Pilgrim's progress: Finding Vonnegut in Dresden

By Molly Hayden, U.S. Army Garrison Bavaria Public AffairsOctober 9, 2013

The Guide
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Communist-era architecture
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A view from the bridge
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Slaughterhouse Five
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DRESDEN, Germany -- If you've never read Kurt Vonnegut's book "Slaughterhouse Five" let me sum it up for you in three words -- "So it goes."

The story loosely reconstructs Vonnegut's time as a World War II prisoner of war -- with an emphasis on the word "loosely."

The satirical novel blends Vonnegut's experiences with a science-fiction motif, starring a Soldier named Billy Pilgrim as the protagonist. Pilgrim sloppily travels through the nonlinear narrative, like a slow-moving bull in a series of China shops, haphazardly creating wakes of negative consequences through his endless and boring existence.

He is invincible throughout, however, rarely feeling the consequences of his own actions. Simply put, Pilgrim just won't die. Oh, and he's abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.

So it goes.

When Dresden was firebombed on Feb. 13, 1945, much of the city was destroyed and more than 60,000 citizens perished. Vonnegut and a handful of other POWs serendipitously survived, housed underground in a former meat locker and slaughterhouse. A placard on the building aptly describes the location as "Schlachthof 5."

Obvious parallels exist between the lives of Pilgrim and Vonnegut. Both were thrown into the Battle of the Bulge soon after joining the Army; both were immediately taken prisoner behind German lines and then transferred to a work camp in Dresden.

Unlike Vonnegut, however, Pilgrim begins what the author refers to as "shifting."

He jumps through time, living the entirety of his life in random order. Consequently, he knows when and how his life will end; he knows his fate and the fate of those in the war.

Pilgrim lives the aftermath of destruction before it happens, yet remains melancholy.

So it goes.

"Slaughterhouse Five" (also called "The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death") is an easy read, but that doesn't make it simple. It's a disturbingly comedic endeavor about the inevitability of war and the effects that follow.

It's the kind of book where much of the plot lies between the lines, which, roaming through the streets of Dresden, is where you'll find tour guide Danilo Hommel.

The tour

Hommel runs the only Kurt Vonnegut-themed tour in the city where much of the story takes place. For more than two hours, a small group of Vonnegut enthusiasts listen to a brief history of the author's life, followed by a detailed account of the Dresden bombing - why it happened and the aftermath that followed.

The city offers a suitable background for Hommel's liberal storytelling, and the tour takes participants to parts of the city that might otherwise remain undiscovered.

The tour peaks with a trip to the actual slaughterhouse. The slaughterhouse itself is merely a drab concrete building, but worth a view for the sake of paperback nostalgia. It is, after all, the location that inspired one of the most uniquely poignant war novels of its time, a tale Vonnegut penned more than 20 years after he was liberated.

Regardless of your devotion to snarky and historical literature, Dresden is worth a visit.

After the war, much of the city remained in a state of devastation. Now, it is a rebuilt version of its historic self. The baroque architecture blends seamlessly with new innovative structures, creating a unique mix of old and new.

The Elbe River separates the New and Old towns. The New Town is actually older, as it endured the least bit of destruction and was rebuilt first. However, it appears newer with its gridlocked rows of concrete, communist-era buildings, tagged with elaborate works of graffiti.

The Old Town was built with new materials masked by the rubble of its former self to give it that old town feel. The Frauenkirchen, a beautiful church in the center of the Old Town, was rebuilt meticulously using original pieces placed in the exact same spots they occupied before the church was leveled.

Reminders of its totalitarian past remain in murals and designs peppered throughout the city. This, combined with the aforementioned book, reminds tourists of the city's rich and not so distant past.

Visit Dresden, but if you didn't read "Slaughterhouse Five," skip the tour. Much like this article, you probably won't like it.

So it goes.

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