70 Years Ago Today, Kurt Vonnegut Was in Slaughterhouse-Five

Quinn Dombrowski / Flickr / Creative Commons License
Quinn Dombrowski / Flickr / Creative Commons License / Quinn Dombrowski / Flickr / Creative Commons License

On this day in 1945 (or arguably yesterday, depending on how you deal with timezones), the German city of Dresden was firebombed by the British, killing tens of thousands of people and effectively burning a major cultural center to the ground. Kurt Vonnegut was there. He was a prisoner of war working in a labor camp. Vonnegut and his compatriots spent their nights locked in an underground slaughterhouse named "Schlachthof Fünf" (I bet you can guess what that translates to), and the mere fact that he was deep underground when the fire came that night saved his life.

In the aftermath of the bombing campaign, Germans put Vonnegut and other POWs to work gathering bodies for burial or burning. Eventually, Vonnegut escaped, ending up in a Le Havre POW repatriation camp, where he wrote to his family explaining a bit of what happened (and indeed that he was alive; previously he had been listed MIA).

Five years later, Vonnegut published his first short story. Then 25 years after his capture, Vonnegut's book Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death was published, and it rapidly became his most famous work. It was required reading for me in school, and when I dug into his other books (especially Breakfast of Champions), I had the distinct feeling that I was not alone; another person had survived through the oddity of life and managed to write a book about it—so I figured I would do that too.

Just shy of 30 years after Slaughterhouse-Five was published, Vonnegut showed up at Florida State University, where I studied Library Science and worked on campus events for minimum wage. He was on a tour with fellow authors and WWII veterans Joseph Heller and William Styron. I helped usher the men to one of their various speaking engagements, and told Vonnegut he wasn't supposed to smoke his cigar inside campus buildings. I'm not entirely sure what he mumbled in response to that, but I think it included the word "pissant." It was an honor.

As we reflect on the events of 70 years ago, to the extent that we can (I wasn't there, and I presume nobody reading this was either), let's watch a little of Vonnegut, Styron, and Heller speaking in Tallahassee. I think this was the early part of the day (a talk I missed at the time, because I was in class...I did catch an evening talk). Vonnegut's at Florida State with Styron and Heller, discussing various topics, but focusing on WWII and Dresden. He starts going around a minute into the video clip below. For me, this is a very memorable line:

I think the message of any strong book—good book–to a reader is, "You are not alone. Other people feel as you do." And there are a lot of lonely people out there who are not nourished by popular entertainment, or the advice of their stupid parents, or whatever. So I hope good books let young people figure things out for themselves, and to know, "Hey, I've got a friend somewhere else."

Thank you, Mr. Vonnegut.

Now, the trick here is that this is one of a nineteen-part series of five-minute clips on YouTube that are hard to find, annoying to watch in order, and not assembled in a playlist. If you'd like to watch the whole thing, just head over to this C-SPAN page for the full 90-minute video (unfortunately, it cannot be embedded here, and it takes a minute or so to buffer and get started).

For more on Vonnegut, honestly, just go to your local library and get one of his books. Or click: Kurt Vonnegut's Story Diagrams; 11 of Kurt Vonnegut's Most Memorable Quotes; The Working Dead: The Posthumous Career of Kurt Vonnegut; and Vonnegut's Letter to His Family About His Imprisonment in Slaughterhouse Five.