On my way to Berlin Germany this week my intention was to write about the experience of a Jew being in that city. This was not my first visit but my third – the second since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And then my friend formerly of East Berlin took me to spend a day in Dresden situated in the former East Germany (GDR). What do you know about Dresden? Possibly more than I did. All I knew is that it was flattened in the concluding year of WWII. I assumed that it must have been a key military target of the Allied forces, destroying the Nazi’s remaining capability to produce the necessities of a war effort nearing defeat. The massive bombing campaign in Dresden, one of the most widespread and devastating a German city experienced during WWII, took place in February 1945. The dead numbered anywhere from 35,000 to 135,000 and written about in the book, Slaughterhouse-Five, by American author Kurt Vonnegut who himself was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the bombarding.
Central Dresden today is a spectacular city to visit, situated on the Elbe River, lined on cobblestone roads with several centuries old churches, museums and other edifices that were repairable after the war. It is a city instantly recognizable as distinctly European with its classic architecture. Walking in and around the Dresden city centre however I quickly learned to categorize buildings built during the time of GDR and those of pre-WWII – classics and otherwise. Buildings constructed during the GDR period are exceptionally utilitarian, featureless and uniform. And there are a lot of them. I then learned to appreciate the magnitude of the Allied destruction. I also learned that my earlier assumption was in fact incorrect.
There was minimal wartime production in Dresden. It was purportedly targeted to hasten the end of the war in Europe – to bring the Germans to their knees and to exhort retribution for Luftwaffe bombings of Allied cities – such as London. And whether or not that is the real reason – it really doesn’t matter to me. Since most able-bodied German men were fighting in the war, the majority of the casualties were children, women, the elderly or refugees – the latter contributing to the sizeable historical disagreement on the actual number of dead in the Dresden aerial bombings of February 1945.
For many Jews today, the thought of visiting Germany is still not to be contemplated. This is especially true for the ever-decreasing number of Holocaust survivors. Their losses suffered are unimaginable. They remember the pain if not the unhealed bitterness and hatred of the past resonating in their soul. The children of survivors too, in one way or another have had this passed down to them. It is not for us to judge any of their understandable emotions.
Walking the streets of Dresden and trying to imagine what it could have been like under that indiscriminate bombardment was overwhelming at times. I can’t rejoice or let alone condone the death of thousands of people to somehow compensate for the death of my brethren – the millions of Jew’s massacred by the Nazi’s. I am sorry if that offends anyone. But the sooner we stop using the labels “us” and “them”, the sooner we cease to be desensitized to the death of our “enemies”, the sooner we drop the insidious oft and abused term “enemy”, the sooner we will see suffering as suffering regardless of who is the victim and the sooner we can see ourselves in the face of the other – we will then have inner peace.