Exploring Myth and Prehistory at England’s Rollright Stones

I loved visiting England's Rollright Stones. ©Ken Aikin

I loved visiting England’s Rollright Stones. ©Ken Aikin

October 2021: It’s a great time to reminisce about past travels while most of us stay at home during the COVID pandemic.

Originally posted: September 2018

There are few things I love better than poking about in prehistoric Britain. Located near several of the Cotswolds’ most beautiful villages are one of England’s most charming megalithic sites, called the Rollright Stones.  Not only are they magical, they’re surrounded by colorful stories to boot.

Because our vacation was free from the worries of driving on the left-hand side of the road, Ken and I arranged a taxi from the White Hart Royal Hotel  in Moreton-in-Marsh to the Rollright Stones, which consists of three monuments: the King’s Men stone circle, the Whispering Knights burial chamber, and the King Stone standing stone. Each was built hundreds or thousands of years apart, between 3800 and 1500 years BCE.

The King's Men stone circle in the Cotswolds ©Laurel Kallenbach

The King’s Men stone circle in the Cotswolds ©Laurel Kallenbach

We arrived in the midst of a drizzle, arranged for our driver to return in two hours, and followed the signs through the trees to the largest site, The King’s Men stone circle, where we stood beneath the trees and read the legend of the Rollright Stones from our guidebook.

The tale, which probably dates back to medieval times, goes something like this: A king and his army were marching through the Cotswold Hills when they were changed to stone by a witch—no doubt a wise woman who reasoned that the land was better off remaining as crop- and pastureland instead of becoming a battlefield. So, the crone turned the king into the lone-standing King Stone, his army into the King’s Men circle of stones, and his treason-plotting knights into the Whispering Knights standing stones. The witch then transformed into an elder tree, which supposedly still grows on the hill; if that elder is ever cut, the spell will break, and all the Stones will come back to life.

The King’s Men Stone Circle

The drizzle ceased, and we walked out into the open hilltop to a sweeping panorama of the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire countryside. And then we saw the beautiful King’s Men stone circle, the highlight of the Rollright Stones’ three sites. Dozens of pocked and craggy limestones—most less that six feet tall—stood in circular formation.

The King’s Men stone circle is one of the sites at England’s Rollright Stones. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The King’s Men stone circle is one of the sites at England’s Rollright Stones. ©Laurel Kallenbach

It was easy to see why they’re named for soldiers—many of the more upright stones did seem to have human shapes, although some of them were squat. Each stone possessed amazing character: each was weathered like an aged person’s face. In addition, the stones are covered by unique lichens in many hues—rust, ochre, burnt umber—and according to the info board about the circle, some of those lichens are 400 to 600 years old! The stones are surrounded at their bases by grass, moss, stinging nettles, and tiny field flowers.

Ken beside one of the tallest stones in the King's Men circle ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ken beside one of the tallest stones in the King’s Men circle ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ken and I were roaming alone among the stones, admiring their topography, when we were joined by a quartet of vivacious girls who skipped five or six times around the circle counting the stones.

There’s another legend about the King’s Men stone circle: the stones are supposedly uncountable. There are 70-odd stones, but in places it’s almost impossible to tell where one stone begins and the other ends because they lie in a cluster. Other stones barely show above the ground and the tufts of grass. According to the story, if you count the same number of stones three times, you are granted a wish.

These girls counted the stones in the circle—and got their wish! ©Laurel Kallenbach

These girls counted the stones in the circle—and got their wish! ©Laurel Kallenbach

After the girls had raced around the circle, we overheard them declaring to their mums that they got the same count three times, so they were all making a wish.

After the group left, I began counting stones but was distracted when I looked into the stand of trees that grew in a horseshoe around the circle. In the shrubbery, something shiny and colorful caught my eye, and when I went to look, I discovered that it was clooties—scraps of cloth or other decorations—tied to the branches.

Clooties at the King's Men circle ©Laurel Kallenbach

Clooties at the King’s Men circle ©Laurel Kallenbach

Clooties (also spelled “cloughties” or “clouties”) are a Pagan tradition for honoring trees and asking for healing, and they’re commonly found at sacred sites (like ancient standing stones) and healing wells across the UK and Ireland.

The Rollright clooties were made of ribbon, cloth, stalks of barley or wheat from the surrounding fields, daisy chains, and bits of colorful litter like candy and gum wrappers and a Pellegrino label that the makers probably cleaned up from the vicinity. I imagined that a Pagan group, celebrating Lughnasa just a few weeks before in early August, might have freshly decorated the boughs.

To give thanks for my regained mobility after hip replacement—which made it possible for me to travel to England for a walking holiday—I assembled my own clootie out of dandelions and a spray of leaves, and I tied them to a branch.

Last, I circumnavigated the circle again, counting the stones. I came up with 76, but didn’t have time to do a second or third pass; we still had two more sites to visit before our time was up, so I left it to the mystery.

This stone truly looked like a human outline in the King's Men circle. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This stone truly looked like a human outline in the King’s Men circle. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I did, however, take a moment to try to envision the stones with no gaps between them. According to historical and archaeological documentation, the stones may originally have numbered about 105, all standing shoulder to shoulder—even more like a militia than they look now. Over the millennia, many of the stones have fallen, and some were carted away in the last millennia for use in building bridges and whatnot.

In modern times, the Rollright Stones have been used to exhibit modern sculptures, including Anish Kapoor’s Turning the World Inside Out, and for plays, notably Mark Rylance’s production of The Tempest in1992. The Stones are also regularly used for private wedding and naming ceremonies and other celebrations, according to the Rollright website.

The Whispering Knights

Just a short walk past pastures of grazing sheep are the Whispering Knights. This trio of upright stones is aptly named because the stones lean into each other, so it doesn’t take much imagination to picture them as disgruntled knights furtively colluding against the king.

Three Whispering Knights at the Rollright Stones ©Laurel Kallenbach

The three Whispering Knights at the Rollright Stones ©Laurel Kallenbach

In reality, the vertical stones originally formed a Neolithic portal-dolmen, with these upright stones supporting a capstone, or flat “roof.” Sometime between 3800 and 3500 BCE, builders constructed this portal to lead into a communal burial chamber, which was used for human remains well into the Bronze Age, according to the sign posted at the site.

Today the Whispering Knights are surrounded by an iron fence to discourage people from climbing on the stones and damaging them or the lichens that grow on them. The Knights gaze over the farm fields and stands of trees as far as the eye can see. People toss coins into the crevasses of one of the fallen stones—for luck I suppose. Or perhaps to insure that they will return to this lovely place.

Another view of the Whispering Knights, part of a collapsed passage dolmen. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Another view of the Whispering Knights, part of a collapsed passage dolmen. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The mysterious stones seem to have captured the imagination of people in the region for centuries: There’s an age-old story that on New Year’s Day, the three Whispering Knights hoist their rocky bodies and “walk” down the valley to the brook for a drink of water. The church bells of the nearby town of Long Compton are also supposed to inspire this migration. If ever there were three stones with human personalities, it’s these three.

Other local folklore includes this story: A local farmer wanted one of the largest stones to build a bridge over a stream. It took 24 horses to drag the stone down the hill, and one worker was killed on the way. Eventually the farmer got the stone positioned across the stream, but by the next morning it had flipped over onto the bank! Each time the farmer moved the stone into a bridge position, the same thing happened. Then the area crops failed, so the farmer and his friends decided to return the stone to its original position. This time it took only onehorse to drag the heavy slab back up the hill!

The moral of the story? Don’t mess with ancient megaliths—and never underestimate their power or majesty.

The King Stone

We walked back to the road and crossed, passed through a farm gate, and wandered up to the lone King Stone, which rises sinuously from earth to sky.

 

The gate leading to the field where we found the King Stone. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The gate leading to the field where we found the King Stone. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Its lovely curve isn’t how the stone originally appeared; its shape is the result of centuries of human vandalism, now hopefully curbed by an iron fence with arrow-shaped spikes at the tops.

According to the sign, 19th century drovers and visitors chipped off part of the stone as good-luck charms and to “keep the Devil at bay.”

Bad luck, if you ask me. In fact, it’s a criminal offence to damage any monument stones like this in Britain.

There’s something lonely and exposed about the solitary King Stone, which looks as if thousands of years of wind passing over the hilltop had unfurled solid rock, sending it sailing skyward into the mottled clouds. Or perhaps the presence of adjacent burial chambers and cairns contributes to the melancholy atmosphere.

The time-swept King Stone ©Laurel Kallenbach

The time-swept King Stone ©Laurel Kallenbach

Or, maybe it’s the scale of time at the Rollright Stones: We humans have a lifespan of a hundred years if we’re lucky, whereas the King Stone has been a sentry over these Cotswold hills for more than 3,500 years. The Whispering Knights have guarded their secrets for almost 6,000 years.

After two hours at the Rollright Stones—which slipped by in the blink of an eye—our taxi driver returned to whisk us along the country roads and back to our hotel, which has been operating as an inn since the 1600s. Such is time in the ancient lands of Britain.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

The entrance fee to the Rollright Stones is just 1£. For more information, including instructions to get to the site, visit RollrightStones.co.uk.

More about megaliths:

The circle at the Rollright Stones in the Cotswolds ©Laurel Kallenbach

The circle at the Rollright Stones in the Cotswolds ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

Time Traveling to Ireland’s Temple House

No photograph could prepare me for the my first glimpse of Temple House, a Georgian mansion set on a private estate of 1,000 acres a few miles south of Sligo, in western Ireland. After I drove past the gates and through the green pastures filled with sheep, the sight of the stately home took my breath away. It’s huge and imposing—like something out of a wonderful costume-drama film.

TempleHouse

I stepped back into history during my visit to Temple House, an Irish country manor in the rural area south of Sligo, named for the medieval Knights Templar Castle on the grounds. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

Despite the grandeur—and everything from Temple House’s exterior to its antique-furnished rooms is grand—it’s an unpretentious place run by the Perceval family. (Generations of Percevals have resided there since 1665.) Today the luxurious country house is managed and graciously hosted by Roderick and Helena Perceval.

In My Lady’s Chamber

I stayed in the smallest room: the pink room, which is anything but small. I slept cozily in a half-canopied bed and tucked my luggage into a huge wardrobe.. I had a small writing desk, and I absolutely adored throwing open my ceiling-high shuttered windows each morning to behold the soft, green fields dotted with sheep. (The only thing not historic—and happily so—is the bathrooms. They’re modern.)

One of the castle-view/lake-view rooms at the Georgian-era manor. Photo courtesy Temple House

Although the mansion has 100 rooms, just 10 of them are restored for guests. Imagine trying to heat a 100-room mansion redesigned/rebuilt in 1864!

In addition to getting single B&B rooms, you can rent the entire house for a wedding, birthday party, family reunion, or group retreat. (The house accommodates 14 to 20 guests at one time.)  There is also a private cottage that sleeps eight people for a small gathering.

The grand vestibule. Photo courtesy Temple House

I especially loved the elegant dining room, the site of fabulous breakfasts and dinners. The innkeepers emphasize local foods, some from their own organic garden. Fresh-cooked breakfasts there are hearty to keep you fueled for a day of exploring the estate or other pastimes in County Sligo.

A four-course dinner at Temple House is not to be missed.  The menu often features lamb from the farm and the catch-of-the-day from the nearby Atlantic coast. Vegetarians and people with dietary restrictions are well cared for too.

Guests gather for breakfast and dinner in the glorious dining room. Photo courtesy Temple House

Guests gather at the immense, lavishly set mahogany table while a crackling fire warms the room and paintings of the Perceval ancestors peer down from the walls. Roderick regaled us with colorful tales of his family through the centuries. I’d look from his face to his forebears—and noticed the same features: a similar nose, the shape of the eyes, the chin!

I can’t imagine growing up amidst so much history and finery, but then I remember that it takes lots of hard work to maintain the estate—as I’m sure centuries of Irish laborers can attest. The present-day Percevals stay busy preparing meals, cleaning bathrooms, changing linens, and entertaining guests, so it’s a modest living—just in a grand setting.

Go Exploring or Simply Relax

It was quite rainy during my visit to western Ireland when I visited, so I didn’t get outside as much as I would have liked.  There are lots of outdoor activities on the Temple House estate, including kayaking, SUP, and canoeing on the lake and up the river. You can also try your hand at archery, fishing, and croquet on the lawn. In addition, there are miles of meandering footpaths on the property.

The yoga studio. Photo courtesy of Temple House

Indoor pastimes include yoga, poker, backgammon, gin rummy, and table tennis (ping-pong). There’s even  a cookery demonstration, which involves sipping wine while watching dinner being prepared.

Within a short drive you can go sea fishing, surfing, hill climbing, ziplining, or golfing. The folks at Temple House can also direct you to a local pub to hear traditional Irish music. You can also visit Voya Spa for a seaweed baths or treatment . (Read my review about having a seaweed bath.) Just a five-minute drive away from Temple House is Eagle’s Flying, Ireland’s largest sanctuary for raptors and owls, where you can see these magnificent birds flying twice a day.

Tea is served every afternoon in this cozy parlor. (The homemade chocolate biscuits, shortbread and fudge are divine!) ©Laurel Kallenbach

Tea is served every afternoon in this cozy parlor. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Tea Time!

I arrived at Temple House in late afternoon on a blustery day, so after I changed out of my soggy clothes, I went down to the cheery Morning Room where tea is served daily. I settled onto a comfy sofa and propped my feet on a hassock. Minutes later, a pot of hot tea and some sweet and savory goodies arrived. It was the perfect way to release the stress of driving on the left side of the road.

There are countless delights at Temple House: It’s quite comfortable, it’s so welcoming, and the fellow travelers I met were excellent company at meals. Also, the ruins of a 13th-century Knights Templar Castle creates a deep sense of history—and also gives the Temple House estate its name.

So I’d have to say that what I loved most was feeling like I had stepped back into history. (If you really like old stuff, and want to travel back to pre-history, make a day trip to the nearby ancient Carrowmore Megalithic complex.) Even if there were nothing else in the vicinity to do, I can think of no more charming place to relax, read a book, eat fabulous food, and dream of eras past than at Temple House.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Originally published: November 2009

Updated: March 2021

The homemade chocolate biscuits, shortbread and fudge served with tea are divine! Photo courtesy of Temple House

Read more about my travels in Ireland:

P.S. For more tips on places to visit in Ireland, visit Discover Ireland.

The ruins of a 13th-century castle of the Knights Templar give the estate its name. Photo courtesy Temple House

My Hunt for Irish Sheela-na-Gigs

This sheela-na-gig from Seir Kieran in County Offaly was on display at the National Museum of Ireland when I visited in 2004.

Think Indiana Jones. Think of a quest for an archaeological treasure. Picture me, wide-eyed and somewhat crazed, tearing around Ireland’s rural backroads seeking a treasure. See me wading through thigh-high weeds still wet from the morning dew. Hear me cursing out loud to myself about driving on the left-hand side of the road.

Unlike Indiana Jones, no one was chasing me with a gun or a sword. I was not searching for the Holy Grail or the Crystal Skull or the Lost Ark. I was searching Ireland for sheela-na-gigs—peculiar, medieval-era stone carvings of haglike, naked women displaying their private parts.

If you read my last post, you know that during my 2004 Ireland trip, I had a bit of an obsession with searching out sheela-na-gigs, which are found on the walls of churches and castles in England, Wales, and Scotland, and Ireland. There are more known sheelas in Ireland than anywhere else, and on my journey through Éire, I stalked the gargoyle-like carvings literally over hill and dale.

Searching for Sheelas at the National Museum of Ireland

I started in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, which houses fabulous archeological treasures, such as the Indiana Jones–worthy Ardagh Chalice made by 12th-century monks of gold, silver, bronze, brass, and copper. And the golden, delicate Tara Brooch made in 700 AD is priceless.

A book with the sheela-na-gig from County Cavan, Ireland.

A book with the sheela-na-gig from County Cavan, Ireland.

Displayed alongside these magnificent works of Celtic art were two crudely carved sheela-na-gigs—much less flashy than the aforementioned treasures, but also much more intriguing. No one really knows why these “hags of the castle” were located like gargoyles on Anglo-Norman-era churches and medieval castles. But one thing we know for sure: they had meaning for people ten centuries ago.

“The name comes from the Irish language, although its meaning is uncertain,” says Dr. Eamonn Kelly of the National Museum, and author of Sheela-na-Gigs: Origins and Functions. “The most likely interpretations are Sighe na gCíoch, meaning “the old hag of the breasts,” or Síla-na Giob, meaning ‘sheela (a name for an old woman) on her hunkers.’”

I emailed the National Museum in advance and got permission on my visit to be escorted into the museum’s vaults to see a dozen more sheelas that weren’t on display but that have been in the museum’s care for decades—some for an entire century.

It’s an amazing thing to be face to face with works of sacred (or profane) art that I’ve only read about in books. (One of my favorites is The Sheela-na-gigs of Ireland and Britain by Joanne McMahon and Jack Roberts because it includes a catalogue with drawings of sheelas.) So, after I got my fill of sheelas in the museum, I set off to search for others, in situ.

The Sheela-Na-Gig of Esker Castle

Locating the sheela-na-gig—reportedly located on the walls of a ruined castle near the tiny village of Doon, in County Offaly—was quite an adventure. I felt completely lost while trying to find the village, and once there, I had no way of knowing where Esker Castle was. (If there was a sign to it, I never saw it because I was too busy driving on unmarked roads.)

This sheela-na-gig was a cornerstone on Esker Castle, near Doon, Ireland. The sheela-na-gig's right hand passes underneath her right thigh, and her left hand reaches over her left thigh to expose the vulva. Esker Castle, Doon: The sheela-na-gig her right hand passes underneath her right thigh, and her left hand reaches over her left thigh to expose the vulva. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This sheela-na-gig was a cornerstone on Esker Castle, near Doon, Ireland. The sheela-na-gig’s right hand passes underneath her right thigh, and her left hand reaches over her left thigh to expose the vulva. Esker Castle, Doon: The sheela-na-gig her right hand passes underneath her right thigh, and her left hand reaches over her left thigh to expose the vulva. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Luckily, from the road, I could see a hilltop ruin of what might be a medieval castle—though I wasn’t positive. I pulled onto a gravel road and drove to what I hoped would be the ruin, but soon the road disappeared into grass and there wasn’t enough space to turn around. My car had pretty bad sightlines for backing up (or maybe I should have looked backwards over my left shoulder instead of my right!) but I managed to drive in reverse back to the “safe,” graveled road. At the foot of the hill with the castle, I parked on a gravelly pullover spot, pulled on my rain pants and rain jacket, laced up my sturdy hiking boots, and then set off as it began to drizzle.

Foolishly, I chose a steep trail that led up toward the castle—ancient fortresses were designed to be difficult to reach—but halfway up it became apparent that no pedestrian had used it in ages—perhaps since the Middle Ages. I picked my way through brambles and briars; thorns clawed at my hair and rain jacket. I lost my traction in the mud. At last, though, I emerged at the foot of the ancient stone walls, sweating and hoping that my grit and determination would be rewarded by an easy-to-find sheela-na-gig.

The luck of the Irish was with me, because I turned the corner, and there she was, halfway up on the wall of the castle amid twisty ivy vines to the left of the castle entrance. She was carved horizontally on a cornerstone, even though she’s depicted in a standing position, with both toes pointing to the right. A shiver of excitement passed through me. I’d done it: located a sheela-na-gig in a non-museum location!

Esker Castle, near Doon, Ireland ©Laurel Kallenbach

The ruins of Esker Castle, near the village of Doon, County Offaly, Ireland ©Laurel Kallenbach

The first thing I noticed was the sheela’s large, bald head, part of which was covered in white. (Maybe someone whitewashed her for ease of seeing her?) Her mouth was open as if she were grimacing or saying something. She was a bit eerie, this sheela-na-gig: otherworldly and ancient and none too inviting despite her naked breasts (just two little mounds) and spread legs.

I took some photos, but it was difficult to relax and reflect because a nasty wind had come up. Besides that, the castle ruins were gloomy, the weather threatening. I was already a bit traumatized from the ordeal of the disappearing road and the brambly path. All I could think was, What if my car gets stuck here or I fall down the hill and sprain an ankle? There was a farmhouse just 100 meters away, but I was spooked just the same.

I walked around a bit, shielding my camera inside my raincoat from the wind-driven rain. I wanted to see the sheela from several angles. And then, Irish luck struck again, and I discovered another path—a real one this time—that I might have discovered if I hadn’t been in such a frantic hurry at the beginning. Compared to the path up, this one was fairly tame. Soon I was inside my rental car and peeling off my wet jacket. As I drove off, I took one last look at the towering walls—the home of the Esker Castle sheela-na-gig—and bid a hasty farewell.

The Sheela-Na-Gig of St. Munna’s Church

Although Indiana Jones got lost a number of times on his adventures, I seemed to have more than the usual mishaps on the sheela route. Two days after I almost missed the Esker Castle sheela, I again got confused while searching for one of the stone carvings on a church in County Westmeath. First, I got lost in the nearby town of Mullingar. Shortly later, I took two more wrong turns around Crookedwood before I eventually happened upon St. Munna Church, which ironically looks more like a castle than a church because of its crenellated tower.

I parked and walked up to the 15th-century church with its old cemetery. The four-eyed sheela-na-gig was in plain sight over a broken-out trefoil window, and just a moment after I saw her, I was greeted enthusiastically by a wag-tailed black dog from a farm across the street.

This sheela, above a window of St. Munna church, appears to have four eyes. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This sheela, above a window of St. Munna church appears to have four eyes. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This sheela was fairly eroded, but she either has four eyes or two holes drilled into her head above the eyes. Again part of her head was blotched with white—I think it must have been some sort of lichen. This sheela also had an open mouth, as if she were speaking, and this one looked like she had a beard. Though her hands were on her abdomen, there was little view of her genitals other than a deep hole. It was easy for me to imagine this sheela acting the role of a gargoyle—perhaps because her features we so indistinct. It’s possible she was defaced by people in more recent centuries who would have considered this stone carving obscene.

Perhaps it was because I was very tired, but I didn’t spend too much time with this sheela. And I felt a little out of place somehow, despite the adorable dog. This was the case a number of rural sites in Ireland. I disliked being among lots of tourists, but I also sometimes wished I wasn’t the only human around. So, I paid my respects to the naked, stone woman who has gazed fiercely down upon centuries of church-goers with her four eyes. Then I moved on to my next destination: the Loughcrew archaeological site, also called Slieve na Calliagh (“Mountain of the Hag”).

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally published March 2016

Read more about my travels in Ireland:

 

 

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