An Evolving City

I like to walk. Lately, I prefer to avoid civilization, but if a place has a story to tell, I will follow along.

The city of Dresden certainly has a fascinating one to tell. The very first time I visited Dresden was in 1988, when I lived on the east side of the Iron Curtain, which meant that my family’s travel options were limited to the boundaries of the Eastern Bloc. Dresden, in what was then East Germany, was a reachable destination.

Within the last 25 years, I have visited the city four times, and I recently had an opportunity to watch its latest transformation.

This beautiful, baroque metropolis lies halfway between Prague and Berlin in the state of Saxony. It is the fourth-largest German city.

A comfortable train ride along the river Elbe offers a scenic approach to the city. The train ride takes about two hours from either Prague or Berlin and brings you right downtown. Like most European cities, Dresden offers inexpensive and comfortable public transportation both for residents and visitors. It takes just few minutes by a tram to get to the historical center, where our story begins.

The first time I traveled to Dresden, I was 12 years old. Dresden was the first foreign city I visited, and I made sure to pay attention to what I saw.

As a child, I knew a war only from documentaries on TV or school textbooks, but Dresden gave me a new view of the topic. I will never forget the sight I came across there. In the late ’80s, it still was possible to see a cluster of burnt buildings frozen in time as a memento of World War II.

The bone-chilling sight of a row of preserved, charred houses is etched into my memory. In February 1945, Dresden suffered a devastating bombing. As much as 90 percent of the city was destroyed and burnt down. Nobody really knows how many people perished within the city, because at the time of the attack, the metropolis was overflowing with refugees from the east trying to escape the approaching Soviet Army. Many estimate the two day-bombing claimed as many as 135,000 victims, which would make its toll worse than the bombing of Hiroshima – a fact not mentioned very often.

As Kurt Vonnegut put it his book “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the fire-bombing of Dresden was “the greatest massacre in European history.”

About a decade after my first visit, I brought to Dresden my American husband-to-be, and I was quite excited to show him the city. My husband’s grandfather had fought in the World War II, and I considered the destination to have a special meaning for him, since he was very close to his grandpa and had only heard stories about what happened on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

But when we arrived in Dresden, I was quite surprised to see how much had changed since my last visit. It was the end of the Cold War, and Germany was unified after decades of political division and ready to move on. The charred ruins of townhouses were gone, replaced by new construction. Another significant indication of change was a big sign placed in front of the heavily damaged “Frauenkirche,” or Church of Our Lady, announcing plans to rebuild the once-iconic church to its prewar form.

A little disappointed, but accepting the new look of Dresden, we spent the rest of the day in the Zwinger Palace. This most famous landmark of Dresden was built between 1710 and 1732 and includes six pavilions connected by large galleries. The latest addition to the Zwinger Palace, from 1847, hosts the Old Masters Gallery, a must-see destination for every art admirer. Seemingly endless rooms and hallways are filled with priceless works of old masters such as Van Dyck, Vermeer, Rubens, Titian and Raphael.

Nearly 13 years later, and I took yet another trip to Dresden. This time, there were three of us. My son, new to the city, chose what we were to see there this time.

Quite predictably, he chose the newly opened Museum of War History. The museum focuses on the human aspects of the war rather than presenting the military history the usual way. The curators’ design of the museum incorporates light and sound in a way that almost interacts with the visitor. It is impossible to remain emotionless upon entering a space, four stories high, filled with bombs, missiles and shells all suspended in midair – as if ready to hit the ground and spread destruction at any given moment.

Very cleverly positioned lights add to the imagined horror every few minutes, when the timer activates brighter beams of light to mimic an explosion. Several small bomb shelters positioned below are ready to take the hit. It is quite sad to imagine that these concrete cans were once somebody’s only hope of survival.

From the museum, we headed to visit the newest addition to the city’s continuous reconstruction efforts. Just as the note promised in the late ’90s, the Frauenkirche was given new life with the help of donations from all over the world. This baroque jewel of a church was originally built between 1726 and 1743, and it left me breathless upon entering. The simple ground plan creates a very spacious interior. It reminded me of the simple structure of the Roman Pantheon, except on much more opulent and grand scale.

The enormous windows allow enough natural light in so the visitor can appreciate the ornate interior. No wonder the Dresdeners wanted to resurrect this beauty! When I stood there, below the heavenly ceiling, I could not but recall the image from the museum I’d just visited – bombs and missiles like those hanging in the museum had fallen down on this very place.

Dresden is not only about the war, even though you can still see the footprints of the fiery events all around you. All the historical buildings downtown have two shades on their facades – the darker patches signal that particular part of the building survived the attack; the lighter colors indicate post-war construction. Some of the town squares are unnaturally large, indicating where rebuilding has not taken place yet.

Besides the history, many tourists are lured to Dresden for its famous town markets. They offer not only traditional German crafts and souvenirs but, most importantly, food. The blend of smells and tastes is irresistible. It is impossible to have just one course, and the public beer drinking is something of a national sport. Unlike Paris, Dresden is very welcoming to English-speaking tourists. Bilingual descriptions are omnipresent in all museums, visitor centers and attractions. There are some exceptions, but they are rare.

I remember leaving Prague without checking the train schedule to see when we need to catch the train back for Prague. I was quite confident with my English, and I planned on doing so once we got to Dresden. Upon arrival, I thought it would be better to ask at the station before we head out to the streets. I approached the information booth and asked the older lady helping the travelers “Do you speak English?”

I expected nothing but a positive reply. Her resolute “Nein” gave me goose bumps. Oh no, l guess here we speak German.

We made it safely back to Prague by the end of the day, and riding along the river Elbe, I had a time to reflect on my visit. It was my fourth visit to Dresden, but only now did I understand its story. How beautiful and flourishing this space once was, and how much it suffered.

Once again, Vonnegut’s words came to mind as he described what he saw after the air raid: “The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot.” The stones cooled off a long time ago, and I wonder how Dresden will surprise me next time I see it.

Hana Dickson is a native of the Czech Republic. She lives in Johnstown.