by Bob Schwartz
A friend in Israel has been corresponding with me about the current mess there. He is a proud and passionate American-Israeli. In the course of the conversation, he mentioned Dresden.
I, along with millions of others, can’t think of Dresden without thinking of Kurt Vonnegut. There is some chance, if you are of a certain age, that you don’t know Dresden or Vonnegut, so here is a summary.
In February 1945, just a few months before World War II ended, the Allies firebombed the city of Dresden, Germany. Much of the city was destroyed and tens of thousands lost their lives. At the same time, Allied prisoners of war were being held by Germany in Dresden.
Kurt Vonnegut was one of the most interesting and original writers of the 20th century, and he influenced the cultural lives of readers throughout the 1960s and beyond. He was also one of those prisoners of war who was an eyewitness to the destruction in Dresden. He tried for more than twenty years to write about it, and finally in 1969 published his novel Slaughterhouse-Five, a title reference to the Dresden slaughterhouse in which he was held. It is a masterpiece, but not what anyone would expect a novel about the horrors of war to be like. It is, though, precisely what you might expect from Vonnegut.
The first chapter is his factual history of how he came to write this book. That chapter alone is worth reading, even if you think you don’t want or wouldn’t like the rest. In it, he recounts this conversation with a friend:
Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.
I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, “Is it an anti-war book?”
“Yes,” I said. “I guess.”
“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”
“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”
“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.
And even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.
Please read Slaughterhouse-Five (and more Vonnegut if you are so moved). You will be glad you did.