VONNEGUT JR, Kurt (1922-2007). World War II Scrapbook, including 22 autograph letters signed (“Kurt III” and “Kay”) to his family; together with telegrams, period photographs, printed matter, ephemera, and related material; Dresden and Indianapolis, 1944-45.
Bound scrapbook, green cloth with 106th Infantry Division Golden Lion insignia mounted to upper cover, 302 x 245mm, with approximately 84 pages filled; including 30 pages of correspondence, sizes varying 108 x 126 (for V-mail prints) to 210 x 280mm.
“It’s been one helluva holiday season for all of us.”
Letters from Dresden: Vonnegut’s unpublished wartime correspondence recounting the events that inspired Slaughterhouse-Five, collected in a contemporary scrapbook kept by his family. In January 1943, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. left Cornell University in Ithaca, New York to enlist in the United States Army. He was assigned to study mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Tennessee before deployment to Europe with the 106th Infantry Division in late 1944. During the Battle of the Bulge that December he was captured and held as a Prisoner of War in Dresden, where he famously survived the Allied bombing in the meat locker of a slaughterhouse. It was an experience that would inform the writing of his best-known and most influential work, the semi-autobiographical novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).
This remarkable scrapbook, which includes Vonnegut's own photos of Dresden and its surroundings, was kept by his sister, Alice, and his father, Kurt Vonnegut, Sr. It opens with a portrait of the young soldier in uniform and quickly follows with newspaper clippings (often carefully annotated by Alice) from January 1945. Local news coverage is interrupted by a telegram to Kurt Vonnegut, Sr.: “The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son Private First Class Kurt Vonnegut Jr Has been reported Missing in Action,” which Alice docketed “Received Thursday morning, January 11, 1945.”
Eight letters from Vonnegut, Jr. are dated between October and November 1944; they relay the excitement of being abroad with cautious optimism: "Today I am a world citizen. […] This adventure began a great deal more quickly than any of us had expected. How violent it will be I don't know" (1 October 1944). And a few days later: "Methinks I'm in a safe and static situation" (5 November 1944). Several letters from Vonnegut Jr. following his capture finally begin to wend their way to Indiana starting in March. His first notes home are on Kriegsgefangenenlager ("POW Camp") letterhead, and are poignantly followed in the scrapbook by a wine label, taped to the page and docketed again by Alice: “Celebration and rejoicing Monday night, March 26 1945.”
Despite the most dire of circumstances, Vonnegut’s letters showcase trademark satire and dry humor. On 3 January 1945: “It’s been one helluva holiday season for all of us. The worst of all my somewhat sensational experiences just undergone in the course of battle and capture is not being able to tell you wonderfully affectionate people not to worry – to tell you that I came through the whole god-awful slaughter without a scratch.” On 9 January: “Family: I was captured Dec 19. This is my third week in prison. We move out tomorrow to be put to work. Please don’t worry…” Months later, his 21 May letter begins with a lighthearted description of events before ending on a somber note: "This letter started as a huge joke. There's no sense in going through with it. There's nothing funny in watching friends starve to death or in carrying body after body out of inadequate air-raid shelters to mass kerosene funeral pyres – and that is what I've done these past six months." On 29 May 1945: "I've been 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 – " This letter, the only one to have been published, follows with a four-page account of his capture.
One of the final letters finally brings the good news his family was waiting for: "It is a source of great delight to be able to announce that you will shortly receive a splendid relic of World War II with which you may decorate your hearth – namely, me in an excellent state of preservation. You may well say "Huzzzah!" for this prodigal princeling has survived." He reports being liberated two days prior and closes, "It will soon be your maudlin duty to set goodies before me that I may once more be my merry, curly-topped, little-ol butterball self."
Vonnegut returned home in the summer of 1945 and married soon after. His first novel, the dystopian Player Piano, was published in 1952. Provenance: the Vonnegut family.