Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Dresden Diary, Day 1: Contradictions

Was the bombing justified or not? Was it Churchill or Roosevelt? If only the river Elbe could talk.

When I found that the conference I was going to will be held in Dresden, Germany, I formed no opinion whatsoever. However, when friends heard about my upcoming trip, the reaction was fairly similar for all and goes like this: “Dresden?  Why would anyone want to go to Dresden?” In true Asian naivet├ę, I asked, “Why not?”

For most of us carrier/transporter of WWII-memories, the information and images passed on to us is either western or eastern hemisphere-focused. I fall in the 2nd category with my grandfather’s memory of serving as Philippine soldier who fought against Japanese troops in World War II; the death march in Bataan, his bayonet scars - these are the glimpses of WWII I’m passing on to my daughters as well.

Still, I learned about the holocaust, the Nazis, the allied forces before... but I have never heard of the Dresden firebombing. Dresden?  I didn’t even know where that was on the map of Germany! As such, I tried looking for books about Dresden’s history but found a dearth of information. Some says it’s one of the best kept secret of WWII. But why?! And why was it bombed?  Therein lies all the contradictions.

Some say the bombing was meant to interfere with mass civilian movements.
Some say it’s because Dresden is a city where main rail junctions and communication systems are located.
Some say it's to show Russia that the Allies are devoted to their cause.
Some say it's because Dresden listed over a hundred factories and workshops that supply arms - poison gas, field guns, war gears and aircraft - to the German war effort.
Was it or wasn't it any of these things? Was it Churchill or Roosevelt who commanded the area raid? Was it 18,000 or 135,000 casualties? Does it matter? Was it bigger than Hiroshima? Does it matter?
If only the river Elbe could talk.

Finally, I arrived in Dresden still clueless overall, but with an armament of questions, which has always served me well in my explorations. As the plane was descending, I saw Dresden bedecked in spring green. No signs of smokes or ruins or burnt trees here that would give any indication of the 1945 bombing. As my cab rolled in to Altstadt (Old City), I noticed low buildings, all new and clean. Then in little spaces, I began seeing tall churches – old structures, for sure. Then more - Renaissance, baroque and 19th century. As I got closer, I noticed their charred black color.

In the evening after the conference, the congress attendees were treated to a private concert at the Frauenkirche (pronounced Frah-wen-kir-she), the famous church that was obliterated during the war. This church was rebuilt from 1994-2005 using original materials as much as possible. Apparently, each stone was tagged and computer-fitted back to its original place. For ~50 years, the shell of the church laid like an “open wound” reminder of the war... I’m glad to see it healed.  

Dark vs. Light: the dark stones on the facade are from the original structure


I sat in my assigned seat listening to the organ and trumpet rendition of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata BWV 147. I observed the church's interior and found it quite unremarkable with its bright pastel paint, very much a contradiction to it's exterior. I’m sure it’s nowhere near as grand as it once was. But the choice of color struck me – it’s a stark contrast to the dark history this church had been through.

It was still light after 9 pm so I took a little walk, passing the F├╝rstenzug (English: Procession of Princes), the largest porcelain artwork in the world, featuring the rulers of Saxony.  This mural escaped the war unscathed. While it was painted in 1871, it was later replaced with porcelain tiles in early 1900s to make it weather-proof and, apparently, war-proof too. The buildings fell, but the wall of tiles stood the test of time and bomb. 

So it goes.

Gute nacht, Dresden! Let's see what else you reveal tomorrow.


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