By Charles Simic
Poet Charles Simic was 3 years old when Nazi forces targeted his city for destruction, and when he was 6, allies Americans and Brits bombed it on Orthodox Easter 1944.
In an excerpt from his new memoir, A Fly in the Soup, Simic returns to the days when the Allied bombs rained on Belgrade. Excerpts from A Fly in the Soup, ©University of Michigan Press, 2000.
Simic and his mother, 1941
… 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.
n 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
I bombed you long ago in Belgrade when you were five.
I remember. We were after a bridge on the Danube
hoping to cut the German armies off as they fled north
from Greece. We missed. Not unusual, considering I
was one of the bombardiers. I couldn’t hit my ass if
I sat on the Norden or rode a bomb down singing
The Star Spangled Banner. I remember Belgrade opened
like a rose when we came in. Not much flak. I didn’t know
about the daily hangings, the 80,000 Slav who dangled
from German ropes in the city, lessons to the rest.
I was interested mainly in staying alive, that moment
the plane jumped free from the weight of bombs and we went home.
What did you speak then? Serb, I suppose. And what did your mind
do with the terrible howl of bombs? What is Serb for “fear”?
It must be the same as in English, one long primitive wail
of dying children, one child fixed forever in dead stare.
I don’t apologize for the war, or what I was. I was
willingly confused by the times. I think I even believed
in heroics (for others, not for me). I believed the necessity
of that suffering world, hoping it would learn not to do
it again. But I was young. The world never learns. History
has a way of making the past palatable, the dead
a dream. Dear Charles, I’m glad you avoided the bombs, that you
live with us now and write poems. I must tell you though,
I felt funny that day in San Francisco. I kept saying
to myself, he was on the ground that day, the sky
eerie mustard and our engines roaring everything
out of the way. And the world comes clean in moments
like that for survivors. The world comes clean as clouds
in summer, the pure puffed white, soft birds careening
in and out, our lives with a chance to drift on slow
over the world, our bomb bays empty, the target forgotten,
the enemy ignored. Nice to meet you finally after
all the mindless hate. Next time, if you want to be sure
you survive, sit on the bridge I’m trying to hit and wave.
I’m coming in on course but nervous and my cross hairs flutter.
Wherever you are on earth, you are safe. I’m aiming but
my bombs are candy and I’ve lost the lead plane. Your friend, Dick.
(From 31 Letters and 13 Dreams by Richard Hugo [New York: Norton, 1977])