February 13th & 14th were the 68th anniversary of one of the cruelest allied acts of World War II, which most Americans still consider our Good War. On Tuesday evening, February 13, 1945, and for much of the next day, British and American heavy bombers pulverized the defenseless city of Dresden, Germany. The destruction was complete, worse even than the firebombing of Tokyo and the atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is till much dispute over the number killed in Dresden, and why it was ordered, and how it can or could be justified. Winston Churchill, who must take responsibility for the bombing, if not necessarily for its extent or precise timing, himself called it an act of terror a little over a month later, and then tried to minimize it in his memoirs of the war.
It is not, however, the destruction or the strategic considerations or the blame that should command our attention on this particular anniversary. Dresden, occurring on the 13th and 14th of February, will forever be linked with the commemoration of love on Valentine’s Day; but this year it comes together with Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, which it also did in 1945. It’s quite an image: the joy and revelry of “Fat Tuesday” (Mardi Gras in the Latin world), the preparation for the penitential season of Lent, the exchange of the symbols of love, the ashes imposed on the foreheads of the faithful, and the tons of human ashes, too much for the remaining citizens of Dresden to cope with.
One man who had to cope was a young American soldier who was a prisoner of war in the doomed city, who had been a student at my undergraduate alma mater, Hobart College. Gifford Doxsee and his friend and fellow Hobart student Edward Crone survived the bombing, and were set to work cleaning up the human mess. Crone died, and later became the model for Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Doxsee and Vonnegut would tell about what happened there for many years. As Vonnegut said, Crone died of the “thousand mile stare.” Had he returned to Hobart, he hoped to become an Episcopal priest.
Every so often, acts of horror and terror come together with days of repentance and fasting and prayer, and force us to consider how great, and how conditional, is God’s creation. Valentine’s Day has become a silly celebration, sentimental at best. We have diminished Ash Wednesday with the commercial ugliness of mardi gras. But perhaps we can draw strength from the ashes of those children incinerated in their Shrove Tuesday costumes, and begin to ponder the mystery of the great and central event of human history, to come again in another 45 days.
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