Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas Present From Kurt Vonnegut

A biographer has asked me for information concerning the friendship between my father and author Kurt Vonnegut. My brother, a pack rat, produced a letter that Vonnegut wrote to his own family, not long after he and my dad were released from a POW camp at the end of WWII. In many ways, this three-page letter is his first draft of Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut sent my family a copy of that letter, apparently as a Christmas present, in 1996.

Bewildered that he has somehow survived, the young Vonnegut tells his folks, "I've too damned much to say, the rest will have to wait." Fortunately for us, he got around to it.

This letter is too important to sit in a dusty attic, so I'm sharing it with you. If you'd like to see a pdf copy, just click this link.

Dear people:

I'm told that you were probably never informed that I was any­thing other than "missing in action." Chances are that you also failed to receive any of the letters I wrote from Germany. That leaves me a lot of explaining to do - in precis: I've been a prisoner of war since December 19th, 1944, when our division was cut to ribbons by Hitler's last desperate thrust through Luxemburg and Belgium. Seven Fanatical Panzer Divisions hit us and cut us off from the rest of Hodges' First Army. The other American Divisions on our flanks managed to pull out We were obliged to stay and fight. Bayonets aren't much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight - so we gave up. The 106th got a Presidential Citation and some British Decoration from Mont­gomery for it, I'm told, but I'll be damned if it was worth it. I was one of the few who weren't wounded. For that much thank God.

Well, the supermen marched us, without food, water or sleep to Limberg, a distance of about sixty miles, I think, where we were loaded and locked up, sixty men to each small, unventilated, un-heated box car. There were no sanitary accommodations - the floors were covered with fresh cow dung. There wasn't room for all of us to lie down. Half slept while the other half stood. We spent several days, including Christmas, on that Limberg siding. On Christmas eve the Royal Air Force bombed and strafed our unmarked train. They killed about one-hundred-and-fifty of us. We got a little water Christmas Day and moved slowly across Germany to a large P.O.W. Camp in Muhlburg, South of Berlin. We were released from the box cars on New Year's Day. The Germans herded us through scalding delousing showers. Many men died from shock in the showers after ten days of starvation, thirst and exposure. But I didn't.

Under the Geneva Convention, Officers and Non-commissioned Officers are not obliged to work when taken prisoner. I am, as you know, a Private. One-hundred-and-fifty such minor beings were shipped to a Dresden work camp on January 10th. I was their leader by virtue of the little German I spoke. It was our misfortune to have sadistic and fanatical guards. We were refused medical atten­tion and clothing: We wore given long hours at extremely hard labor. Our food ration was two-hundred-and-fifty grams of black bread and one pint of unseasoned potato soup each day. After desperately trying to improve our situation for two months and having been met with bland smiles I told the guards just what I was going to do to them when the Russians came. They beat me up a little. I was fired as group leader. Beatings were very small time: - one boy starved to death and the SS Troops shot two for stealing food.

On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden - possibly the world's most beautiful city. But not me.

After that we were put to work carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.

When General Patton took Leipzig we were evacuated on foot to [...] the Checkoslovakian border. There we remained until the war ended. Our guards deserted us. On that happy day the Russians were intent on mopping up isolated outlaw resistance in our sector. Their planes (P-39's) strafed and bombed us, killing fourteen, but not me.

Eight of us stole a team and wagon. We traveled and looted our way-through Sudetenland and Saxony for eight days, living like kings. The Russians are crazy about Americans. The Russians picked us up in Dresden. We rode from there to the American lines at Halle in Lend-Lease Ford trucks. We've since been flown to Le Havre.

I'm writing from a Red Cross Club in the Le Havre P.O.W. Repat­riation Camp. I'm being wonderfully well fed and entertained. The state-bound ships are jammed, naturally, so I'll have to be patient. I hope to be home in a month. Once home I'll be given twenty-one days recuperation at Atterbury, about $600 back pay and - get this - sixty (60) days furlough!

I've too damned much to say, the rest will have to wait. I can't receive mail here so don't write. May 29, 1945
Blogger's Note: This letter home was originally published here on December 10, 2007. Since that time, I've seen it in several magazines and newspapers. "If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is."

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, Bernie. As I wake to begin the mayhem we create for the holidays, it is a sobering reminder of how blessed we all are (yes, even with the economy, political differences, etc.). Thank you for sharing this and providing a bit of perspective.

Lori Sywensky

M.McShea said...

I find it profoundly amazing how your father along with Kurt survived and dodged "friendly" fire as much as any German gun at your head. War is indeed chaos and at that level not a game worth being in. Interesting. The notes you make along the road someday, somehow might get incorporated into a novel. So it goes.

Brickgrrl said...

Bernie-

Thanks for sharing that important connection in your family's history. It's as Lori said first, a reminder indeed of our hard-won freedom. I remain hopeful we use it wisely.

Cheerful holly and merry wishes to you and a bright new year.

as ever,
Donna

Bernie O'Hare said...

Lori, Donna & Mike,

Thanks and Happy Holidays to you! Hope you're all off today. I'm going in but only for a bit.

Anonymous said...

Dear Bernie,
It's nice. Thank you for sharing.
Marry Christmas to You.

Geoff Brace said...

"I told the guards just what I was going to do to them when the Russians came."

I love the understatements in this letter.

These are some incredible treasures you have access to.

All my continued best for health and happiness for you and loved ones. Merry Christmas my good, grumpy and miserable friend...

Bernie O'Hare said...

Thanks, Geoff.
I appreciate your kind words more than you can know.

Anonymous said...

Is the biographer Rob Weide? He's also a producer of curb your enthusiasm (along with Larry David of Seinfeld). If so, Jackie Martling (the jokeman) contacted me about the same thing for Weide. Merry Christmas!

IRONPIGPEN said...

lvironpigs.wordpress.com

"A Merry Christmas To All"

Happy Holidays Lehigh Valley

Bernie O'Hare said...

Thank you for the link.

Anonymous said...

To All:

Merry Christmas!

Patrick M. Coughlin, Attorney at Law said...

Jesus, do any lawyers know how to write?!

Lighthouse said...

As someone who enjoys history, and was a KV reader in his youth, I find these periodic letters that you post interesting.