by Doug Prince
Fire from the Sky
One night an ammunition factory several miles away was blown up. Again I was thrown out of bed. The room was lit up. Night had turned into day. We sat up till dawn watching the fiery sky. In the morning there was a big movement of troops. They went around confiscating the few domestic animals that were still around. Afterward, you could not hear a hen cackle, a rooster crow, anywhere.
The fighting was intensifying. The Russian army was in southern Romania pushing toward Belgrade along the Danube. Locally, the various political and guerilla factions were settling scores. There was a lot of indiscriminate killing. After I found some bodies in the roadside ditch near our house, I was not allowed to go out anymore. Our neighbors were executed in their own home. The people across the street just disappeared. Nothing happened to us. My mother was very pregnant and wobbled around. She had no politics, and neither did my grandfather. That doesn't explain it, of course. We were just lucky, I guess.
It was a relief when the Russians finally came. At least now there were only two sides fighting. The Germans had retreated across the river from us. One could see them go about their business, bringing up some artillery pieces. The Russians had their own guns just above our house. It was clear, if both sides started shooting, we'd be right in the middle.
Pregnant as she was, my mother decided to flee to a village further up beyond the hill where we knew some people. My grandparents retreated to the cellar.
It was mid-October 1944. The road to the village was empty, and so was the farmhouse of our friend, where we found only a very old woman, who gave us some goat's milk. That whole day we sat in the kitchen with that silent old woman and waited for the people to come back. I remember the chill, the gray light in the window, and how my mother kept reminding me to keep quiet.
Toward dusk we heard steps. A wild-looking man with blood on his face told us, without even stopping, that the Germans were coming this way and killing everybody in sight. There was nothing else to do but hurry back to my grandfather's house. The old woman stayed behind. We were back on the empty road lined with poplars. It was so quiet we could hear our quick steps. All of a sudden there were shots. A bullet whizzed by. My mother pulled me to the ground and threw herself over me. Then it was quiet again. Just our hearts beating. No more shots.
After a long time, we raised our heads. It had cleared up. The sky was cloudless. The first few evening stars were in their places. We rose slowly and stood in the deep shadow of the trees. Then we resumed our way under the cover of darkness. When we got back, my grandfather was sitting at the table, drinking a toast with a Russian officer, and grinning at us.
he war went on. The Germans had dug in north of Belgrade, on the other side of the Rivers Sava and Danube. The Russians had left the fighting to the Yugoslavs, while they advanced north toward Hungary. All able men were conscripted, and the fighting was fierce. Belgrade was a city of the wounded. One saw people on crutches on every corner. They walked slowly, at times carrying mess kits with their daily rations. There were soup kitchens where such people got their meals.
Once, chased by a friend, I rounded the corner of my street at top speed and collided with one of these invalids, spilling his soup on the sidewalk. I won't forget the look he gave me. "Oh child," he said softly. I was too stunned to speak. I didn't even have the sense to pick up his crutch. I watched him do it himself with great difficulty.
Around that time we heard that my mother's brother was wounded too. His story is absolutely incredible--as I found out later. He first fought with the Royalists, was captured by the Communists, lined up against the wall to be shot, and pardoned on the spot with the option that he join them. He did. The last few months of the war he fought with the Communists.
This is how he got wounded. The Germans surrounded him and two other soldiers in a farmhouse. They drew lots to see who would try to break out first. My uncle was last. The first man, after much hesitation, took off, only to be cut down by the Germans. The same thing happened to the second one, although he managed to run a good distance toward the woods. My uncle had no choice but to follow. At some point while running, he felt great warmth. It was winter; the ground was covered with snow. Then he passed out.
When he came to, he was lying naked and barefoot in the farmhouse with most of his stuff stolen and a wound high up inside one of his thighs. He got up and stumbled out, shortly afterward reaching a road where, eventually--it's hard for him to say how much time had elapsed--an old man came by in a horse cart, threw him a blanket, and took him along. All of a sudden--I still don't believe this--the old man was killed. A stray bullet hit him, and he fell over backwards where my uncle sat huddled. Luckily, the horses kept going, so eventually they reached some Russians, who took him to a medical unit where he was revived.
By the time my brother was born, and he and my mother had come home from the clinic, I was in the business of selling gunpowder. It worked this way. Many of us kids had stashes of ammunition, which we collected during the street fighting. The gunpowder from these rounds was sold to the older kids, who, so I heard, were in turn selling it to the fishermen on the Danube. This last part I cannot guarantee. Selling is always the wrong word. We traded gunpowder for old comic books, toys, cans of food, and God knows what else. I remember a particular tasty can of American corned beef that I devoured all by myself, sitting in the winter sunlight behind the great Byzantine church of St. Mark.
I have no idea how long this went on. I had a large laundry basket full of rounds of ammunition hidden in the cellar. Removing the gunpowder was done in the following way: one stuck the bullet part into the kitchen spigot and yanked the shell sideways until it came off. Absolute secrecy was, of course, required. My mother had no idea how I spent my time, although she was puzzled by some of the nice-looking toys I suddenly owned. But she was busy with the new baby, and I was already an expert liar. Then one day a kid on our block lost both of his hands. He was trying to remove the long black sticks of gunpowder from some sort of artillery shell. That's what he told me later, while I tried to avoid looking at his two newly healed and still red stumps.
My mother had much to worry about. There was no news of my father. Unknown to us, he had reached Italy and was promptly arrested by the Germans, who accused him of being a spy. He was in prison in Milan for a few months when the Americans liberated him. He had no desire to return to Belgrade. He didn't like the Communists, and he didn't get along with my mother. Before the war he had worked for an American company, had many American business connections, and had always wanted to see that country.
There were plenty of other reasons to be concerned. The Communists were firmly in power. People were being arrested left and right. Everybody was afraid. In school there was indoctrination.
I remember a young man coming to talk to us about communism. The subject of religion came up. He said that there was no God and asked if some of us still believed in God. We all kept our mouths shut except for one scrawny little kid, who said he did. The fellow asked the kid, what could God do? Everything, the kid said. Well, the fellow said, if you were to ask him to help you pick up this table, would he do it? "I wouldn't ask him," said the kid, eyeing the heavy table. "Why not?" insisted the man. "It'd be a dumb thing to ask for," replied the kid, barely audible.
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