Friday, October 21, 2011

The Florence of the Elba (Germany #6)

DRESDEN--Before coming here, I knew only two things about this lovely old city situated in a valley on the River Elbe near the Czech border, and one of them was wrong. I’m referring to Dresden “china,” which actually is a fine white porcelain, and Kurt Vonnegut’s great novel, Slaughterhouse Five, which is partly set here.
I’m confident most Americans know no more about Dresden than I did. There’s a really good reason why:  a controversial Allied aerial bombing towards the end of WWII that completely destroyed the entire city and killed thousands of civilians.
Whatever possible justification for such a thing, clearly we’d just as soon forget it. And we have. Of course, this is harder for those who live here, having lost both city and loved ones. In fact, peace demonstrations, devotions, and marches are held on the anniversaries of the bombing (13 February 1945) in remembrance of the victims (estimated somewhere between 25,000 and half a million).
          In the novel (which I read many years ago), an American p.o.w. survives the fire-bombing in a deep cellar of a disused slaughterhouse where he is imprisoned. As a big Vonnegut fan, naturally I was eager to see the actual slaughterhouse five itself. Alas, this was not to be, for it was inconveniently located outside the city, and our busy tour schedule made it impossible. I got the feeling that it really wasn’t regarded as a tourist attraction around here anyway; and as the reality of what happened to Dresden in WWII sunk in, I felt increasingly uncomfortable about it.
          Dresden has a long history as the capital and royal residence for the Electors and Kings of Saxony. A cultural and art center, it was known for centuries as the “Florence of the Elba” and the “Jewel Box” for its baroque and rococo city centre. The fire-bombing, plus forty years of ugly communist development, have changed it. But since reunification in the early 1990s, restoration work has helped to reconstruct parts of the historic inner city and Dresden is flourishing once again.
           Now a few words now about our small group tour, a joint venture of the American “Road Scholars” program and “Experiment” in Germany. My wife and I prefer the small group option (in this case, unusually small--only ten, plus our husband-and-wife tour leaders) because you don’t have to speak the local language, everything is topnotch but affordable, and they do all the work. Our fabulous tour leaders, Eleanor and Joachim, both unpaid volunteers under Experiment’s mission of improving international relations one person at a time, were professors with doctorates. When Eleanor had to depart mid-tour, as planned, for medical reasons, Joachim took over and did a great job. An eminent professor of comparative law, he has taught at American universities including Michigan, Chicago, and Cal-Davis. In coming posts, I’ll share a few of his many gripping stories about growing up during WWII and the postwar era.

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