When Kurt Vonnegut called my home on Feb. 23, I was thrilled. It was so exciting to hear the famous writer's voice on the phone that I didn't mind so much that he was calling to cancel a sit-down interview I'd suggested, to discuss his experiences in Dresden during WW II, and current views on war. As a captive POW, Vonnegut had survived the 1945 firebombing in an underground meatpacking cellar known as 'Schlachthof 5.' His experiences are memorialized in his best-selling 1969 novel, 'Slaughterhouse-Five,' and the film by the same name.
The 84-year old Vonnegut was frank but polite in his refusal of the interview. 'I am [*******] sick and tired of talking about war,' he said. 'I don't know what else to say about all these [*******] wars. I'm afraid I have nothing new to add to what I've already said.'
Vonnegut passed away a few weeks later.
For a special issue of a journal I am editing on the topic of war, my plan had been to ask the novelist to revisit the scene of Dresden's destruction (where an estimated 75,000 civilians died within 14 hours), and to compare it to the Bush administration's 'shock and awe' attack of Iraq and, more recently, to Israel's cluster bombing of southern Lebanon. A German colleague offered to contribute a companion piece on the evolution of Dresden's peace movement in the wake of 9/11.
When I heard of Vonnegut's death, on April 11, after he had suffered brain injuries from a fall several weeks earlier, I realized that I may have been the last journalist to speak with him. Joel Bleifuss, his last editor at In These Times, had also been unsuccessful at persuading Vonnegut to put something more on paper. 'He would just say he's too old and that he had nothing more to say,' Bleifuss said. 'He realized, I think, he was at the end of his life.'
Last week, I sat down with OU professor emeritus of history Gifford Doxsee, who'd experienced the firebombing of Dresden with Vonnegut. Doxsee had gotten to know this 'tall and slender' man as the interpreter of his group of POWs, and had witnessed how Vonnegut was psychologically tortured after calling one Nazi guard a 'swine.' During the interview, Doxsee shed light on the real 'Schlachthof 5' and shared his memories of the great American writer, Kurt Vonnegut.
STURM: When did you last talk to Kurt Vonnegut?
DOXSEE: In September 1997, he gave a lecture at Ohio Wesleyan University, which I attended with my wife. Somebody in the audience asked him, 'Mr. Vonnegut, as a writer, what is your judgment of the impact of the computer on our society?' And Kurt said, 'If I were a stock broker advising clients, I would advise to buy stocks in companies that manufacture laxatives, because the computer is making us so sedentary.' Who but Kurt Vonnegut would say it this way? He saw the world differently from the way most of his contemporaries did. After the lecture we chatted briefly. But Kurt had an assistant, you might call a bodyguard, who allowed him to talk with us for about five minutes and then spirited him away.
STURM: Could you describe the circumstances under which you got to know Vonnegut?
DOXSEE: After we were captured in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, we walked for a couple of days and then were put in box cars for eight and a half days, until we got to STALAG ('Stammlager') IV B, which is just outside of the village of Muhlberg, about 35 miles Northwest of Dresden, right on the Elbe River. There, we were processed as POWs. A section of the camp was occupied by British non-commissioned officers. We were there barely two weeks, and I did not know Kurt. And then 150 of us were shipped off, even though Kurt talked about 100 in 'Slaughterhouse-Five.' When we got to Dresden, where Kurt was named the interpreter, that's when I first became aware of him. In the first months before the bombing of Dresden, our group of 150 was divided into about 10 teams of roughly 15 each. Most of us went to the factories to provide labor. In 'Slaughterhouse Five,' Kurt talked about the malt factory where people produced malt syrup for pregnant women. Kurt and I were in the same detail there, in the Koenigs-Malzfabrik. Little by little, we got to know each other better.
STURM: When you first learned of his passing, could you describe what went through your mind?
DOXSEE: A feeling that we had come to the end of an era. He epitomized for many others the experience we had in Dresden. Not only because of his novel, 'Slaughterhouse-Five,' but also because of his role while we were there. When we arrived in Dresden, we were welcomed by an English-speaking German captain, who said to us that our guards would not know English. He selected Kurt to be our first interpreter. Not only was Kurt tall and slender in those days, so that he stood taller than the rest of us, and was therefore visible, but as an interpreter he became the best-known person in our group for the first month of our time in Dresden.
STURM: So Vonnegut worked as an interpreter throughout the entire time?
DOXSEE: The thing that led to Kurt's dismissal from his role as interpreter was that, one day, the guards decided that the tables and chairs needed to be scrubbed down with hot water and soap, and they assigned five of the soldiers to do this. The German guard who was in charge of this detail noticed that one of the five was not working as hard as the other four. Now, bear in mind, we were not getting Red Cross food packets. We were slowly starving. This soldier had diarrhea and very little energy. So he was making an effort, but he wasn't doing very much. The guard warned him, 'You have to work harder, you are not doing your share.' Vonnegut had to interpret this. But he also said to the guard, 'The guy is sick; take it easy.' The guard wouldn't pay attention, and he finally struck the prisoner. At which point Kurt lost his patience, and under his breath said, 'You dirty swine.' The German word 'Schwein,' and the English word 'swine,' sound just the same. So the guard knew what Vonnegut said. He marched off to his superior and said, 'Kurt Vonnegut has insulted the honor of the German army.' He must be punished. He was dismissed from being interpreter and went back into the ranks. Very soon after that we had the bombing.
STURM: Was Vonnegut punished?
DOXSEE: I think he was tortured psychologically more than any of the rest of us. One 16-year old Hitler Youth kid that we nicknamed 'Junior' took it upon himself to punish Kurt for having used the word 'swine.' After the firebombing, when we had to clean up rubble, we were usually given two blocks of rubble to clean. 'Junior' would come out there on the work place with a bayonet attached to his rifle, with the scabbard removed, and would follow Kurt around from morning until night, literally taunting him. 'You lazy American, you don't know how to work,' he said. 'We Germans know how to work. I will teach you.' And he would jam him in the rear end with the point of his bayonet. My sense was he was taunting Vonnegut, hoping that Kurt would strike back. I