I hadn’t read Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut before I visited Dresden, although I knew the book was about Dresden or, at least, the Allied bombing of Dresden on 13 February 1945. I knew Kurt Vonnegut to be a writer of science fiction, although not the kind of science fiction that I liked, so I hadn’t read anything else by him either. I knew that Slaughterhouse-Five was his most well-known novel, and I presumed that the reference to a slaughterhouse was meant to be an analogy of the deaths that occurred as a result of the fire-bombing of the city. It turned out that I didn’t actually know very much about Slaughterhouse-Five or Kurt Vonnegut at all.
And I didn’t know very much about Dresden. I went expecting to find a city still overshadowed by the apocalyptic events that had overtaken it towards the end of the Second World War. Instead, I found a flourishing, modern city and, also, a beautiful, historic city, which more than lived up to its pre-War description of being the ‘Florence of the Elbe’, a fact that was evocatively celebrated in paint by the 18th century artist Bernardo Bellotto.
Amidst all these sudden assaults upon my pre-conceptions, I decided to hang on to the little bit off certainty that I had brought with me: Slaughterhouse-Five was a book about Dresden. I hunted out a copy of the novel. Began to read.
The more I read, the more I found even more of my pre-conceptions proved wrong. Kurt Vonnegut did write the kind of science fiction that I liked; and the term ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ was not just an analogy; it was an actual place. As a prisoner-of-war, Kurt Vonnegut was imprisoned in a German slaughterhouse, and it was only by being quartered in the deepest, coldest, most uncomfortable cellar of the abattoir, alongside the carcases of the slaughtered animals, that he managed to survive the devastation of the city above him: “The Americans and their guards and Campbell took shelter in an echoing meat locker which was hollowed in living rock under the slaughterhouse… Down in the locker were a few cattle and sheep and pigs and horses hanging from iron hooks.” (Slaughterhouse-Five, Vintage, 2003, p. 120).
Everything that I thought I knew about Dresden and Kurt Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse-Five was dead in the water. So it goes. One single, solid fact remained. Slaughterhouse-Five existed. I decided to try to discover where it was.
I turned to a modern map of Dresden. One street name seemed like an obvious clue: Schlachthofstrasse. It was on the Yenidze side of town. Follow the Messering from the old tobacco factory building, fifteen minutes along a pleasant tree-lined avenue, past the big sports fields and, when you reach the modern-looking conference centre, you are pretty much there.
I didn’t expect to find anything very much surviving of the old abattoir, but I was surprised. At first, there was no sign that I was in the location where Kurt Vonnegut had witnessed the sounds of the bombing above him: “He was down in the meat locker on the night that Dresden was destroyed. There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked.” (p. 129).
However, little-by-little, clues to the buildings’ past began to become apparent: a repeated décor of bull’s heads in the masonry; a mural and a mosaic depicting scenes of animal husbandry; a whacking great monument of a bull on top of a pedestal, which I had somehow managed to overlook at first. And then, most poignant of all, a weathered metal sign on the side of a building, scarcely readable, which confirmed: Slaughterhouse.
Next door to it, was a modern-day door number. Unrelated but appropriate.
© Fergus Longfellow.
Fergus Longfellow believes you have to know how little you know before you can know how much you know.