This article is excerpted from Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited and with an introduction by Dan Wakefield. Copyright © 2012 by the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Trust. Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House. Permission to publish excerpt from Alex Vonnegut’s letter granted by the copyright owner, Mark Vonnegut.
Kurt Vonnegut was for a number of years a valued contributor to this magazine. This month Delacorte Press publishes a collection of his letters, ably edited by the novelist and essayist Dan Wakefield, a friend of Vonnegut and, like him, from Indianapolis. Wakefield comments that Vonnegut’s writing “is disarming because it is done with such seemingly simple language and style that it sometimes seems shocking, and it is the shock of self-recognition.” The letters from the book we publish here express Vonnegut’s moral and political convictions. The first letter, from Kurt’s uncle Alex Vonnegut to his cousin Ella Vonnegut Stewart, is included because it describes his arrival home after World War II and suggests the lasting impact on him of the bombing of Dresden, which he experienced while held as a POW in that city. His ordeal formed a lifelong loathing of war and became the subject of his greatest novel, Slaughterhouse Five.
* * *
July 4, 1945
[…] Nothing that I can write here will give an adequate impression of what we heard. Mind you, he was driving and talking, and it’s only some forty-odd miles from Atterbury to Louise Adams’ house where Jimbo had been parked for the afternoon. As a result of his experiences after being taken prisoner on that ghastly day when the 106th Division was suddenly and quite unexpectedly overwhelmed, he lost fortyfive pounds. “I had never been really hungry before. I did not know what it means to be thirsty. To be really hungry is a strange sensation. You go nuts! But you mustn’t give up. If you give up—if you don’t care, if you lie down and don’t care, your kidneys go bad and you piss blood, and then you can’t get up again and you just wilt away.”
“What do they say over here about the bombing of Dresden?” Yes, we told him that we knew that Dresden had been bombed. He saw Dresden before it all happened—in 24 hours! He was in the midst of it—confined with 150 Prisoners in the Municipal Slaughter House, which was not bombed. “As one guy said, ‘Well, there were one hundred and fifty pigs here, and now 150 Infantry Prisoners.’ Now you lie down in any part of Dresden and see all over the area that once was that beautiful, beautiful city. Hardly fifty houses standing in the vast area. And don’t think it was not an outrage to destroy that city! You can’t imagine what it means. And who was killed? Two hundred fifty thousand men—mostly older men, of course—and all the women and all the children. You cannot describe what it means to be bombed. And think of it! The people of Saxony never had any use for Hitler and that whole gang of S.O.B.s! Hitler came to Dresden only twice. He never got a welcome. And Dresden had practically no air raid shelters. It was assumed that Dresden would not be bombed. Everything is gone. All the Art Galleries—everything!” […] And then the tale about their fellow prisoner who stole a can of beans and was tried and had to sign a document acknowledging that he had committed some heinous crime— he didn’t even know what he was signing. And he didn’t know that on the next morning when four of us were taken out with shovels (and we didn’t know) that we would have to dig his grave. And in front of it, he was shot—with his back to the firing squad! (And then the driver of the Dodge car burst into tears.) “The sons of bitches! The sons of bitches!”
The Russians? “Believe it or not, I was kissed by a Russian Major! He asked me how we were treated by the Russians. I told him just fine! He said they were having quite a bit of trouble with some of their own men who were not aware of the fact that the Americans were fighting on our side.” “You ought to see the hordes of Russians that are now swarming in to Saxony. When the advance troops first came, all the Germans were scared pink and hid in cellars. But they came in fine order, and they threw loaves of bread to the people, and they drove in fine American Lend-Lease cars, and they were spic and span. But then after a few days came the hordes of Russians. Talk about your Southern American negroes! Jesus! Those Russian masses are terrifying. They looted everything in sight. There was not a herd of cattle left in all Saxony. And do you really know what Vodka is like? Jesus! It’s just straight alcohol, and they drink it by the tumbler full. Really, some scientists should investigate how it is possible for man to drink such stuff in such huge quantities. They are men! Oh, Christ, it was terrible—the rapings and everything that went on.” […]