A few days ago, in a comment to my post about Bertrand Russell and morality without religion, Marc Schuster wrote that his process of moving away from his religious upbringing was triggered by Kurt Vonnegut. His words rang quite true as I read them, and as I gave it some further thought I realized that Vonnegut was in heavy reading rotation at the same time that I began to really question the world, people, and belief systems around me. Although I tend to credit the scientists and philosophers for fundamentally changing my perceptions, writers such as Vonnegut certainly played an equal, if more subtle, role in affecting the way that saw and questioned the world.
I think like many others, my introduction to Vonnegut was in my high school literature class. We were assigned Slaughterhouse Five, and to this day it still ranks among my favorite books. After reading Marc’s comment, I remembered having coming across a letter from Vonnegut to his family, written shortly after his release from a German POW camp. The letter dealt with his experiences that he would later turn into his novel. As the narrator of Slaughterhouse Five states at one point in the story,
That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.
In the letter Vonnegut, then a Private, describes how he had been captured by Wehrmacht troops and imprisoned at a Dresden work camp in December of 1944; an underground slaughterhouse that was called Schlachthof Fünf (Slaughterhouse Five). In February of 1945, the very underground nature of the camp would prove life-saving during the nightmarish bombing of Dresden, and Vonnegut’s description of having to clear away the corpses after the bombing is not easily forgotten.
If you have trouble reading the letter, Letters of Note has a full transcript here.