When Ball State English professor Rai Peterson and her students designed a mobile exhibit for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in 2012, they had hopes that their work would be shown in museums across the world. This dream came to fruition when she and her students were invited by Dr. Heidi Podlasli-Labrenz, a Ball State alumna and resident of Germany, to display their exhibit at the Dresden Municipal Library. Here, the Ball State traveling exhibit team gives us an inside look at their German adventures.
(L-R above) Rai Peterson and Lacey Lord, a Ball State alumna, unpack the traveling exhibit at the Dresden Municipal Library, where it remained for the rest of the trip. Peterson was pleasantly surprised that people in the library began poking around and reading the display before it was even set up. Altogether, there were more than 2,000 people who came to check it out. One of the patrons happened to be a friend of the late taxi driver who is mentioned in Slaughterhouse-Five. He was generous enough to give the Ball State group the driver’s personal copy of Vonnegut’s work, a vintage East German edition that will now be a part of the mobile exhibit.
Peterson and her students traveled to the University of Munster, Ball State’s sister school in Germany, where they gave presentations about the Hoosier writer’s German roots. Vonnegut’s great-grandfather lived in Munster before immigrating to Indianapolis. Some of Vonnegut’s family made an appearance at the Feb. 10 lecture, where Bernard Vonnegut, Kurt's cousin, and brother Walter presented a family tree to the Ball State visitors. The Vonneguts also brought a picture of the family’s original farm, back when their surname was Funnegut. (It was changed because it sounded too much like “funny gut” in English.)
(L-R) Peterson and Ball State alumnus Kyle Royse were astonished to hear Bernard Vonnegut and his daughter Ellen talk about Vonnegut family reunions and the American cousins who’ve made an appearance. Ellen acted as a translator for her German-speaking family, sharing with them the popularity Kurt has gained in the United States, especially in his hometown of Indianapolis.
(L-R) Lord, Peterson, Dr. Podlasli-Labrenz, Royse, and Ball State senior Andrew Neylon gave presentations on the German influences that can be found throughout Vonnegut’s work. Dr. Podlasli-Labrenz acted as the group’s translator. There were 25 to 50 people who attended each lecture and stayed for questions at the end, a respectable crowd in Peterson’s opinion. Here, Royse asks the audience for questions in the broken German he acquired on the trip.
The Slaughterhouse-Five building inspired the title of what is arguably Vonnegut’s most famous work. On February 13, 1945, he was safe in its basement when the Allies—in this case, British and American forces—rained bombs down on the previously unscathed city of Dresden. It was the most destructive bombing in World War II, including those in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it killed as many as 135,000 people. Now, however, the city has been rebuilt, and the former slaughterhouse is used as a fairground for concerts, trade fairs, and other public events.
Ruairi O’Brien, an Irish artist, created a memorial wall on display in Slaughterhouse-Five. As a whole, it depicts two maps of Dresden, one before the bombing and one after. Dispersed throughout the piece are quotes from Vonnegut’s work, drawings of the characters from Slaughterhouse-Five, and other relevant quotes from people such as Andy Warhol.
The group took a trip to Dresden’s Military History Museum to check out the many interesting artifacts left over from wars past, including Napoleon Bonaparte’s private sleigh and displays created from disarmed bombs. The building's radical design serves as a symbol of how the World War II bombing pierced the historic city, changing it forever. The museum is also working on an exhibit that will feature writers who focused on the bombing of Dresden, Vonnegut among them.
Ansgar Snethlage, a member of the Military History Museum’s art department, gave the group a tour of the museum. Snethlage is currently working on the literary exhibit for the Military History Museum, and he will be traveling to the United States this month to interview Kurt Vonnegut’s American descendants. During his visit, Ball State hopes to coordinate a reception for him at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.
For their final night in Germany, the Ball State group participated in a special event that takes place every year on the anniversary of the Dresden bombing. On the night of Feb. 13, the people of Dresden come together and join hands, forming a human chain that wraps around the city’s center as an anti-war symbol of 11,000 people encouraging tolerance and compassion.
Photos courtesy Gail Werner