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Charles Simic and father
Simic and his father, 1942

Fire from the Sky

By Charles Simic

See also:
A poem, "Prodigy"

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.


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