Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous novel is Slaughterhouse-Five, which is taught in many high school English classes in the U.S. (though in others it has been banned—so it goes). Slaughterhouse-Five is partially autobiographical; it’s based partly on Vonnegut’s experiences as a prisoner of war in World War II, when he and other POWs were imprisoned in an underground slaughterhouse meat locker in Dresden, Germany, in 1944. By day, they worked in labor camps; at night, they slept in the slaughterhouse. During his imprisonment in the slaughterhouse (which was indeed slaughterhouse number five), the Allies fire-bombed Dresden, largely destroying it and inflicting mass casualties (estimated at 250,000 by Vonnegut). But Vonnegut survived.
Twenty-five years later, Vonnegut published the novel Slaughterhouse-Five, and the rest is history. But what was his frame of mind during the imprisonment? What happened before he ended up in the slaughterhouse? How did he get out of it? Letters of Note published a letter Vonnegut wrote to his family from a repatriation camp in France, shortly after his POW experience. Below are some excerpts; you can read the rest here.
“Well, the supermen marched us, without food, water or sleep to Limberg, a distance of about sixty miles, I think, where we were loaded and locked up, sixty men to each small, unventilated, unheated box car. There were no sanitary accommodations—the floors were covered with fresh cow dung. There wasn't room for all of us to lie down. Half slept while the other half stood.”
“Under the Geneva Convention, Officers and Non-commissioned Officers are not obliged to work when taken prisoner. I am, as you know, a Private. One-hundred-and-fifty such minor beings were shipped to a Dresden work camp on January 10th. I was their leader by virtue of the little German I spoke. It was our misfortune to have sadistic and fanatical guards. We were refused medical attention and clothing: We were given long hours at extremely hard labor. Our food ration was two-hundred-and-fifty grams of black bread and one pint of unseasoned potato soup each day. After desperately trying to improve our situation for two months and having been met with bland smiles I told the guards just what I was going to do to them when the Russians came. They beat me up a little. I was fired as group leader. Beatings were very small time: —one boy starved to death and the SS Troops shot two for stealing food.”
“On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden—possibly the world's most beautiful city. But not me.”
“I've too damned much to say, the rest will have to wait, I can't receive mail here so don't write. May 29, 1945 Love, Kurt - Jr.”
The letter is a riveting first-person account of being a POW in WWII, and the wry voice of Vonnegut the novelist was already apparent in his letter. In the same way he repeats “so it goes” in Slaughterhouse-Five, he repeats “but not me” in this letter.
A version of this story ran in 2010; it has been updated for 2022.