pests and diseases
  • Composting program
  • 100-percent biodegradable bags for visitors’ purchases
  • Recycling cardboard, paper, plastic, and Styrofoam
  • Forest Stewardship Council–certified calendars for sale
  • Sources local ingredients, organic where possible, for onsite eateries
  • On-site edible flower and herb garden
  • Composts all food waste, including dairy cartons
  • Use of compostable plates, cutlery, straws, and glassware as possible
  • Recycles all glass, plastic, and metal, including wine, beer and soda bottles
  • No single-use water bottles. Added water stations in restaurants and throughout the Gardens.
  • Use of low-energy fixtures with motion sensors and timers
  • Low-flow toilets throughout the grounds
  • Recycled water from streams and repurposing water for cooling
  • Recycles and reuses all metal wiring and firework props

Click here for more Vancouver Island travel tips.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Photo courtesy Butchart Gardens

 

Cook Up a Vacation: Summer Pasta from a Kentucky Farm B&B

Sheltering in place during the global pandemic doesn’t mean your senses are confined to your home kitchen. Send your taste buds on a holiday with flavors from far-flung destinations.

This quilt barn marks the location where you turn into Snug Hollow Farm B&B. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I grew up in Kentucky, and when I travel back to my “Old Kentucky Home,” I love to travel to some of its rural areas, including to the arches of Red River Gorge and to a beautiful organic farm bed and breakfast called Snug Hollow, owned and operated by Barbara Napier.

Snug Hollow is built sustainably on 300 acres of gorgeous, pesticide-free farmland 20 miles from the lovely college town of Berea, Kentucky, just an hour from Lexington and about 45 minutes from Natural Bridge State Park, which I first visited when I could still ride on my papa’s shoulders! Snug Hollow Farm is an escape into nature—partly cleared forest land that’s full of birds, wild animals, and gently rolling hills and brooks.

Barbara Napier cooks an organic farm breakfast for guests of Snug Hollow Farm ©Laurel Kallenbach

Barbara cooks up fresh-from-the-garden, organic, vegetarian meals for guests. With curtailed travel, you too can cook organic farm-fresh cuisine like that served at Snug Hollow.

And there’s good news for those looking forward to venture outside their homes: Snug Hollow is welcoming guests again starting June 1, 2020. With all that outdoor space on the farm, physical distancing is joyful, not a constraint. There are acres of forest to roam, so you can enjoy the sunshine and fresh air without worrying about bumping into too many other humans on your rambles around the property. (Encounters with wild turkeys, cardinals, deer, and other wildlife are an added surprise.)

The pasta recipe below is from Barbara Napier’s cookbook, Hot Food and Warm Memories: A Cookbook from Snug Hollow Farm Bed & Breakfast is available to buy online.

Bowtie Pasta with Lemon Cream Sauce & Snap Peas

This quick and simple pasta dish reminds me of Barbara Napier’s delicious home cooking from the two visits I’ve made (so far!) to Snug Hollow Farm B&B in central Kentucky.

Makes 6 servings
Prep Time: 20 minutes; c
ooking Time: 5 minutes

12 ounces dry bowtie pasta

12 ounces (about 2 cups) fresh snap peas

7 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons fresh lemon zest

6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons chopped fresh garlic

1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs, such as basil or thyme

3 cups heavy whipping cream

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1½ cups chopped fresh tomatoes

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

  1. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
  2. Steam snap peas in a steamer insert over boiling water or in a microwave oven on high (100 percent power) for 3 to 4 minutes. Plunge the peas into an ice bath to stop the cooking process. Drain and set aside.
  3. In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add lemon zest and juice, garlic, and fresh herbs. Stir together and cook for 1 minute.
  4. Add cream and bring mixture to a boil; turn off heat. Stir in salt and pepper.
  5. Add cooked pasta and snap peas; stir thoroughly to combine. Transfer to a serving bowl, and top with chopped tomatoes and a generous sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.

From Barbara Napier’s cookbook, Hot Food and Warm Memories: A Cookbook from Snug Hollow Farm Bed & Breakfast.

Some Memories from My July 2013 Visit to Snug Hollow

The sometimes windy, sometimes narrow road from Berea, Kentucky, to Snug Hollow leads through hilly pastures and small residential enclaves. I drove past barns of all sorts—some weathered and tumbling down, some bright and new, some decorated with quilt-pattern blocks or black stallions. I wanted to stop to photograph each of them, but there was often an impatient local on my tail, so I couldn’t slam on my brakes when I encountered a picturesque one.

An encouraging sign ©Laurel Kallenbach

With rolling hills and valleys and lush knobs covered in dense forest, this is truly beautiful country. There are signs to Tater Knob pottery, and I stopped by to purchase an artisan quiche dish and some lovely bowls as gifts.

Finally I reached the turnoff for Snug Hollow and began the ascent up the narrow gravel and dirt road. I held my breath at every turn, wondering what I’d do if I encountered someone coming from the other direction. I hit a pothole hard as I was gunning the car to get up a particularly steep stretch. Occasionally a posted sign encouraged me: “Snug Hollow: Keep on Going.”

At last, after opening and closing a cow gate on the road, I arrived at a Snug Hollow sign beside an old-time, historic cabin. Another 20 yards and there was a place to park. Within moment, curly-haired innkeeper, visionary, and land steward Barbara Napier ran out to greet me. (We’d met back in 2008 when I visited as part of a brother-sister Kentucky nostalgia tour.)

The main house overlooks the property and is a great place for bird-watching. ©Laurel Kallenbach.jpg

Barbara feels a little like a soulmate to me; she’s a native Kentuckian who’s passionate about healthy eating and organic farming and preserving these rural hollows (prounounced “holler” in these parts). She’s built the structures on the farm using reclaimed and recycled materials, and she has a wabi-sabi knack for creating beautifully designed spaces with old, antique art and eclectic furnishings.

And boy can Barbara cook! As I got out of the car, I smelled lasagna cooking and onions sautéing on the stove. My first night, a group of 17 mothers and daughters who used to live in Berea were having a reunion dinner, and the screened-in back porch was filled with tables decorated by vases of fresh flowers from around the farm. The whole group dined on a heaping bowl of fresh-from-Barbara’s-garden greens, followed by veggie lasagna paired with sautéed carrots and crisp, sweet Brussels sprouts. For dessert: the most decadent chocolate tart you can imagine, served à la mode. It was a locavore feast!

Country cooking from scratch at Snug Hollow ©Laurel Kallenbach

“The Gathering Place” Cabin

I stayed in the very private cabin up the hill from the main house and the historic cabin. Designed for families or for small group retreats, yoga classes, corporate retreats The Gathering Place is huge (for little me at least) with a capacity to sleep six. The cabin had a wrap-around porch, including a porch swing, an old-fashioned glider, and outdoor rocking chairs. Blooming mimosas scented up the room with sweet fragrance.

Snug Hollow’s sitting room/living room offer tranquil views over the land. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Inside was airy and woody: knotty-pine ceilings and wall paneling, loads of windows with good screens (to keep the skeeters out!), and a smooth oak floor with handmade, braided rugs. It was all one open space, with four ceiling fans to circulate air and keep it cool.

There was a living-room area with an upholstered sofa, love seat, and chairs—plus a rocker and small table. The farm is far away from summer-sweltering steel-and-concrete cities, so I never needed the window-unit air conditioner. (For winter guests, there was a gas stove for warmth.)

The dining area was outfitted with a table for six, and it was adorned by a lovely flower arrangement in a vase made by a local potter. (During COVID-19 times, meals are taken in private quarters, not in the communal areas.)

Appalachian folk arts thrive in Central Kentucky. This dulcimer is just one of the traditional instruments Barbara keeps at Snug Hollow. If you’re lucky, one of her friends will drop by and sing and play. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A dulcimer graced one wall; other local artwork completed the simple, yet welcoming décor. The kitchenette was outfitted with a full-size fridge, dishes, coffee maker (with tea and coffee), microwave, wine glasses and bottle openers.

Night Falls

That evening I sat on the old metal glider on the retreat cabin’s deck. As the sun disappeared and the moon rose, the animals, birds, and insects of the night began vocalizing under cover of dark. It’s an unseen jungle here in rural Kentucky.

I heard Barbara’s Jack Russell terrier, Hillary Rodham, barking a few times at the main farmhouse. Hillary’s canine ears and nose told her what kind of wildlife was out there: but I could only imagine. At the pond, the bullfrogs brayed; another unidentified critter emitted twangs that sounded like a banjo string breaking in the distance. Fireflies—the biggest I’ve ever seen—twinkled in the clearing like floating stars. I was in heaven.

The porch view from Gathering Place cabin ©Laurel Kallenbach

Some kind of bird screeched and chirruped away in the trees. A pair of bats swooped and darted in the cooling night air, eating an army of mosquitos—and for that I was grateful.

The night darkened, and a whippoorwill on caffeine whistled manically in the woods. How would I ever be able to sleep? This was anything but a silent night!

High above the din, a lozenge of moon radiantly crept across the horizon. In gratitude, I felt like the moon and all the creatures of the dark were watching me.

On the horizon were flashes of distant lightning; a shroud of clouds passed in front of the moon, and the reflected moon-glow created an eerie, reddish halo.

Not much later, it occurred to me that I’d better get to bed. My visit five years before had taught me that the avian chorus would crescendo at a pre-dawn hour.

A Day on the Farm

After fresh coffee and homemade waffles with berries for breakfast, I visited Barbara’s kitchen garden. She pointed out that some of the organically grown veggies were doing poorly this year because she had planted them just a couple of days before the farm got three inches of rain in one hour. Even so, she had raised a bounty of salad greens—with tomatoes on the way—and an assortment of other veggies.

Bee on flowers in the Kentucky meadow ©Laurel Kallenbach

Next I took a walk in the woods, following the trail markers. It was a nostalgic stroll, because my family used to camp in rural Kentucky almost every year during what we used to call “Easter Break” back then. I passed the pond and into the flowery meadows. The forest, shady and relatively cool, though humid, smelled like mushrooms, clay-rich dirt, and decaying leaves from last fall. Dewdrops evaporated off sassafras leaves shaped like mittens. I breathed in the green scents of this year’s foliage—the scent of moss and bramble.

Back at the cabin there was time and solitude to read book and work on a chapter of my novel set in Kentucky. I even took a nap, because I was free to do whatever I felt like on a lazy summer afternoon in a pastoral setting.

Evenings of Community: Dinner and Games

Strawberries and cream for dessert! ©Laurel Kallenbach

Barbara spoiled us that evening with cheese pie served with a stack of sautéed veggies—red cabbage, carrots, red bell peppers and onions—and accompanied by homemade vegetarian baked beans and cornbread. And no one could say “no” to fresh strawberries and whipped cream for dessert.

Several locals had come over for dinner—friends of Barbara’s who have known her since she worked at Berea College. The evening’s talk was about critters who live on their land. Donna (who was getting her MFA at Bellarmine) had a bobcat in her old barn. The conversation turned to occasional, mysterious sightings of a black panther in these parts, even though wildlife experts claim there aren’t any big cats around any more. I remembered that the school mascot of Louisville’s Pleasure Ridge Park Junior High/High was the panthers, and I wondered if one would be prowling around my cabin after dark.

After dinner, our group of six gathered around the living room table for “Fast Scrabble” played with three sets of Scrabble tiles. Nowadays it’s a prepackaged game called Bananagrams.

(I hope that sometime in the post-COVID future, guests will once again be able to mingle and share a communal table and after-dinner chats.)

When I returned to my cabin after dark, I basked once again in the light of the Kentucky moon. I remembered a song I’d learned as a kid at camp:

“When the moon shines so bright on little Red Wing / The breeze is sighing, the night bird’s crying…”

I fell asleep humming that song, and I will always dream of those days at Snug Hollow farm bursting with life in the lush woods of a place that lives in my blood.

—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance editor and writer

Read more about my visits to Snug Hollow organic farm B&B.

Farm boots on the porch at Snug Hollow ©Laurel Kallenbach

Descent into Dachau: Why I Visited a Concentration Camp

On April 29, 1945, American troops liberated the survivors of Dachau concentration camp in Nazi Germany. This anniversary is much on my mind lately because one of the characters in my novel-in-progress is 18 years old when his unit discovers one of Dachau’s Kaufering subcamps, where emaciated prisoners lived underground.

Entering the gate into the historic site of the WWII-era Dachau Concentration Camp. The words “Arbeit Macht Frei” are ironic. They translate to “Work will make you free.” ©Laurel Kallenbach

I’ve studied and written about the Holocaust since I was young, but I didn’t visit a Nazi concentration camp until a trip to Germany in 2017. I was spending several days in the beautiful city of Munich, where I was enjoying the food, the opera, and museums. There were so many enjoyable options in the city—and then there was Dachau, the original prison camp/concentration camp that Hitler opened in 1933 to detain political prisoners.

Though it’s built 19 miles outside Munich near the village of Dachau, this hellish camp casts a long shadow. It was the dark side of Munich, a city best known for its jubilant Oktoberfest celebration, overflowing with Bavarian beer, pretzels, and sausages.

I see-sawed: Yes, I would go to Dachau. But no—why drag myself into the horrors of history when I could enjoy far more lighthearted pastimes in Munich?

A guard tower and barbed wire at Dachau Memorial Site. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Gates of Dachau

Ultimately, I took the S-2 train from Munich and caught a bus to the Dachau Memorial Site. I have never regretted it. Admission is free, although there was a charge for the guided tour in English.

First I watched a film that covered some of the history of Nazi Germany, including the intense nationalism and anti-Semitism whipped up by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. It explained that the camp was for men only, and that at first most of those incarcerated there were political prisoners—anyone who opposed Hitler—including Catholic priests, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma (gypsies), and conscientious objectors. After Kristallnacht (a pogrom in 1938), more and more Jews were arrested and sent to Dachau, where they did slave labor, often working on armaments.

The tour in English, led by a wonderful interpreter named Rafaela, was so wonderful, especially since I was traveling alone. First, Rafaela emphasized that Dachau is now a memorial site where we come to honor those who suffered and died there. Like any sanctified place, there is no eating or smoking on the grounds, and appropriate attire and a quiet demeanor are requested.

The grounds of the enclosed camp are vast. They were once filled with barracks except for an open area where prisoners lined up for roll call twice a day. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Dachau served as a model for all later Nazi concentration camps. Essentially, it was a school of brutality and fanaticism for member of the SS who ran it. During its twelve years of existence, more than 200,000 men from all over Europe were imprisoned here and in its numerous subsidiary camps in the outlying area. Though Dachau was not a mechanized “death camp” like Auschwitz in Poland, 41,500 were murdered there.

Rafaela led us through the concentration camp’s notorious iron gate which says in German, Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work will make you free.”). Passing through that gate made me swallow hard, because the only “freedom” Dachau offered was death, and men were literally worked to death.

Survivors of Dachau called it “The lie on the gate.” The reality was that Dachau marked the beginning of genocide, planned by Nazi leaders and carried out on a massive, industrialized scale.

Survivors in Dachau packed into overcrowded sleeping quarters, where seven men had to share two small beds. The bunks were three-tiered, and anywhere from 350 to 800 men slept in a single room crowded with 120 beds. Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park

Inside the camp, we had a history lesson about how Germany went from being a democracy to a dictatorship in just months. As Hitler and the Nazi Party took power, the nation’s constitution was abolished. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to a fair trial were revoked. It reminded me that the freedoms afforded to us by democracy are not to be taken for granted or lost because of apathy.

History and the Politics of Hate

The grounds of the enclosed Dachau camp are vast. They were once filled with prisoner barracks (all destroyed except for historic recreations so that visitors can witness the cramped conditions), and an open area where the imprisoned men were lined up for roll call twice a day—morning and evening.

Large signs at Dachau show WWII-era photos. In this one, Dachau prisoners are lined up for roll call. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Rafaela described how roll call sometimes lasted for hours if the number of prisoners present didn’t match the number on the roster. Sometimes dead corpses had to be dragged out for the endless counts. If someone was missing, everyone stood motionless outside until the person was found. Sometimes roll call lasted all night, and people often died from exposure to the elements.

My tour group stood on the gravel-paved site of the roll calls. It was early February and semi-overcast with a slight breeze, and I was cold even though I was wearing a down parka, a wool hat, and gloves. I can’t imagine how the men felt with their bare heads shaved, wearing only thin shirts and trousers and clogs made of canvas. Survivors reported they got cramps in their toes from trying to keep the loose shoes on their feet while they were running.

The Dachau Museum included extensive information regarding the lives of the men imprisoned there, including everything from music in the camp (including choirs and an illegal orchestra) to medical experiments performed on live inmates. ©Laurel Kallenbach

We also toured the “bunker,” the euphemism for the prison, which also acted as the center for torture and detention. Our small group walked in silence down the Bunker corridor, and our shoes on the cement echoed, sounding like harsh SS jackboots in the hall of cruelty. We passed various types of cells, including hunger cells, total-darkness cells, and a vertical “coffin” cell too small to sit or lie down in. There were even cells for SS men who had discipline problems or were too lenient on the prisoners.

One of the more famous prisoners held in Dachau’s prison was Georg Elser, who tried to blow up Adolf Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels in 1939. He was kept alive so that Hitler could mock him after he won the war, but when it was apparent to the Germans that they were losing the war, he was executed in Dachau just 20 days before liberation.

The crematoria were built in summer of 1940, after prisoners from countries other than Germany were arriving at Dachau and the camp’s mortality rate increased. About 11,000 bodies were cremated here. ©Laurel Kallenbach

If Dachau’s prison and the torture center (in the large and gripping museum) weren’t enough to sober me up, Rafaela led the group to the area where we saw the camp’s crematoria—so familiar looking if you’ve seen any Holocaust-era photographs or documentaries. They epitomize the evil of extermination camps—which Dachau was not—although with our guide’s help, I realized that any concentration camp has massive fatalities due to starvation, overwork, murder, and rampant dysentery and disease.

Next, I was shocked to learn that Dachau had a gas chamber. Rafaela did not lead the group into the building with the gas chamber, but she gave us what little information there is about it while we stood outside. The gas chamber is disguised to look like a shower room and some accounts claim that it was never used to kill anyone, just that it was for training SS officers who would later be posted to extermination camps in the East. Other scholars think the gas chamber was used just once; still others say two or three times. Regardless, not viewing the gas chamber is always an option. Indeed, only a handful of people on our tour, including me, walked into this ultimate tool of evil. It was sterile, and did appear like a shower room. There were holes in the ceiling, where there once were mock showerheads—but instead of water they flowed with prussic acid poison gas, called Zyklon B.

I did not take a photo of the gas chamber. I did not linger. Perhaps some people could feel the dead. I could not, though I could feel my own anger and fear at the disastrous consequences of state-sanctioned hatred, hyper-militarism, and racism.

The first memorial at Dachau was this sculpture, known as the “The Unknown Prisoner,” a bronze by Fritz Koelle. It was erected on April 29, 1950 (the fifth anniversary of the camp’s liberation) north of the old crematorium. ©Laurel Kallenbach

During the Nazi regime, Dachau was termed a “protective custody” camp. Meaning, I suppose, that it protected those of the so-called “Aryan race” from those who believed in peace not war, from those who spoke out against tyranny, from homosexuals, from those of Jewish or Slavic or Roma or African cultures.

Why subject myself to the pain of witnessing the relics of inhumanity? When I was 16 year old, I wrote a lengthy research paper for my Honors English class about the literature of the Holocaust. I remember having a dream while I was writing it: an image of a single flower poking up its slim shoot from the trampled-down soil in a Nazi concentration camp. I knew the next morning that the title of my paper was meant to be “A Flower Grows in Auschwitz.”

The flower is a symbol of hope amidst hopelessness, of a sliver of love against an empire of hate. I’m not nearly so idealistic as I was at 16, but I do cling to the idea that nothing good comes from suppressing the vicious, ugly side of human nature. Yet, if we acknowledge that we have the capacity for extreme evil, we also possess the capacity of unshakeable love.

Near the crematoria, which is in the back of the Dachau site, are several churches where people of faith can seek solace. Our tour guide pointed out the Jewish Memorial, the Mortal Agony of Christ Chapel, the Protestant Church of Reconciliation, and the Russian Orthodox Chapel as places individuals could visit after the tour. Then our somber group ambled back toward the camp’s entrance to the  International Monument, the place where people have created art to express the lesson that something like this should never happen again. “Never again” is the reason we need to be vigilant about human rights abuses—large or small—around the world, including in US prisons and detention centers. None of these should be allowed to get even close to reaching the epic proportions of the Shoah.

Art and Remembrance

Except for the crematoria, most structures on the stark grounds of the former Dachau concentration camp appear fairly mundane at first glance. Birds swoop from the trees; cars drive by on roads at a distance. But Dachau’s artwork shatters any sense of normalcy. At the end of the tour, Rafaela led us to Dachau’s International Monument, a place of art, where people come to pray, meditate, and remember. “Never Again” is the place’s mantra.

The visceral bronze sculpture by Holocaust survivor Nandor Glid ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Monument is dominated by a huge bronze sculpture of skeletons caught in barbed wire, designed in 1967 by Yugoslav artist Nandor Glid, a Holocaust survivor. Though a solemn quiet reigns over the Dachau Memorial Site, Glid’s sculpture screams of the horror of this place. Visceral, it’s impossible to deny, and it epitomizes the horror of this place.

I gulped back tears and walked from end to end of the massive sculpture. The closer you stand to it, the less you can see of anything but those skeletons looming against the sky. I zoomed in on smaller details of the memorial art through my camera lens: empty eye sockets, finger bones that look like barbed wire.

There’s also an art installation showing the various prisoner badges that imprisoned people were forced to wear. The triangular cloth insignias, worn on the shirt, labeled each man according to his so-called “crime.” (People could be arrested for something as minor as graffiti or saying something against the Nazi regime.)

In the Dachau Monument is a piece of art recalling the triangle badges that marked every prisoner after 1937. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Red was for political prisoners, yellow was for Jews. Blue marked immigrants and purple labeled pacifists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Black was the badge for “asocials” including Roma people (Gypsy), hobos, and prostitutes. Green marked “professional” criminals. Pink was worn by homosexuals. A dot below the triangle meant that the prisoner was to receive extra punishment in the form of hard labor.

Rafaela pointed out that the art installation does not depict the green, black, or pink triangles because the monument was created in 1968 by the International Prisoner Committee that represented former political prisoners. It honored only the categories of prisoners from “recognized” persecuted groups at the time, which were only those who were persecuted for political, racial, or religious reasons.

I also paused to contemplate at the “Never Again” memorial, where those words are carved in five different languages. Ashes taken from the Dachau crematorium on Liberation Day were ensconced in the memorial.

The “Never Again” memorial. Those words are carved in five different languages. Ashes taken from the Dachau crematorium on Liberation Day were ensconced in the memorial. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Liberation of Dachau

The first Nazi concentration camp was also one of the last that was liberated—on April 29, 1945. Nine days later, on May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally and the war in Europe was over.

According to Rafaela, when U.S. troops arrived in the area, the first thing they noticed was a putrid stench coming from a train full of dead bodies. Prisoners from other areas of Germany had been locked in the cars for 21 days without food or water. The Americans were also appalled by stacks of naked corpses, stripped because their clothes were needed for the constant influx of prisoners evacuated from other concentration camps. Enraged American soldiers executed several of the remaining SS guards, some of whom were 14 or 15 years old. By this stage of the war, the only German males left to conscript into the army were boys.

The soldiers brought civilians of the village of Dachau to the garish site. Rafaela told us of accounts that those villagers and families of the SS officers, who must have turned a blind eye. When they saw the emaciated corpses, they knew that their home town would forever be reviled for its link as a place of evil.

Preparing for a Visit to Dachau

I doubt there is a way to prepare yourself for a descent into an emotional pit like that of Dachau, but I promised myself that I could leave at any time if I felt overcome by emotion. I was armed by general knowledge about the place, but even so, there were surprises—facts or emotional reactions I hadn’t anticipated.

A number of times while I was walking through the place, especially in the museum, I felt myself hiding behind the detached mask of intellectualism or behind the façade of “neutral” journalist. Somehow it was easier if I used “researching my novel” to shield me from emotional breakdown.

Dachau Concentration camp opened in 1933 and was liberated by American soldiers in 1945 ©Laurel Kallenbach

I believe it requires a detached mindset to visit Dachau, or any “dark tourism” site such as the 9/11 Memorial Site, Wounded Knee in South Dakota, the Manzanar War Relocation Center (California), or the Memorial for Peace & Justice and the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration (Montgomery, Alabama)

I do believe it’s important to pay attention to your body and emotions—and to know when enough is enough. Dachau will always carry the residue of horror and violence, of torture and sadism. Going there confronts us with emotions we prefer not to acknowledge in ourselves: revulsion, fascination, disbelief, hatred, fear of people who are “different.”

There’s also the danger of succumbing to much grief and sadness. The Visitor Center film pointed out that people survived because of “brotherly love.” Prisoners worked 14-hour days on a scant ration of thin soup. Under those conditions, it was hope that kept people alive.

It was those tales of humanity that were more emotional for me. I anticipated the inhumane treatment and the torture, but I wasn’t prepared for the acts of compassion. Reading about people who sacrificed themselves to save others opened the cracks in my emotional armor. Those stories were the things that made me cry.

But it’s also possible that stories of heroism and kindness can be overshadowed by the enormity of the cruelty and depravity in Dachau. The history of Nazi concentration camps is proof that humans have an unlimited capacity to inflict suffering. So, it’s important to be conscious of when you’ve had enough of visiting Dachau. Enough is truly enough. I see no virtue in enduring beyond what your own nervous system can cope with.

However, those who can bear to confront difficult emotions while standing in the exact location of hell on earth become witnesses for truth. We cannot hide from history—or from the fact that our species is capable of unspeakable evil—but we can walk into a place like Dachau knowing that there is some cupful of good, even in the midst of an ocean of evil.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Barbed wire at the Dachau Memorial ©Laurel Kallenbach