H/T: Srpska Mreza (here). An excerpt from A Fly in the Soup, a memoir by poet Charles Simic who was 3 years old when bombs came flying down. The German air force launched Operation Castigo, the bombing of Belgrade, on this day, April 6 1941, as 24 divisions and 1,200 tanks drive into Greece.
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.