The Passing of Kurt Vonnegut
The Passing of Kurt Vonnegut -
An Eyewitness to the Holocaust of Dresden
By Christopher Bollyn
12 April 2007
Who is more to be pitied,
a writer bound and gagged by policemen
or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?
- Kurt Vonnegut in Bluebeard (1987)
I am truly sad to hear that Kurt Vonnegut has left us. He is one person that I really wanted to meet and now I regret that I didn't. Having read Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) in high school and having lived a month at the slaughterhouse where he survived the fire bombing of Dresden in 1945, I would have very much liked to spend a few hours in Dresden, or anywhere for that matter, with Mr. Vonnegut.
I wound up staying at Dresden's Alter Schlachthof, the old slaughterhouse, quite by accident. On February 14, 2004, exactly 59 years after the Allied fire bombing of Dresden, I took my family to hear the Mozart Requiem at Dresden's Semper Oper and we needed to find an affordable hotel.
We grabbed a taxi at the train station and I asked the driver for an inexpensive hotel. He drove about a mile from the town center down a wooded lane and through a large portal in a long wall that ran along the street.
We passed through the portal and entered into a large complex of well built but unused buildings that had a massive and most unusual tower structure in the middle.
A few hundred feet from the portal stood a small modern hotel, clearly from a later and less grand era, where we took a room. We wound up staying in there for several weeks.
The next day I walked around a bit and asked a groundskeeper some questions about what this large complex had been in the past. Eventually I learned that it had been a very famous and scientific modern slaughterhouse designed by Hans Erlwein in the early 1900s. In recent years it had been abandoned and most of the buildings were no longer used.
The meat cellar
At the main entrance of the complex stood some very impressive buildings, one of which had the number 5 by the door. That building was the administration building and at the time that the complex served as a prison camp, the Allied POWs knew their camp by the post address for this main building: "Schlachthof 5."
As a 22-year-old POW, Kurt Vonnegut survived the fire-bombing of Dresden because he and the other prisoners had the good fortune to have been kept at the slaughterhouse where they had been taken into the well-built and deep meat cellar. The groundskeeper took me into the cellar so I could see where Vonnegut had survived the holocaust of Dresden.
I was surprised to learn that very few people knew that Allied prisoners had survived the bombing in the meat cellar of the old slaughterhouse and that one of them, Kurt Vonnegut from Indianapolis, had written a very famous book about what he had experienced in Dresden – 24 years later.
Vonnegut wrote about how he, as the character Billy, had survived the fire-bombing in Slaughterhouse-Five:
Billy was down in the meat locker on the night that Dresden was destroyed. There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked.
The meat locker was a very safe shelter. A guard would go to the head of the stairs every so often to see what it was like outside, then he would come down and whisper to the other guards. There was a fire storm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn.
Dresden in total ruins
Today, the day after Vonnegut passed away at age 84, the BBC played part of an interview with him. He said that he had been an eyewitness to the worst massacre in European history. Vonnegut was under the impression that about 135,000 people had been incinerated in the holocaust of Dresden.
This number is at the low end of the death toll estimates from the Ash Wednesday/Valentine's Day holocaust of Dresden.
The post-war British and American historians have greatly downplayed the number of victims and the size and viciousness of the Allied war crime that was the incineration – the holocaust of the hundreds of thousands of innocent people and the architectural masterpiece known as Florence on the Elbe.
Another eyewitness, the late August Kuklane, had spent time in Dresden looking for his Estonian parents among the hundreds of thousands of refugees that had sought refuge in Dresden during the desperate winter of 1945. Kuklane told me that the number of people estimated to have perished in the city center that had been totally destroyed by fire was about 600,000.
Both Vonnegut and Kuklane witnessed American fighter planes strafing the survivors of the holocaust of Dresden:
"American fighter planes came in under the smoke to see if anything was moving. They saw Billy and the rest moving down there. The planes sprayed them with machine gun bullets but the bullets missed," Vonnegut wrote.
"Then they saw some other people moving down by the riverside and they shot at them. They hit some of them. So it goes."
The corpses of Dresden were burned in piles and then buried in a mass grave.
Eleven young choristers from Dresden's famous Kreuzchor were among those killed in the Allied fire-bombing on February 13, 1945.
Here are two short audio samples from the Kreuzchor singing from two moving works from Rudolf Mauersberger's masterpiece, the Dresden Requiem:
Here is the opening of motet 'Wir liegt die Stadt so wüst' -
Here is the opening of Introitus from Dresden Requiem –
Vonnegut Audio Links:
The following is a 30-minute BBC interview with Kurt Vonnegut. It begins (at 1:50 into the program) with an actor reading this excerpt from his book Slaughterhouse-Five about American fighter planes using their machine guns to kill the survivors of the Dresden holocaust on February 14, 1945:
American fighter planes came in under the smoke to see if anything was moving. They saw Billy and the rest moving down there. The planes sprayed them with machine gun bullets but the bullets missed.
"Then they saw some other people moving down by the riverside and they shot at them. They hit some of them. So it goes.