More than 22,000 people were killed during the bombing of Dresden in 1945. Thankfully, Kurt Vonnegut wasn’t one of them. But he was right in the middle of the drop zone.
Vonnegut was an American soldier during World War II and was captured during the Battle of the Bulge. He and his fellow POWs were transported to Dresden, where a series of slaughterhouses had been turned into makeshift prison barracks. There were a dozen or so buildings comprising the city’s meatpacking district: Slaughterhouse 1, Slaughterhouse 2… When the Allies dropped almost 4000 tons of high explosives on Dresden, Kurt took shelter in the basement of Slaughterhouse 5.
When Vonnegut emerged after the bombing, he saw what he described as “carnage unfathomable.” The POWs were tasked with gathering up all the bodies for a mass burial, but according to Vonnegut, “there were too many corpses to bury. So the Nazis sent in guys with flamethrowers.”
Vonnegut turned his traumatic experience into the centerpiece of his landmark novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, in which the character of Billy Pilgrim faces a similar bombing in a similar setting and becomes “unstuck in time.” It wasn’t until I was doing research for a trip to Germany that I realized the book was semi-autobiographical, and that there is, indeed, a Slaughterhouse 5 in Dresden.
Or, at least, there was. Did I mention the 4000 tons of explosives?
If you follow your GPS to the right coordinates (N51.06887, E013.71688) you will end up at a parking lot in front of an exhibition hall. But you’ll know you’re in the right place when you see a stone statue of a cow that once marked the entrance to the meatpacking district and somehow survived the bombing.
The area is gated and guarded, usually you can only get in with an official tour, but we batted our eyelids at the gatekeeper and pleaded for a quick photo and he generously waved us through.
The actual Slaughterhouse 5 is now Halle 1, a modern setting for conventions and meetings. Despite the fact that the building has been completely remodeled, many architectural elements of the exterior still match up with the original structure. A proper tour will take you into the basement where Vonnegut hid, and where there is a small memorial wall dedicated to his work. But from the outside the only evidence of the building’s connection to history is a simple blue-and-gray sign that bears its former title.
To the east of Halle 1, however, there remain several decrepit and disused buildings that were an original part of the meatpacking complex. They look very out of place sandwiched between a convention hall and a state-of-the-art gymnasium. If you put a shell-shocked veteran between a businessman and a pro athlete, you could instantly tell which one had seen the deepest horror. So it was with the remaining slaughterhouse structures.
It was winter when we visited. Aside from the crunch of the snow beneath our feet, all was quiet as we stared up at the broken windows, crumbling plaster, and other scars of war. This was the building Billy Pilgrim saw when he climbed out of that basement. We had suddenly been transported from the streets of Dresden to the pages of one of the greatest American novels ever written.
We understood in that moment what it meant to become unstuck in time.