Posts tagged Battle of the Bulge

Schlachthof Fünf and the Bombing of Dresden

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On this day, 75 years ago, the firebombing of Dresden began.

Dresden was Germany’s seventh largest city, and until the raid, the largest city to escape any serious Allied bombing.  All that changed in a series of raids which began on the evening of the 13th and lasted for two days.  Over 1,000 British and American bombers, escorted by another 700+ American fighters, attacked the city, destroying over 1,600 acres in the city center, and killing an estimated 25,000 people.

Dresden post bombing

At least one American POW in Dresden that night survived the attack, and witnessed firsthand the aftermath.

Infantry scout Kurt Vonnegut, age 22, of the 106th Infantry Division,* was captured, along with another 6,000 Americans in the division, in mid-December 1944, during the height of the Battle of the Bulge.  He was taken to Dresden and housed in a Schlachthof [slaughterhouse].  Vonnegut survived the attack by hiding in a meat locker three levels between the street.

Vonnegut not only survived the attack, he was eventually liberated and repatriated to the United States.  He married, started a family, and began a conventional career with GE.  But we wanted to write—he had been the editor of his high school and college newspapers, and felt writing came easy to him.  His first magazine article appeared in February 1950, and less than a year later he quit his day job and took up writing full time. Despite publishing a number of novels, and many magazine articles, in the ensuing years, Vonnegut met with neither commercial nor critical success; his writing income barely kept the family afloat.

What haunted Vonnegut was his war experience.  He tried and tried—by his own admission he had written five thousand pages about Dresden—and thrown them all away.  He seemed unable to find an appropriate means to express himself.

Finally, in 1969, Vonnegut published his sixth novel: Slaughterhouse Five, or the Children’s Crusade.  The book skyrocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, turning Vonnegut into an icon overnight, a status that he never lost for the rest of his life.  The book has remained on numerous “100 best books” lists ever since.  Vonnegut died in 2007, age 84.

Slaughterhouse Five tells the story of a hapless GI named Billy Pilgrim, who likewise ends up in Dresden and survives the bombing.  Portions of the novel are clearly autobiographical (although it is doubtful that Vonnegut could time-travel, or that he currently resides on the planet Tralfamadore in the company of Hollywood starlet Montana Wildhack, as Billy does).

Vonnegut’s book is unusual in many respects, including his fascination with Tralfamadore.  For example, he describes quite early (p. 5) an actual wartime event which he plans to write about: “I think the climax of the book will be the execution of Edgar Derby. . . .  The irony is so great.  A whole city gets burned down, and thousands and thousands of people are killed.  And then this one American footsoldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot. . . .   [A]nd then he’s shot by a firing squad.”

It is not known whether Odd Nansen, who died in 1973, ever had the chance to read Slaughterhouse Five in the remaining four years of his life.  It is unlikely, but not impossible: the number of literary and biblical allusions that pepper Nansen’s WWII diary attest to a broad and well-read mind.

If Odd Nansen had read Vonnegut’s work, he might well have identified with Vonnegut’s experience—he witnessed an event much like the fate of Billy Pilgrim’s friend, Edgar Derby, himself.

Writing on March 23, 1944, almost a full year before Dresden, Nansen describes the ever-increasing Allied bombing campaign against Germany.  Oranienburg, the city where Sachsenhausen was located, was also an administrative headquarters of the Schutzstaffel (SS), and the site of many its workshops, and thus the camp was hardly immune from stray Allied bombs landing in its midst.

Here’s what Nansen writes, continuing an earlier entry that describes the results of one such bombing:

“Bombs also fell on the prison camp.  Half of one hut was burned down, otherwise only minor damage.  They say that one man was killed and four taken to the Revier [infirmary] with serious injuries.  What is certain is that a prisoner was shot for stealing from the ruins.  He was caught in the act and shot then and there.  No one sees anything strange in that.  Served him right, is all they say, with a shrug of the shoulders.  The SS and the prisoners appear to be of one mind on this form of justice.  I think however that most Norwegians still react against such things.  The man shot was a wretched, starving Ukrainian, who saw a loaf that would have burnt up in any case.”

Yes, Odd Nansen would have been right at home with Slaughterhouse Five.

*I have previously written about another important member of the 106th Infantry Division who was captured around the same time as Vonnegut—Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds (here).

“We are all Jews”

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The month of August is full of anniversaries related to World War II: the bombing of Hiroshima (8/6/45); the surrender of Japan (8/16/45); the Warsaw Uprising (8/1/44); the liberation of Paris (8/25/44); the capture of Sicily (8/17/43); and the Treblinka Uprising (8/2/43), which I recently wrote about here.

Here’s an anniversary you may not be aware of: August 8, 1985: the death of Master Sergeant Roderick (Roddie) Edmonds, age 65.

Master Sergeant Edmonds is not particularly well known here in the U.S. although he deserves to be—he is the first, and only, U.S. serviceman to be honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for his actions during World War II (and only the fifth American overall to be so honored).

Roddie Edmonds

Born in South Knoxville, TN in 1919, Edmonds enlisted in the U.S. Army in March 1941 (i.e., before Pearl Harbor), and had reached the rank of Master Sergeant by late 1944.  As a member of the 422nd Regiment, 106th Infantry Division, he arrived in the European combat zone in December 1944, just in time for the Battle of the Bulge, which began on December 16, 1944.  Three days later, on December 19, he was captured, along with virtually all the soldiers of the 422nd and 423rd Regiments—over 6,000 prisoners captured in one of the largest mass surrenders in U.S. history.  Edmonds was first transported to POW Stalag IX-B, and subsequently moved, along with approximately 1,200 other enlisted Americans, to Stalag IX-A near Ziegenhain, Germany.

Edmonds during the Battle of the Bulge

Although some of the details vary, it appears that on January 27, 1945, Edmonds was ordered by the camp commandant of Stalag IX-A to tell only Jewish prisoners to report the following morning so that they could be segregated from all the other prisoners.  As the senior noncommissioned officer of the camp, Edmonds had overall responsibility for all American prisoners.  He refused, ordering all camp prisoners to report instead.  Seeing this, the commandant retorted in disbelief that not all the prisoners could be Jewish.

“We are all Jews,” Edmonds replied.

The commandant then threatened to shoot Edmonds if he did not give up the Jewish soldiers.  Edmonds replied: “If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war you will be tried for war crimes.”

The commandant backed down, and approximately 200 Jewish soldiers were saved from an uncertain, and possibly deadly, fate as slave laborers.

Stalag IX-A

Edmonds survived captivity, but surprisingly never told his family of his heroic action.  Twenty-four years after his death, in 2009, his son Chris came across a New York Times article about former President Richard Nixon’s purchase of a New York City townhouse from a Lester Tanner.  In the course of Tanner’s interview, he mentioned that he had been saved from likely death by Roddie Edmonds.  This started Chris on an odyssey which led to other Jews who had also been saved, including Irwin (Sonny) Fox, TV personality and former Chair of the Academy of TV Arts & Sciences.

For his actions Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations in February 2015, and Chris received the Righteous medal at a ceremony attended by the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. and President Barrack Obama.

As Tom Buergenthal has observed in his memoir, A Lucky Child, “What is it in the human character that gives some individuals the moral strength not to sacrifice their decency and dignity, regardless of the costs to themselves, whereas others become murderously ruthless in the hope of ensuring their own survival?”

Maybe we’ll never know the answer to that conundrum, but knowing that there are people—like Roddie Edmonds—like Odd Nansen—who did retain the moral strength not to sacrifice their decency and dignity, should help inspire us all to try and emulate their example.

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • July 21, 2020: Norwegian History Roundtable (Virtual)
  • July 23, 2020: Del Webb at Grande Dunes, Myrtle Beach, SC (Virtual)
  • August 18, 2020: Norwegian History Roundtable (Virtual)
  • August 25, 2020: Montgomery County Library, Potomac, Md (Virtual)
  • October 7, 2020: The Adult School, New Jersey (Virtual)
  • October 30, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • November 4, 2020: Sun City Huntley, Huntley, IL
  • November 4, 2020: Shorewood Glen, Shorewood, IL
  • November 5, 2020: Admiral on the Lake, Chicago, IL
  • November 15, 2020: Kristallnacht Commemoration, Congregation Or Shalom, Orange, CT
  • November 18, 2020: The Adult School, New Jersey (Virtual)
  • February 5, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • May 13, 2021: Sons of Norway, Grand Forks, ND
  • May 14, 2021: Norwegian Heritage Week, Thief River Falls, MN
  • SPRING 2021: Notre Dame H.S. Alumni Club of DC, Washington, DC,
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, Fargo, ND (Kringen Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, St. Cloud, MN (Trollheim Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Tuesday Open House, Mindekirken, Minneapolis, MN
  • SPRING 2021:  Georgetown University Bookstore, Washington, DC
  • SPRING 2021: JCC of Central New Jersey, Scotch Plains, NJ
  • SPRING 2021: The Adult School, Bernardsville, NJ
  • June 9, 2021: Bet Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • October 19, 2021: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ

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