“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
The Real Slaughterhouse-Five
My heart was racing as I walked through the doorway, eyeing the simple plaque marking the building “Schlachthof 5”. There were no memorials outside that would suggest that this site was of any historical significance, that this place became the inspiration of one of the most important works in modern literary history. As I followed my guide inside, we began walking down a flight of stairs. This is where the Prisoners of War would have been huddled together, unsure whether or not they would see another day, as the bombs came down overhead courtesy of the allies, their own countrymen.
I first met Danilo, the guide and Tour de Force behind the Vonnegut tour and Nightwalk Dresden, during an intimate historical walk through the neighborhood of Neustadt. After an evening (and early morning) exploring the area’s historical bars and street art, as well as discussing Dresden’s current political events – I was left wanting more. Danilo has a gift for story-telling, and a simple conversation over a beer had me immersed in Dresden’s incredible past. When I learned he also did a walk to the actual Slaughterhouse-Five, the building where author Kurt Vonnegut was held as a Prisoner of War during WWII, I practically begged for the opportunity to join him the following day.
Bright and early the next morning I met Danilo in the plaza near Zwinger Palace. The skies overhead were gray and dismal, and the piercing winds cut through my winter gear with little effort. We took shelter underneath an opening along the palace grounds, and Danilo began setting the scene.
The Fire Bombing of Dresden
Kurt Vonnegut was a 4th generation German-American. He grew up in the midst of the Great Depression, and though he dreamed of becoming a novelist, he studied engineering instead. After Pearl Harbour, like many Americans, he volunteered to serve – eventually getting drafted to serve overseas in 1944. On December 19, 1944, Vonnegut was captured as a Prisoner of War, and brought to a POW camp in Dresden, Germany. He spent his time working and living around a former slaughterhouse on the outskirts of the city.
On February 13, 1945, Shrove Tuesday, residents and refugees of Dresden celebrated carnival – attempting to forget the war and dismal conditions around them, if only for a day. Estimates suggest that 1.2 million people were in Dresden at the time, almost 600,000 of whom where taking refuge in the city. At 9:51 pm the sirens started, but many residents didn’t take the warning seriously as Dresden had never been targeted by air raids before. Little did they know, four hundred allied aircrafts were heading their way, and their mission was to destroy the city.
Looking at the former Slaughterhouse today, this horrible period of history seems like a fairytale. Rooms that were once used to hold animals, slaughter them, and store them have now been transformed into an entertainment complex for conferences, concerts, and other events. New carpeting lines the floors, the former bunker where the POWs survived has a modern coat check lining the wall, and vending machines in the lobby offer visitors coffee and cigarettes (including Pall Mall, the favorite brand of Vonnegut). The transformation of Slaughterhouse 5 left me feeling slightly mournful, it just didn’t seem plausible that this was the same place that Billy Pilgrim listened to the bombs shower the city above him.
At 10:14 pm the first bombs were dropped on Dresden. Three hours later, they fell again. The bombings continued over the next couple days, and fires ignited all over the city. On February 15, pilots flew to Dresden to destroy a synthetic oil plant, but due to bad weather they couldn’t see it from the air. Instead, they flew to Dresden’s city center. By the end of the fire bombings, at least 25,000 people were dead, many put the figures up closer to a quarter of a million. The city was levelled. Forever changed. In three days, the bombings of Dresden became one of the most controversial events in World War II. Nobody could figure out why this city became a military target. A city of arts and culture, the ‘Florence on the Elba’ was gone.
“There were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Germans sent in troops with flamethrowers. All these civilians’ remains were burned to ashes.”
― Kurt Vonnegut
Down in the cellar of Slaughterhouse 5 there is a small, modest memorial to Vonnegut’s greatest work. I highly doubt most passerbys even notice the glass panels filled with illustrations and quotes from the novel. It seems like an after thought, an attempt to give visitors like myself something of substance that says “Yep, you are in the right place.”
Danilo told me that Vonnegut once returned to Dresden, years after he wrote Slaughterhouse-Five to great success. His goal was to revisit the slaughterhouse where he was held during the war, and the building where he escaped death during the fire bombings. Vonnegut hired a guide to bring him to the slaughterhouse. When they arrived, Vonnegut was sure it wasn’t the same place, nothing resembled his memories, yet the guide assured him it was. It turned out, that in Vonnegut’s last pilgrimage to Dresden, he had indeed been brought to the wrong place. Years later, the guide showed up at Vonnegut’s door to tell him of his big mistake. By this point, Vonnegut was too old to travel back to Germany. I can only imagine his response to this guide who felt so bad he travelled across the world to apologize. “So it goes…”
If you are interested in taking a tour of Slaughterhouse-Five, you can reserve a space at [email protected] or by calling +49 (0) 172 – 78 15 007. The tour costs €12,00 per person, well worth the experience and information provided.
Cover Photo: CC License Some rights reserved by FrnkSmth