n 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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
Please, look at this analysis that tries to explain the insanity of
bombing Serbian Christians on Easter Sunday: