As the curtain goes up, I’m sitting naked on the potty in my grandfather’s backyard in a little village in Serbia. The year is 1940. I look happy. It’s a nice summer day full of sunlight, although Hitler has already occupied most of Europe. I have no idea, of course, that he and Stalin are hatching an elaborate plot to make me an American poet. I love the neighbor’s dog, whose name is Toza. I run after him carrying my potty in my hand, wanting to pull his tail, but he won’t let me.
What would I not give today to have a photograph of Toza! He was a country mutt full of burrs and fleas, and in his wise and sad eyes, if we had known how to read them, we would have found the story of mine and my parents’ lives.
I had a great-uncle of whom nothing is known. I don’t even know his name, if I ever did. He came to America in the 1920s and never wrote home. Got rich, my relatives said. How do you know that? I asked. Nobody knew how they knew. They had heard rumors. Then the people who’d heard the rumors died. Today there’s no one left to ask. My great-uncle was like one of those ants who, coming upon a line of marching ants, turns and goes in the opposite direction for reasons of his own.
Ants being ants, this is not supposed to happen, but it sometimes does, and no one knows why.
This mythical great uncle interests me because I resemble him a bit. I, too, came to America and, for long stretches of time, forgot where I came from or had no contact with my compatriots. I never understood the big deal they make about being born in one place rather than another when there are so many nice places in the world to call home. As it is, I was born in Belgrade in 1938 and spent fifteen eventful years there before leaving forever. I never missed it. When I try to tell that to my American friends, they don’t believe me. They suspect me of concealing my homesickness because I cannot bear the pain. Allegedly, my nightmarish wartime memories have made me repress how much dear old Belgrade meant to me. My wartime memories may have been terrifying, but I had a happy childhood despite droning planes, deafening explosions, and people hung from lampposts. I mean, it’s not like I knew better and dreamed of a life of quiet strolls with my parents along tree-lined boulevards or playing with other children in the park. No. I was three years old when the first bombs fell and old enough to be miserable when the war ended and I had to go to school.
The first person who told me about the evil in the world was my grandmother. She died in 1948, but I recall her vividly because she took care of me and my brother while my mother went to work. The poor woman had more sense than most people. She listened to Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and other lunatics on the radio and since she knew several languages, she understood the imbecilities they were saying. What upset her even more than their vile words was their cheering followers. I didn’t realize it then, but she taught me a lesson that has stuck. Beware of the so-called great leaders and the collective euphorias they excite. Many years later I wrote this poem about her:
My grandmother prophesied the end
Of your empires, O Fools!
She was ironing. The radio was on.
The earth trembled beneath our feet.
One of their heroes was giving a speech.
“Monster,” she called him.
There were cheers and gun salutes for the monster.
“I could kill him with my bare hands,”
She announced to me.
There was no need to. They were all
Going to the devil any day now.
“Don’t go blabbering about this to anyone,”
She warned me.
And pulled my ear to make sure I understood.
When people speak of the dark years after the war, they usually have in mind political oppression and hunger, but what I see are poorly lit streets with black windows and doorways as dark as the inside of a coffin. If the lone light bulb one used to read by in bed late into the night died suddenly, it was not likely to be replaced soon. Every year, we had less and less light in our house and not much heat in winter. In the evening, we sat in our overcoats listening to the rumblings of each other’s empty stomachs. When guests came, they didn’t even bother to remove their hats and gloves. We would huddle close whispering about arrests, a neighbor being shot, another one disappearing. I wasn’t supposed to hear any of this, in case I forgot myself in school and got everyone at home in trouble.
This was the first time I heard people say that we Serbs are numskulls. There was no disagreement. Who else among the nations in Europe was stupid enough to have a civil war while the Nazis were occupying them? We had the Communists, the royalists, and at least a couple of factions of domestic fascists. Some collaborated with Germans and Italians and some did not, but they all fought one another and executed their political opponents. I didn’t understand much of it at the time, but I recall the exasperation and anger of the grownups.
Of course, the mood was most likely different in other homes where they welcomed the Communists. We were, after all, members of a mummified, impoverished, middle-class family that would have preferred that everything had remained the same. My mother and grandmother hated wars, distrusted national demagogues, and wanted the kind of government that left everybody alone.
In other words, they were the kind of people, as we were lectured in school, destined to be thrown on the garbage dump of history.
Occasionally, one of our visitors would start defending the Serbs. Our history is one of honor, heroic sacrifice, and endless suffering in defense of Europe against the Ottoman Empire, for which we never got any thanks. We are gullible innocents who always think better of our neighbors than they deserve. We sided with England and America when the rest of Europe was already occupied by the Nazis and it was suicidal to go against them.
Yes, my grandmother would say, we did that because we are conceited fools with exaggerated notions of our historical importance. A rabble of thieving and dimwitted yokels who were happiest under the Turks when they had no freedom, no education, and no ambition, except to roast a suckling pig on some holiday.
“Mrs. Matijevic, how can you talk like that?” our visitors would object. My grandmother would just shrug her shoulders. Her husband had been a military hero in World War I, a much-decorated colonel who had lost his enthusiasm for war. I recall being shocked when I first heard him say that Serbs should not have kicked out the government that signed the nonaggression pact with Hitler in 1941. Look what the war had brought us, he would say.
I wonder what my unknown great-uncle in America thought about all that. I bet he had his own ideas on the subject as he sat in some outhouse in Kansas or Texas reading in last month’s papers how on March 27, 1941, the heroic Serbs walked the streets of Belgrade shouting “better death than a pact” while Hitler threw a fit. I reckon he must have tried to explain to his wife now and then about Serbs.
If she was an Apache, or a member of some other Native American tribe, she may have understood more quickly. Serbs are a large, quarrelsome tribe, he would have said, never as happy as when they are cutting each other’s throats. A Serb from Bosnia has as much in common with a Serb from Belgrade as a Hopi Indian does with a Comanche. All together, they often act as if they have less sense than God gave a duck.
On second thought, he probably never brought up the subject. The Balkans, with its many nationalities and three different religions, is too complicated a place for anyone to explain, or begin to make sense of, especially since each ethnic group writes its history only remembering the wrongs done to them while conveniently passing over all the nasty things they’ve done to their neighbors over the centuries.
When I came to the United States in 1954, I discovered that the conversation among the immigrant Serbs my parents saw now and then was identical to the one I had heard in Belgrade. The cry was still, how did we who are so brave, so honorable, so innocent end up like this? Because of traitors, of course. Serbs stabbing each other in the back. A nation of double-crossers, turncoats, Judases, snakes in the grass. Even worse were our big allies. England, America, and France screwed us royally. Didn’t Churchill say to Eden at Yalta that he didn’t give a fuck what happened to Yugoslavia after the Communists took over?
Much of this was true. A few sleazy political deals by world leaders did contribute to our fate. We, displaced persons, were living proof that the world is a cruel place if you happen to find yourself on the wrong side of history. Still, I didn’t care for all that obsessive talk about betrayals and internal enemies. It reminded me too much of how the Communists back home talked.
“It’s exhausting to be a Serb,” my father would say after an evening like that. He was a cheerful pessimist. He loved life, but had no faith in the idea that the human condition was meliorable. He had had sympathies for the chetniks, pro-monarchy Serbian nationalists, at the beginning of the war, but no more. Nationalist claptrap left him cold. He was like his father, who used to shock family and friends by ridiculing Serbian national heroes. Both he and my father went to church and had genuine religious feelings, but they could not resist making fun of priests.
“There is nothing sacred for them,” my mother would say when she got angry with the Simic family. Of course, she really wasn’t any better. It’s just that she preferred that appearances be kept up. Her philosophy was, let the world think we believe in all that nonsense, and we’ll keep our real views to ourselves.
After my parents separated in 1956, I left home. I attended university at night and worked during the day, first in Chicago and then in New York City. If someone asked me about my accent, I would say that I was born in Yugoslavia, and that would be the end of it. I saw my father frequently, but though he liked to reminisce about his youth in the old country he had an equal and even greater interest in America, and so did I.