Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Religious Expression Under Oppression:: The Men of Slaughterhouse 5

Prof. Heidi M. Szpek.

Advent 1944, the US Army’s 106th Infantry Division arrived at Le Havre, France; Pentecost 1945, 170 men of this division were recuperating at Camp Lucky Strike, France. The events that transpired between these times sacred to Christianity witnessed their capture at the Battle of the Bulge, rail transport to Stalag IVB in Muhlberg, assignment to Arbeitskommando 557 in Dresden, the destruction of Dresden, and subsequent repatriation. The present paper explores religious expression among the men of Arbeitskommando 557, housed in the slaughterhouse complex in Dresden (made famous by Kurt Vonnegut in his novel “Slaughterhouse Five”). The memoirs of these men, including those of my father, Ervin Szpek, Sr., and Vonnegut himself, revealed this passage of time was subtly marked by reference to Christian holy days, and religious expression or lack thereof, was tempered by such factors as personal belief, religious necessity, self-preservation, and German regulations governing behavior of POWs.

This study is the first in an ongoing series examining the nature of religious expression among groups and/or individuals whose circumstance forcibly restrains formal religious expression. Subsequent studies, for example, will focus on American POWs on the Bataan Death March in the Philippines; Holocaust survivors from Auschwitz-Birkenau; and Palestinians in Jordanian refugee camps. The ultimate goal will be to not only understand the nature of religious expression under oppression, but determine whether there exists a universal in religious expression under such circumstances that transcends time, place and religious preference. The primary methodology is research derived from (1) first hand oral histories and/or (2) written memoirs of those who survive(d) such incarceration, augmented by historical records.


Prof. Heidi M. Szpek  (United States)
Assistant Professor
Department of Philosophy
Central Washington University

Received PhD from University of Wisconsin (1991) in Hebrew and Semitic Studies. Taught at Concordia University Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Pima Community College (AZ), Shoreline Community College (WA) until current appointment as Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Central Washington University. Area of Specialization Primarily Judaica, Hebrew Bible, Ancient Near Eastern Languages and secondarily Western Religious Traditions

  • Religion
  • Religious Expression
  • Religious Oppression
  • Prisoners of War
  • Slaughterhouse 5
  • Prayer
  • Faith
Person as Subject
  • Vonnegut Jr., Kurt

(Virtual Presentation, English)