Text-only version for easy printing
Fire from the Sky
By Charles Simic
Poet Charles Simic was 3 years old when Nazi forces targeted his city for destruction. In an excerpt from his new memoir, A Fly in the Soup, Simic returns to the days when bombs rained on Belgrade. Excerpts from A Fly in the Soup, ©University of Michigan Press, 2000.
In April 6, 1941, when I was 3 years old, the building across the street was hit by a bomb at five in the morning and set on fire. Belgrade, where I was born, has the dubious distinction of having been bombed by the Nazis in 1941, by the Allies in 1944 and by NATO in 1999. The number of dead for that day in April in what was called by the Germans "Operation Punishment" ranges between 5,000 and 17,000, the largest number of civilian deaths in a single day in the first 20 months of war. The city was attacked by 400 bombers and more than 200 fighter planes on a Palm Sunday when visitors from the countryside swelled the capital's population. Whatever the true count is, Luftwaffe Marshal Alexander Lohr was tried for terror bombing and hung in 1945.
Sometimes I think I remember nothing about that bomb, and sometimes I see myself on the floor with broken glass all around me, the room brightly lit and my mother rushing to me with outstretched arms. I was later told that I was thrown out of my bed and across the room when it landed and that my mother, who was sleeping in the next room, found me thus. Whenever I asked her to elaborate, she refused, giving me one of her habitual sighs and looks of exasperation. It's not so much that the memory was traumatic for her--it certainly was! What upset her and made her speechless on the subject was the awful stupidity of it all. My father believed in fighting for a just cause. She, on the other hand, never swayed from her conviction that violence and especially violence on this scale was stupid. Her own father had been a colonel in World War I, but she had no illusions. War was conducted by stern men with rows of medals on their chests who never really grew up. If you mentioned an Allied victory to her, she'd remind you of how many mothers on both sides had lost their sons.
I have another vague memory of bright flames and then enveloping darkness as I was being rushed down the stairs of our building into the cellar. That happened many times during World War II, so it may have been on another occasion. What surprised me years later, when I saw German documentary footage of the bombing, was to find a brief shot of my street with several additional buildings destroyed in the neighborhood. I didn't realize until that very moment how many bombs had rained on my head that morning.
Many people died in the building across the street, including one family who had a boy my age. For some reason the subject kept coming up years later. I was told again and again what a nice family they were and what a beautiful boy he was and how he even looked a little bit like me. I found it very spooky, but the story was retold with an air of obliviousness as to what this may mean to me. I have no idea what he may have looked like, as I have no idea what I looked like at a young age, but I kept seeing him as I grew even more clearly as if he had been my playmate once.
Was the world really so gray then? In my early memories it's almost always late fall. The soldiers are gray, and so are the people.
The Germans are standing on the corner. We are walking by. "Don't look at them," my mother whispers. I look anyway, and one of them smiles. For some reason that makes me afraid.
One night the Gestapo came to arrest my father. They were rummaging everywhere and making a lot of noise. My father was already dressed. He was saying something, probably cracking a joke. That was his style. No matter how bleak the situation, he'd find something funny to say. Years later, surrounded by doctors and nurses after having suffered a serious heart attack, he replied to their "How're you feeling, sir?" with a request for pizza and beer. The doctors thought he had suffered brain damage. I had to explain that this was normal behavior for him.
I guess I went back to sleep after they took him away. In any case, nothing much happened this time. He was released. It wasn't his fault his kid brother stole a German army truck to take his girlfriend for a spin. The Germans were astonished, almost amused, by the audacity. They shipped him off to work in Germany. They made the attempt, that is, but he slipped through their fingers.
Our wartime equivalent of jungle gyms, slides, tree houses, forts, and mazes were to be found in that ruin across the street. There was a part of the staircase left. We would climb up between the debris, and all of a sudden there would be the sky! One small boy fell on his head and was never the same again. Our mothers forbade us to go near that ruin; they threatened us, tried to explain the many perils awaiting us, and still we went. Sitting blissfully in what was left of someone's third-floor dining room, we would hear one of our mothers shrieking on the street below and pointing in our direction while her son scurried down struggling to remember where he'd put his foot on the way up.
We played soldiers. The war went on, bombs fell, and we played soldiers. We machine-gunned each other all day long. Rat-tat-tat! We dropped dead on the sidewalk. We ran through the crowd imitating the sound of fighter planes diving and strafing. Then we became bomber planes. We dropped things from a window or a balcony on people in the street. A bomb's friend is gravity, I remember reading once in some army manual. Bombs are either carried under the wing or in a special compartment inside the plane. As for us, we only had to spread our arms, rev up the motors, and windmill around while holding an object in our hands until it was time to release our payload. One of my friends even had military goggles, which he let us borrow occasionally. It made bombing the street below even more authentic in our eyes.
That boom-boom sound comes naturally to the male species. It's a rare girl who can make the noise properly. We threw gravel on people passing below, bricks on stray cats and dogs, pretending we were dropping American bombs on the Nazis. Fifty years later I still remember the illicit pleasure and the malice of doing that. Now that video games are available on which one can enact the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, children discuss knowingly bombs guided by lasers and TV cameras. I think we had a clearer idea of what hitting a building really means, and still that didn't stop us. We were as heedless as today's generals pressing a button and watching the computer screen excitedly for the outcome.
The British and the Americans started bombing Belgrade on Easter Sunday, April 16, 1944. The official version from the United States Air Force speaks about heavy bombers "conducting strikes against Luftwaffe and aviation targets" with "approximately 397 tons of bombs." It also says: "According to one report, these operations of 17 of April resulted in some damage to a residential area northwest of Belgrade/Zemun airdrome. Most of the destruction wrought by the two days' activities, however, appears to have been military in nature." It's that word appears, judiciously inserted in the report, that is the crux of the matter.
It was just before lunchtime. The dining room table was already set in a festive way with our best china and silverware when the planes came. We could hear them drone even before the sirens wailed. The windows were wide open, since it was a balmy spring day. "The Americans are throwing Easter eggs," I remember my father shouting from the balcony. Then we heard the first explosions. We ran down to the same cellar, where today some of the original cast of characters are still cowering. The building shook. People covered their ears. One could hear glass breaking somewhere above. A boy a little older than I had disappeared. It turned out that he had slipped out to watch the bombs fall. When the men brought him back, his mother started slapping him hard and yelling she's going to kill him if he ever does that again. I was more frightened of her slaps than of the sound of the bombs.
At some point it was all over. We shuffled out. The enthusiasts of aerial bombardment either lack imagination for what happens on the ground, or they conceal their imaginings. The street was dark with a few flames here and there. With all the dust and smoke in the air, it was as if the night had already fallen. A man came out of the gloom covered with fallen plaster, telling us that a certain neighborhood had been entirely leveled. This was typical. One heard the most outrageous rumors and exaggerations at such times. Thousands of deaths, corpses lying everywhere, and so forth. It was one of the poorest parts of the city he was talking about. There were no military objects there. It didn't make any sense even to a child.
The day after the first raid in 1944, the planes came again, and it was more of the same. "They dropped about 373 tons of bombs on the Belgrade/Save marshalling yards," the official report continues. "This assault resulted in major destruction of freight and passenger cars, large fires, gutted warehouses, severe damage to the main passenger station, equally severe damage to the Railroad Bridge over the Sava River, etc. No report on this mission refers to the bombing of other than military objectives." Actually, a bomb landed on our sidewalk in front of our building. It spun around but didn't explode.
In 1972, I met one of the men who bombed me in 1944. I had just made my first trip back to Belgrade after almost twenty years. Upon my return to the States, I went to a literary gathering in San Francisco, where I ran into the poet Richard Hugo in a restaurant. We chatted, he asked me how I spent my summer, and I told him that I had just returned from Belgrade.
"Oh yes," he said, "I can see that city well."
Without knowing my background, he proceeded to draw on the tablecloth, among the breadcrumbs and wine stains, the location of the main post office, the bridges over the Danube and Sava, and a few other important landmarks. Without a clue as to what all this meant, supposing that he had visited the city as a tourist at one time, I inquired how much time he had spent in Belgrade.
"I was never there," he replied. "I only bombed it a few times."
When, absolutely astonished, I blurted out that I was there at the time and that it was me he was bombing, Hugo became very upset. In fact, he was deeply shaken. After he stopped apologizing and calmed down a little, I hurried to assure him that I bore no grudges and asked him how is it that they never hit the Gestapo headquarters or any other building where the Germans were holed up. Hugo explained that they made their bombing runs from Italy, going first after the Romanian oil fields, which had tremendous strategic importance for the Nazis and were heavily defended. They lost a plane or two on every raid, and with all that, on the way back, they were supposed to unload the rest of the bombs over Belgrade. Well, they didn't take any chances. They flew high and dropped the remaining payloads any way they could, anticipating already being back in Italy, spending the rest of the day on the beach in the company of some local girls.
I assured Hugo that this is exactly what I would have done myself, but he continued to plead for forgiveness and explain himself. He grew up in a tough neighborhood in Seattle, came from poor, working-class folk. His mother, a teenager, had to abandon him after his birth. We were two befuddled bit players in events beyond our control. He at least took responsibility for his acts, which of course is unheard of in today's risk-free war, where the fashion is to blame one's mistakes on technology. Hugo was a man of integrity, one of the finest poets of his generation, and, strange as it may appear, it did not occur to me to blame him for what he had done. I would have probably spat in the face of the dimwit whose decision it was to go along with Tito's request and have the Allies bomb a city on Easter full of its own allies. Still, when Hugo later wrote a poem about what he did and dedicated it to me, I was surprised. How complicated it all was, how inadequate our joint attempt to make some sense of it in the face of the unspoken suspicion that none of it made a hell of a lot of sense.
Letter to Simic from Boulder
Dear Charles: And so we meet once in San Francisco and I learn
(From 31 Letters and 13 Dreams by Richard Hugo [New York: Norton, 1977])
My grandfather had a summerhouse not far from Belgrade. When we arrived there after two days of bombs, my father's side of the family had already assembled. They argued all the time.
In addition to the German occupation, a civil war was going on in Yugoslavia. There were at least a half-dozen factions made up of Royalists, Communists, Fascists and various other collaborators, all slaughtering each other. Our family was bitterly divided between the Royalists and the Communists. My grandfather remained neutral. They were all the same in his opinion.
As for my mother, she said nothing. She disliked my father's people. She came from an old middle-class family, while they were blue-collar workers. She was educated in Paris, while they sat around getting drunk in taverns. That's how she saw it. It's astonishing that she and my father ever got together. My father had gone to the university and was now a successful engineer, but he had an equally low opinion of my mother's world.
It wasn't long before he left us. Early one morning my mother and I accompanied him to the small and crowded train station. By the way he looked at us, and by the way he hugged me, I knew this was no ordinary journey. I was told nothing. Ten years would pass before I would see him again. People would ask, "Where's your father?" and I couldn't tell them. All my mother knew that day was that he was attempting to go to Italy, but there was no news of him for a long time.
We stayed with my grandparents. Summer came. The bombing of Belgrade continued occasionally. We could see the planes high over the city. Our house was on a hill overlooking the River Sava and had a fine view in that direction. Columns of smoke went up as the bombs fell. We'd be eating watermelon in our garden, making pigs of ourselves while watching the city burn. My grandmother and mother
couldn't bear it and would go inside with the dog, who also did not like it. My grandfather insisted that I sit by his side. He'd cut me a little cheese, give me a sip of red wine, and we would strain to hear the muffled sound of explosions. He didn't say anything, but he had a smile on his face that I still remember. My father's father had a dark view of the human species. As far as he was concerned, we were all inmates in a nuthouse. Events like this confirmed what he already suspected. In the meantime, there were the night scents of a country garden in full bloom, the stars in the sky, the silence of a small village. No birds peeping, no cats fighting or dogs barking. Just my grandmother, every now and then, opening the front door to a creak and pleading with us to please come indoors.
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.
The 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.
That ended that. But there were more sinister things. One day the same young man asked if our parents at home complained about the new regime. No one said anything this time. When I told my mother what happened, she informed me, in no uncertain terms, that she would kill me if I ever opened my mouth. In any case, she did not take any chances. Anytime I walked into a room, the grown-ups would shut up and eye me suspiciously. I had plenty to be guilty about, and it must have shown on my face, for there would be a long cross-examination: "What did you tell them?" "Nothing! I swear it!" And so it went.
My mother was stubborn. She found someone who knew a reliable person who, for a price, could take us across the border into Austria. I was told nothing. I was under the impression that we were going to spend our summer vacation in the mountains of Slovenia. Again, we found ourselves in an elegant, half-empty chalet, sleeping late and taking long mountain walks.
One evening we walked farther than was our custom. We sat on a couple of rocks in the woods, and my mother told me that this was the night we'd be going to my father.
It was almost pitch-dark when a man came to take us to a farmhouse, where two armed men waited. The rest of the night we spent climbing the mountains, with my mother carrying my infant brother in her arms. They had given him something so he would sleep. We had to be absolutely quiet, even when we took brief rests.
We couldn't see much for most of the way. The moon only came out when we crossed the border in the wee hours. We were on the side of a hill, and Yugoslavia was down below. We sat on the grass and had our first talk of the night, and the men smoked. This was a mistake, as it turned out. We heard someone shout something in German. One of our guides leapt to his feet and opened fire, and the two of them took off in the direction of Yugoslavia, leaving us alone. After a long while there was another shout in German. This time my mother replied, and soon enough they came out of the trees. We were in the hands of the American-Austrian border patrol, and that cheered us up tremendously.
The Americans took us to their barracks, where we spent the rest of the night. In the morning I had my first sight of the American army. Some of the soldiers were black, which fascinated me. Everybody was very friendly, giving us chewing gum and chocolate. We ate in the mess hall with everyone else, a big breakfast of eggs and bacon. There was even cocoa! My mother was happier than I have ever seen her. This was paradise.
Our problems started when the Americans handed us over to the English army, whose zone of occupation this was. A colonel sternly asked my mother for our passports. My mother laughed. After our all-night mountain hike our clothes were in tatters, and our hands and faces were covered with scratches. My mother then tried a bit of humor. She told him, in the best English she could summon, that if we had our passports we would have surely taken a sleeping car. The fellow was not amused. All her explanations fell on deaf ears. What he did then--and it came to us as a big surprise and horror--was to drive us to the border and hand us over to the Yugoslav border guards. He saluted, they saluted, and we were back in Yugoslavia and under arrest.
We didn't know, of course, that this kind of thing happened often. The English were sending back Russian POWs and anybody else from Eastern Europe they got their hands on. People begged, threw their children off the trains, committed suicide. The English didn't care what happened. Their pal Stalin packed everybody off to the labor camps, where, of course, many perished.
Our case was not so tragic.We were transported from prison to prison for the next two weeks, until we reached Belgrade. In Belgrade my brother and I were released into the hands of my grandmother, and my mother was kept in prison for another four months. Her defense was that she simply wanted to be with her husband and was not given the legal means to do so. This was true enough, although probably not the reason why they let her go with such little fuss. The jails at that time were full of people with more interesting political transgressions. We were small fry.
At home, all the relatives and friends were waiting to hear what happened. I reenacted the gunfight and the beatings of my mother for the benefit of all those grim and weary faces, night after night, inventing more and more fantastic details, until eventually they began to laugh at me, and I stopped. ~
This excerpt is adapted with permission from A Fly in the Soup [© University of Michigan Press, 2000].
Charles Simic is a poet, essayist, translator and editor. He is the author of more than 60 books, including Walking the Black Cat, which was nominated for a National Book Award, and The World Doesn't End: Prose Poems, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize. His work has been recognized by the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He has been a professor of English at UNH since 1973.