<drafted Aug. 17/17.>
My father, a Canadian bomber pilot during World War II, took part in the fire-bombing of the German city of Dresden, in February 1945.
I have a copy of his flight log. He seems to have found the Dresden bombing mission a very successful one. I’m so flabbergasted by his comment beside the entry for that mission that I won't repeat it here, publicly. (Needless to say, I’m utterly unable to even begin to get inside the mind of my father at that time. He was 28 then, with many-many bombing missions already under his belt. Unknown territory (for me), to put it very mildly indeed.)
I’ve just finished re-reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five, a “novel” published in 1968. Vonnegut titled it Slaughter-House Five or The Children’s Crusade – A Duty-Dance with Death, and it’s an unusual book, full of details from his own experiences along with some fantastical, “science-fiction”-y aspects as well.
Vonnegut, the man himself, was in Dresden on that fateful February 1945 night when the horrific fire-bombing took place. He & his fellow 100 or so American prisoners of war survived the inferno. They were housed in “Schlacthof-fünf” – a meat locker, basically – and survived the massacre, while 130,000 residents (one sees varying figures of the number of people killed) of the (truly stunningly beautiful and utterly non-military) city of Dresden – nicknamed the “Florence on the Elbe” – were incinerated, and the city burned to smithereens.
As it happens, I visited the city of Dresden as a tourist, in 2005. (This was my 2nd trip to Germany, the first having taken place in 1971, mostly to Berlin – i.e., when the Berlin Wall was still solidly intact and Dresden very much “behind” it, embedded in East Germany. Quite a trip it was for young, naïve me, going into East Germany in ‘71 … seeing the Wall, & Checkpoint Charlie, & soldiers, & German shepherds being trained, and all of that. Severely unsmiling uniformed guards checking one’s passport, every time one passed through the Wall in car, train or S-bahn. All a lifetime ago, now, hmmmm? I cannot merely not get a handle on who my father was back when he was dropping bombs on Germany, I can’t even recall who I was back in 1971, that was so many lifetimes ago now!)
When I visited Dresden in 2005, I didn’t know that my father had taken part in the bombing of the city (the flight log had not yet fallen into my hands).
“So it goes,” as Kurt Vonnegut might say.
((Parenthetically, I’ve been a huge KV fan ever since the early 1970s, my university years. Welcome to the Monkey House – a collection of his short stories published in 1970 – was my introduction to his work. By a stroke of great fortune, when my marriage busted up & our joint property had to be divided, I got possession of the Vonnegut books. I remain very grateful for that!))
I have a relative who was born in East Germany, prior to that east-west carving up that took place after World War II, and who left in a rush, shall we say... (& one who lives in Bavaria now). A friend whose father was part of the Nazi war machine. Another friend whose family were part of the Holocaust – some of whom survived, obviously, while so many others did not. And yet another friend who survived the bombing of the city of Dresden; she was then a toddler, in the city with her mother and grandmother, having left Estonia on the run from the Russians.
I’ve asked myself, “What does this all mean?”
I remember too going on a boat ride in Florida in 2008. This was to scatter the ashes of a friend’s partner, who had recently died of cancer. The fellow who took us out on the boat was Dieter, & he was from Düsseldorf. Düsseldorf was another city my father had bombed. At that point, in 2008, it was the only city I was aware of that my father had bombed. (He never spoke of the war, or at least not to us kids, or at least, not to me, the youngest of the four of us. Just a mention one time that he had bombed Düsseldorf.)
Dieter from Düsseldorf.
What does it all mean?
Well, it’s pretty obvious that one lesson you can take from these various threads is that in one quick generation, you can go from bombing the crap out of things (and people) to rather more peaceful modes of living/running the planet.
I’ve often said to people that I sure hope they won’t judge me on the basis of who my father was. Besides having bombed a shitload of German cities – & their inhabitants – during World War II – he was just not a really great guy, shall we just succinctly say. Even before the war. But never mind…
A lot can change, hmmm? The veneer of civilization, I like to say, is very very thin. This cuts both ways, of course. We may soon see some pretty graphic evidence of this, if we are not already convinced.
For sure, we humans are meaning-making machines. This was pointed out to me in some personal growth experience I took part in once (not sure now which one, though I suspect it was the Landmark Forum).
We certainly do seem very inclined to draw meaning from things – and luckily, some of us sometimes turn these meanings in a positive direction. (Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Nazi death camps, knew and wrote much about the phenomenon & importance of meaning.)
So. I’m not really sure if my having connections with people from these wildly varying threads of the World War II ball of yarn means … well, much of anything, really.
It’s hard to say we human beings (or human doings, as some like to call us), and our raucous goings-on here on Planet Earth “mean” a durn thing!
As Kurt Vonnegut had a character in Slaughter-House Five say,
“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.”